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  • Grammergency #19: My Book Is Full of Curse Words. Am I in Trouble?
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Grammergency #19: My Book Is Full of Curse Words. Am I in Trouble?
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
September 2017
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
September 2017

I was on a coaching call recently with a memoirist who had just read through her whole manuscript after we finished her developmental edit, and she sheepishly brought up something that had surprised her. “I can’t believe how many curse words I used in my book!” she said. “Should I take them out?”

Now, this particular memoir contained perhaps only half a dozen instances of profanity—all of them contextually appropriate, in my opinion—but it was a good question. The author was a well-respected, visible member of her community with a thriving career, and she was concerned that readers who knew her might think badly of her for her language choices.

As I told my client, including profanity in a book is an entirely individual decision, but I hope the pointers below will help you make an informed choice for yourself.

1. Know Your Audience

Who’s the target demographic for your book? Kids ages five through eight? People of the cloth? Emily Post devotees? If any of these categories describes your audience, you probably already know to keep your language buttoned up. But what if you’re writing for urban twentysomethings who find almost nothing shocking? If you can even get them to read a book in the first place, they probably won’t bat an eye if you unleash a whole page of obscenities on them at once. The point is, use your words to cater to whomever you want to attract, and don’t worry about what the outliers will think.

2. Know Your Genre

As with the above exemptions, certain literary genres—children’s books, theology books, trade books, cookbooks, how-to books, etc.—are not appropriate testing grounds for profanity. On the other hand, memoir and fiction can both be highly conducive to colorful, albeit judicious, use of expletives—largely because curse words can help make certain discourse as true to life as possible and in some cases can facilitate character or scene development. For example, if you’re writing a novel in which a woman stumbles and accidentally falls off a cliff, what’s her final word or thought going to be as she plummets? My money’s not on drat; it’s on the f-word every time.  

3. Go Big or Go Home

Once you’ve established your audience and your genre, either use curse words fully spelled out or don’t use them at all. Far more displeasing to most editors is the sight of a neither-here-nor-there series of symbols in lieu of the real deal, e.g., “What the $%*# is she doing here?” That looks like a cartoon, and it’s also lazy. You’re a writer, right? So either use a real four-letter word or find a more literary way to express the same emotion.

Part of the fun of authoring a book is playing with all sorts of language to suit your purposes, and curse words deserve to be part of that conversation. If you fear you won’t be able to face your neighbors because you swore in your memoir, then keep it clean so you can sleep at night. But if you know you’d derive real pleasure from dropping an f-bomb because a certain scenario or character in your book is just begging for it, then drop that bomb—and own the fact that you did it.

Have a grammar question (or want to curse me out)? Leave it in the comments below.

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Comments
  • Kathleen Kern

    I'll just add to my comment that my foul-mouthed stepson is a very cheerful, goodnatured boy.

  • Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw

    Thanks, Annie.  Very thought-provoking article.

    I swear.  Too much.  And sometimes... not enough.  Too often the words that come out of my mouth have come straight from my heart, not my head.  Where my filter is.

    I'm not profane.  I'm not crude.  I was raised well and am well-educated and really do not need to use expletives to express myself.  But... I sometimes let shit arou... oops!  sweary word, sorry... stuff around me get to me and let out a "FFS" or a "WTH".  And if I am ambushed by a spider in the bathroom, the string of 'f-bombs' to come out of my mouth makes the Tokyo fire-bombing at the end of World War II look like a back-yard barbeque mishap.

    I write noir.  Nice, dark, gritty crime fiction in which some profanity is de rigueur.  Lucky me!  Besides... *sly look* ... the words I put down on paper are my character's words, not mine.  ;-)

    Having said that... I confess my memoir is 'peppered' with profanity.  Now I know I could 'tone it down' but I won't.  I won't because that kind of self-censorship would be a lie.  The passages where I do swear in my memoir were incredibly intense and emotional and I relate them as I remember them.  And if that causes some blue-haired grandmother to put the book down half-finished or a "God-fearing Christian woman" to pray for my salvation... well, I'll not apologize for that either.

    If my writing isn't honest then what's the point?

  • RYCJ Preparing to Publish

    So many great (and funny) comments. And Jenni, I have to agree with you too. There are older women in the family who are less shockable, such as you've described, and then there those women like my mother. I suspect it's no different than women at any age. Great observations.

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    Isn't it interesting how we sometimes worry about whether our novels, and expletives therein, will shock our mothers! I'm betting some of these mothers have been around long enough to be unfazed by curses used appropriately by characters in our stories. What era did your mother grow up in? Perhaps she's a baby boomer or older... Guess what, she might have a story from her younger self to tell you, and back then colorful language (perhaps even her own, but definitely from the people she socialized with) would hardly even be worthy of a mention in the light of the other stuff that went on!! Daughters often find their parents' revelations (ie: you two actually have sex??)  ridiculously confronting ('two much information' they hiss as they clap their hands over their ears), and methinks those same daughters are just projecting their own fairy stories about how their mothers should act, onto their mothers. The older folk get, generally the less shockable they are, even about their own grown children's doings. They have learned that life is too short for such trivial pursuits. (And all this is of course in relation to reasonably functional families (ie: mildly dysfunctional!); not families where terrible traumas have been part of life). I say let it rip, and trust your mother to cope! (The reverse situation is even more amusing; that worldly grown-up daughter who says to her mother who is writing a novel; "I bloody well hope there is no sex in it; how embarrassing could that be!" —and that mother who actually worries about what said daughter will think while she is writing). Admission: I have struggled with this, and not quite sure whether I have yet overcome this blatantly silly concern.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Great article. By no means am I a prude, but I don't use profanity in any of my writings since my mother proofs my work. I have to come over as Miss Prim and Proper. Oh wait, I did use the word "damn" and "bitch" in two of my books. LOL

