Self Censorship: When is it Okay to Swear in Writing?

When the fuck is it okay to fucking swear in my fucking writing!?

And when is it just a little too much?

The choice to swear or not depends on a lot of things: when it happens in the writing, what style of writing it is, who is your audience, and what the intended feel of your story is. After years of fighting with teachers, editors, and friends about just when fuck goes from amusing to overbearing, I’ve worked out this handy little guide.

Step One: Your Audience

One of the most important things to check before adding swearing is who the book is intended for. If you’re writing a book on potty training for little kids, you probably shouldn’t swear. However, if you’re writing the potty training how-to for the parents, swearing once or twice might be fitting. If you’re writing for older folk, or something more formal, swearing is a definite no-go. Of course, if you’re writing young adult or adult fiction, it might just be weird for there not to be swearing, depending on your results in the rest of these steps.

To chart it out:
Swearing Chart

Step Two: Story Feel and Setting

It’s important to decide whether or not swearing will work with or against the setting and feel of your story. If you’re writing a modern story about twenty-something year olds, there will probably be swearing and a lot of it. If you’re writing something in the Victorean era, you probably won’t hear people saying fuck every five seconds. If you want it to be gritty and real in an your face, swear. If you want the story to be lighthearted and happy, probably don’t, unless you’re using it for humorous effect. This is an issue a little too complex for me to chart, so it’s something that you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Step Three: When does it happen?

As a simple rule, the two times it is okay to swear is in first-person narration, and in dialogue.

If you’re in third person narration, it will most likely seem rather off. It’s more normal to see a story that reads “Emily had broken the vase and I couldn’t fucking believe it” than it is to read “Emily had broken the vase and Trevor couldn’t fucking believe it”. Third person pulls the audience back a bit, out of the heads of the characters. It gives them a wider view, but the writing is also more fact and less personality; the personality comes from the characters themselves.

Dialogue is the one place in a story where it’s okay to break nearly all of the rules. People don’t talk the way we write. They say like yeah and I dunno and they stutter and stumble over the words. And they swear. Depending on the character, they might swear a lot. In this case, make sure to keep your character in mind, their personality as well as their backstory. If your character is a preacher’s daughter from Geogria, they probably would go for a good old fashion “oh Lord” before they say “oh fuck”. But if you have a city kid just out of juvie, they’ll probably say fuck more often than Happy Gilmore.

Be careful, however, of making a Sir Swears-A-Lot. This is a character who’s soul distinguishing trait, the only thing that sets him apart from the rest of your crew, is the fact that they “use the word ‘motherfucker’ the same way most of us would use a comma…” (from Zero Punctuation’s The House of the Dead: Overkill). Swear words come from your chracter’s personality, personality doesn’t come from swear words.

Once you’ve gone through these three steps, you most likely have a pretty good idea on whether or not you should be drowning or sprinkling your story in curse words, or just avoiding them altogether. If you’re still not sure, send a scene to your editor. If they remove the swearing, you probably didn’t want it.

Bonus Advice:

If you do decide to swear, don’t go half way. Don’t write sh*t instead of shit, don’t put in a keyboard smash of wingdings in place of the words, and don’t stop or start swearing half way through your writing.

Be cautious of over-sensitive swearing. Some words, such as racial or sexist slurs, should probably be avoided, because they will cause your audience a bit more shock than you probably intend. The only time you want to use these kinds of words are to have your antagonist use them if you’re worried that he might be a little too likable, because as soon as your character calls someone your audience sympathies with a cunt, trust me, they will never favor him again.

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