“Filthy Language” and whether writers should give a F#@!K

I’m the kind of person who says “fudge muffins!” when something’s not going my way, so it’s not natural for me to swear in print, either. I’ve encountered a few good articles recently about the use of curse words (and authors’ choices to not use them) in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy which have made me think about the pros and cons of including swearing in written pieces.

This article from tor.com has a frank discussion about the trend towards the increased use of this language and I highly recommend checking it out if you are interested in the way the writing landscape has changed over time and don’t mind some salty language used in examples.

If I use profanity in my writing, it is definitely intentional because my first instinct is to find other ways to express that thought. Even as I’m writing about the topic of using curse words in writing, I find myself hesitant to use any language that could be considered offensive, so be prepared for some circumlocution in the following paragraphs 🙂

That said, I do think there are times that using profanity can be the best choice for specific circumstances. How do you figure out when to use it and when to refrain?

Here are some questions I’ve started asking myself:

1. Is it consistent with the characters I’m creating?

If you have a first person narrator, is the speaker the kind of person who curses as part of his or her internal monologue? Does the narrator have pet phrases that act as substitutions for profanity? Is the narrator comfortable repeating  other people’s swearing in scenes with dialogue?

We make assumptions about other people all the time based on the language they use, and use or non-use of profanity is often an important component to this. As an author, your choices in this matter will influence the way readers perceive your characters and communicate different aspects of their personalities without having to state them outright.

For example, in the book An Abundance of Katherines, John Green has two of his characters use the word “fug” (a word created by Norman Mailer to avoid censorship) instead of cursing.  The characters’ use of it tells us that they are the kind of people who are nerdy enough to use the word as a kind of homage to Mailer.

2. Is it the most effective language in this situation? Can I use other words with the same (or greater) effectiveness?

In genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, creating fake curses can allow you to reveal more about that world, including aspects of belief systems. An invented curse that feels satisfying  to say can help add color and depth to a created language.

Alternatively, in a genre such as poetry you want to choose language for the emotional response it creates in the reader. In some cases, a curse word packs the emotional punch you need.  In fiction, if you’ve established a character who doesn’t swear in ordinary situations, having this character drop an f-bomb can show devastation or frustration in a really powerful way.

Profanity can have the power to shock or create a strong emotional response, but it should not be overused, especially in the context of poetry. You’re striving for “the best  words in their best order” (to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge) so you don’t have room for anything superfluous.

3. Is this appropriate for my audience?

If I’m writing a children’s book, I might have a character who swears. Even though many children have been exposed to cursing, I might choose to imply what is happening or describe it in general terms (“The bully swore at me”) rather than spell out the specific words being used.

In an academic context, it’s generally not appropriate to use profanity as am intensifier, even though you might curse for effect if you were having a debate with your friend over the same topic. (“Pseudo” curse words like “crappy” wouldn’t be appropriate in that case, either).

However, if you are quoting a piece of literature or repeating language someone has used in an interview, that’s usually okay. You don’t need to edit it out or use dashes to replace any of the letters. If the passage is pertinent to your topic, go ahead and use it.

4. How much profanity do I need to use to communicate my point?

Dialogue is never a completely accurate depiction of the way people speak. If it was, it would be boring: all fragmented sentences peppered with “um”s and “ah”s. In the same way, if you were to write dialogue that faithfully rendered the number of times some people swear, that could also be distracting and take away from your overall story. In these situations, you want to use enough to indicate what kind of language these characters use and in what circumstances, but you don’t want to be too heavy handed with it just for the sake of realism.

If you do choose to include profanity in your work, always make sure you have a purpose for it, whether it is to provide clues about a character’s personality or state of mind, to give emotional impact, or to illustrate a point. If you don’t feel comfortable using “bad words” in your writing, that’s okay. Profanity is just one of the many tools that writers can use, and there are many cases when purposefully not using it can be extremely effective. In the end, you have to decide what it best for you and your writing.


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