Monday, May 30

I Wrote a Naughty Word

Well %^@*&#, where do I start?

Swearing, cursing, crude language, it's out there. Where does it stand in literature and, as a writer, how should it be approached?

Some people swear, so naturally some characters will too. Whether they're reciting straight from the thesaurus or have their own quirky alternatives (bumblebee!) there will be some form of exclamation locked up inside them, waiting to be let out.

Writers sometimes wonder what is appropriate for their work. They don't want to tone it down or censor it if it feels unnatural, or they might not feel comfortable using it at all. What if they offend someone? Everyone has their own standards of what is acceptable.

There are a few things you need to consider when contemplating the presence of swearing in your writing.

1. The age of your target reader.

I bring this up first because I believe that you should have the same approach to swearing no matter what age you're writing for.

That doesn't mean that I'm anti-swearing or want to encourage you to write cuss books for five year olds, but because I don't think that you should feel over-sensitive about it in a book for teens and then not even bother to think about it for an adult novel.

Consideration needs to be there for whatever feels right for the characters/scenarios in all genres and formats.

2. Does it add to or subtract from your writing?

I once read a piece of writing where a group of teenage boys dropped the F-bomb in almost every line. I wasn't offended but I told the writer that I couldn't read it and he needed to edit a lot of the swearing out.

The reason for this was that while some people do swear that much, it subtracted from the writing. I will be walking down the street and my ears will prick up when I hear the F-word. I can't help but notice. The same thing happens when I read. My eyes were so busy noticing F-that and F-this that they glazed over the rest of what was written.

Realism isn't always what matters in fiction. You can edit your swearing count without feeling as though you are cheating your readers. They don't need to know how your character makes their tea or how many times they visit the loo, either.

3. Show or tell?

One thing writers are constantly told is "show, don't tell." That means that instead of saying, "He waited for the dentist," you write, "He squirmed in the dentist's waiting room."

Swearing can be an exception to this rule. In the Harry Potter books, instead of J.K. Rowling constantly having Ron Weasley come out with a bad word or gesture, she mentions that he said or did something (that gains a reaction from Hermione or Mrs. Weasley) without specifying what, or making it into a huge deal, but also without angelifying the character.

Everyone's tolerance and idea of what is or isn't appropriate is different.

Here are a few words we do not use in our household around the little ones:
  • The F-word: Food
  • The C-word: Crunchies
  • The V-word: Vet
  • The L-word: Lunch
I'm pretty sure my cats swear at me when they want food. It doesn't sound polite.

In the end, it all comes down to you, what you're comfortable with and what suits your story. Don't fret too much about offending people because you can't please everyone.

Just breathe, write and don't &;*#$!^% freak.


Sydnee said...

"They don't need to know how your character makes their tea or how many times they visit the loo, either."

LOL, good point. I don't curse much in everyday life, but my characters always seem to. I guess it's just my crude sense of humor.

I think that JK Rowling's method is actually a really solid one - it's always good to leave something to the imagination and let the readers fill the blanks themselves. I always prefer the "beep" censoring in TV over the actual swearing. It's more fun that way.

Emma Michaels said...

Especially fun when the beeps aren't needed and it just makes it sound like they are. Just kidding :P
I heard so much about the audio books for Harry Potter while talking with everyone at BEA and the parties that I just have to get my hands on then now. I read all of the books but I never heard a single one of the audio books. Great post as always. (Like in The Sky is Everywhere, when her best friend would say animal names instead of cursing.)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great advice. I use swear words in my YA novels, but I don't go overboard, and I refuse to use the C-word. I see that in erotica novels and just can't see it in YA no matter what. Okay, the use is different in erotica than it is in teenage guys, but still.

I love how Suzanne Young uses food for swear words in her Naughty List books, but I just can't get it to sound right.

Trisha said...

I love my bad words...but not all my characters swear. ;) Depends on their personality of course!