  • Kristen Caven

    Ha ha... one of my best Amazon reviews for my novel just out, which contains a scene in which someone is coaching a repressed teen in the art of 'bitching' and someone else is uses the word "effing" a lot: 

    "I would give this book a five if it didn't have swearing words. It had a lot of detail and made me cry." She must have been younger than twelve...

    http://www.tinyurl.com/tsohfamz2

  • Barbara santarelli

    I had to stop and rethink how many times I cursed in my recently completed memoir. Then I remembered 

    How liberating writing a memoir was ..as is aging... ...

    Every "F" word earned it's place!

  • Thea Constantine

    Thanks Annie--great article. I've always been a fan of colorful language and I've never believed that using it shows a lack of imagination ( something I've heard a lot) that said --you can over-do it. A bar room full of working class people or rock 'n rollers saying darn and shoot or f-you--just isn't happening. But definitely, if you're going for children's lit--probably best leave it out!

  • Stacey Wiedower

    I faced an interesting situation related to this at a book signing. The excerpt I wanted to read came from a character who drops curse words into casual conversation, and the audience was all ages. I simply edited out the bad words as I read, and luckily I didn't slip up. ;) My genre is romantic comedy with late 20s/early 30s protagonists, and cursing, to me, is part of what makes my characters believable.

    As for not worrying about what outliers will think, I've forced myself to make peace with that. It isn't always easy. A good friend's father (a respected, retired history professor) read my first book and said he didn't know I was so "racy." After simultaneously snort-laughing and wishing I could sink through the floor, I shrugged. He can think I'm racy if he wants to. I just hope he liked the book!

  • Sonya Weiss

    I write contemporary romance and older young adult novels. Some of them use profanity and some of them don't.  I try to stay to true to who the character is. For the ones who are edgier, have lived a harder life, their way of speaking is going to be rougher. They'll say and do things that I would never say or do, but it's who they are. I don't use the f-bomb but my characters have. I love what Liz said about not censoring yourself based on what others think because you can't please everyone. That was a hard lesson for me to learn...to let go of what others thought about what I write. 

  • Miriam Ruff

    I had a similar problem when I wrote an audio drama that was playing on public radio. The main character was in a fight for his life, and I absolutely could not see him saying, "Gosh, golly gee, darn it." The judicious use of damn and shit were entirely appropriate in my opinion, but it ended up with the distributor having to decide if the production was "indecent" or "obscene," the latter meaning it couldn't be played until after 10 p.m. I stuck to my guns, though, and they decided on the former, much to my relief. You know your characters and audience best. If you think the language is appropriate, unless there's a compelling reason not to use it, go right ahead!!

  • Caroline Gerardo

    I'm revising a novel that is environmental, literary and a thriller. One character "the bad guy" uses firm swear words, another who is also a bad guy buy religious never curses. It is appropriate to use all forms of language and you are right on, censor if you are writing children's books or even YA

  • RYCJ Preparing to Publish

    Ha! I truly was on pins and needles reading this very concise post I agree with! One of my books I actually did go all the way there... more so than a few others where I went there, just nothing near to Lock Box.

    I love the line: "If you fear you won’t be able to face your neighbors because you swore in your memoir, then keep it clean so you can sleep at night." I'm still working hard on writing one book my mother can read, which wouldn't it be I think I found just that book. I'm currently working on it and have already clued her in. It's an erotic work dedicated to her and her friends...all very spiritually grounded women. She rolled her eyes at me, But... But... I'm keeping this one squeaky clean! Thanks for an encouraging read. Now I just need one person to wish me luck.

  • Gabrielle Luthy

    Great tips, Annie. I have no problem swearing in real life and in my manuscripts. But I think you could add another point: know your characters. Even if I'm working on a piece of women's fiction and the audience is urban thirtysomethings, not all my characters swear, and some will use "lighter" words than others.

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    As an author of adult fiction, it's still surprises me how polarizing profanity is in setting apart a readership. Even in YA fiction, get used to the f-bomb, because chances are it's in there. Reading one now, and it makes my adult fiction look tame. I like Kathleen's comment about not using the f-word as herself, but the fact that her characters do. My characters voices sometimes demand a juicy expletive, and I don't deny them. But I'll also admit that during final edits I review each and every one to make sure it's needed. Some phrases I fight to keep, and others I let drop away. I've noticed that some reviewers are very verbal on the topic. The truth is you'll never please everyone, so don't censor yourself based on what people may think. Use good judgement, but stay true to your story and your character's voices. 

  • Kathleen Kern

    One interesting thing I've discovered is that even though I never use the F-word in speech, my characters do.  It comes from being in the world and meeting people. Some people, my stepson included, use it every other sentence.  I really can't bring myself even to say it aloud.

  • Martha Colaresi

    One way to play with language to suit your purposes, sleep at night and remain in your neighbors' good graces is to refrain from direct quotation; e.g. "I uttered a few choice words."