Several years ago, on another blog that has since been demolished, I wrote a piece about the presence of swearing in books. I asked the question from the perspective of a writer working on a piece. I found my answers in two unconnected high school experiences. Conveniently, and probably more accurately, they also work for evaluating to what extent I appreciate swearing in the books that I read.
(Disclaimer: if you do not appreciate encountering swearing in any of your reading, this is not the post for you. Though I’ve blocked out letters, it is still clear which words I am referring to in the content below. The general rule for this blog is that I do not use language that I would not allow my children to use. This post is the exception because of its subject.)
I’ve learned a few things about writing for a blog specifically and writing generally, so I’ve tweaked the post a bit. But the bulk of the content is original to the 2015 post. I also added a short side-note that came from my first experience posting this opinion.
The original title was…
Everything I need to Know About Swearing I Learned in High School
Writers and readers assume that words have meaning and value. The prevalence and nonchalant attitude surrounding profanity in western culture might have us believe that using hardy vocabulary is appropriate willy-nilly—after all, that’s how we live.
But perhaps that is the best reason to pay the most attention to when and where and why we drop these words: the more they are used casually, the less impact they bring to the page. We are depriving these infamous words of their full assault value when we use them like grandparents giving chocolate candy to toddlers (and the results are disastrous in both cases).
Everything I need to know about swearing I learned in high school. This boils down to two principles. One, for the best effect, swear sparingly. Two, swear when the situation requires it for authenticity.
I encountered these guidelines in high school, but over the course of several decades of reading, I have found that they apply especially well to the material that I read.
High School Example #1
When I played volleyball in high school, I played with a team that was expected to win the state championship. We played hard, and we won. Our coach was even-keeled, level-headed, and never swore. I don’t know if that last part was on principle or that the thought just didn’t cross her mind.
I was the youngest on the team and didn’t get much playing time, but I will never forget the day my six teammates slouched of the court for a time-out during a regional match.
They knew they deserved an earful. We were playing a second-tier team, and we were losing. If we lost, we were out of the tournament—nowhere close to state finishers.
Our coach knew this was ridiculous.
“D**n it,” she started.
I remember the shock on everyone’s faces. I remember the team marching back to their places on the court and winning. Why? Because she let the d-word fly when she never had before.
We knew then that our play had breached a level of catastrophic nonsense that required a sharp kick in our collective mental focus to restart us. She could have railed on and on about inspiration and perspiration and superheroes and butterfly wings, but none of that would have had any impact on us.
Boy howdy did that “d**n it” get a response.
Swearing in Books: Non-Fiction
In non-fiction, swearing makes the author sound angry or cynical. This came to mind while I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The content in the books was solid, but both authors peppered their writing with a noticeable amount of cursing.
I get it: when you drop profanity in here and there it makes the writing sound chummy. Experts can dole out advice about how to make mediocre writing less mediocre (or whatever advice they’re toting) without the reader feeling as though the author is breaking their fingers and smashing their keyboard.
But also, I’m reading this because you’re a professional, not because you’re my college roommate. I don’t want to know about your ability to swear, I want to know about your writing. You’re not supposed to be my bud.
Likewise, in blog posts, the occasional pops and snorts of colorful banter may be appropriate. But if they’re the only tool that the writer has, other than an emoji, I’m going to pass.
Because, when used in excess, expletives are empty words. Even when we use them in conversations, they’re similar to the presentation-busters of “oh,” and “um” and “uh.”
In other words, they suggest inexperience, lack of polish, and carelessness. When someone uses a lot of swear words, I assume they don’t have much else to say.
*Funny story – when I first posted this essay and opinion one person reposted a link to it on their blog. They were irate. I think they thought I was arguing for no one to ever write a swear word? However, their response was to link to the post and then drop a bunch of F-bombs down the entire rest of the post. In anger, I guess? In disagreement? I’m just saying: it kind of illustrated my point.
But, I digress.
Swearing in Books: Fiction
In fiction, constant swearing is lazy. A writer should be able to describe a character’s mood without resorting to every creative combination of four letters known to humanity. Just as a writer will (should) rigorously review and edit for tone and length and clarity, so too will a writer edit word choice. Each word must count for something. Move the plot forward. Reflect a character’s emotion. Describe context. When each word must defend its existence on the page, a well-timed, well-placed swear word will justify its presence.
Back to high school.
High School Example #2
During a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, my English teacher gave a vivid example. She made the point that if a character has their leg blasted off in war it is less likely that they will say “Oh, fudge,” than that they will scream “F**************CK!!!!”
This isn’t about being offended. It’s about being distracted.
A swear word (or lack thereof) should not detract from the action. Quite the opposite. It can and should be used to draw sharp attention and focus to the situation—either for authenticity or for shock.
Swearing in books can only be effective if paired with the content and characters of its surroundings. If you’re writing in a war zone, then using lollipops and ladybugs as verbal exclamations will make me shut the book.
Swearing in Books: What do You Expect?
As a reader, I expect profanity to be used sparingly (thank to my volleyball coach!) and with purpose (thanks to my English teacher).
As a reader, do you find swearing to be distracting, neutral, or appropriate? Do you have other guidelines with which you evaluate the swearing in something that you’re reading?