F**K

Profanity. Curse words. Swearing. Where does it have its place in writing? Is it censorship? Or should we be developing other ways to express our characters and their situations? Some abhor it, call it lazy and/or uncreative, but I know Shakespeare, Hemingway, John Grisham (who is a Christian) and King would disagree. They are, after all, just words. Or are they?

…shit, Goddamit, asshole, cunt, honkey, beaner, cracker, fag, bitch, clitface, dago, nigger, dyke, queer, gook, cocksucker, hell, ruski, tard, pussy, Jesus Christ, whore, dickhead, and our favorites: fucker, fuckin-A, holy fuck, fuckbrain, motherfucker, fuckface, fuck me, FUCK!

In my attempts to offend everyone, I’m hoping I’ve offended no one. If there were certain words in that paragraph that were upsetting to you or made you uncomfortable, it just shows how powerful words can be. For some characters and scenes, maybe a little extra power is necessary to convey the message, but profanity can be a fine line too. As a writer, profanity is something we all face and question from time to time. Here are a few questions I ask myself before typing that f-bomb:

1) Is it appropriate to the genre?
2) Is it appropriate to my audience?
3) Is it worth alienating some/many readers?
4) Are there other ways to express a character’s character or emotions?
5) Should I consider the quality of a few swear words over the quantity of swear words?
6) Could I use slang instead?
7) Does it fit the time period and/or context of the piece?

I must admit, my husband has compared me to Dexter’s sister, Deb—I do enjoy a good bout of cussing now and then, but because I take my writing seriously (most of the time), I am cautious about my profanity use. My number one goal is to please my readers and knowing when to use profanity and how much of it can be a challenge.

What do you think about profanity? Do you hate it? Love it? Think it’s only appropriate at certain times? Or the more, the better?

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19 thoughts on “F**K

  1. I don't swear often (in writing…), but if I think it's something the character would say, or if it seems right in the story, I don't mind dropping an f-bomb or two. Or pulling out a GD or JC. It's all about honesty. You've got to stay true to the story.Great topic, Erin. I appreciate your take on the subject.

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  2. Great topic- for me and my writing cursing can be and is an important part of each story. I focus on realistic dialogue and realistic characters – a little urban and a little street, and I think that I would lose the authenticity of my stories if my characters weren't dropping f-bombs, etc. I'm not writing for a Christiam market nor a romance genre but if I were, my characters and their language would be different and my perspective would be different. Like Laurita wrote, it all depends on the story…..things my characters say (as well as actions they take) aren't necessarily the things I would say or do.

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  3. I get my back up whenever someone says "don't use this word" or "stay away from…" George Carlin approached this subject often, and in far better detail than I could, one of the reasons I respect his writing.I agree with the comments above – if the character would say it, they'll say it. That said – you touch on one good point – that it's easy to fall into the trap of using the raw power of curse words, whenever it gets too "hard" to think of something creative.That kind of usage, okay, you may want to take a look at it. Swearing is powerful in real life because you DON'T hear it every other word. If you save it for when you need it, you'll really have a great effect. Do you even listen to the guy who uses the f-word as punctuation? Now, if a kindergarten teacher all of a sudden stopped in a parking lot and said, "Oh fuck me!". What then?Good topic – and close to my heart.

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  4. That's a lot of fuckin' questions you asked, Erin…heh, heh.I think profanity should be used only if it feels (reads?) natural. Under extreme duress, say hammer to the toe, most of us (if we're honest) probably won't be screaming gosh darn. Unless, muthafucker is your gosh darn. If so, what's left?Even in fiction writing, there needs to be some realism. The story needs to be grounded, at the very least, in true emotion, communicated in realistic dialogue and feelings. As a writer, you need to feel comfortable with the way your characters are speaking, interacting; and your reader needs to be comfortable too. Be wary of using profanity for the hell of it. It needs to be revlevant to the story. Of course, this doesn't take into regard the market for your profane work, which may get considerably smaller by such ugly words.In my writing, I try not to use it unless it becomes absolutely necessary. I gauge that by trying several alternatives and choosing the best word, which is what I do for every word in every sentence anyway.Great effin topic, Erin.

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  5. Some would probably say I'm an authority on this so here goes… That got your attention, didn't it? _________________________________________My opinion is that the dreaded "Expletive" is in fact a hindrance to good writing. That's right. You can quote me. My reason is simple: most profanities were created as a reason to describe a thought or feeling that is otherwise inexplicable. The author, however has the burden of due diligence. In other words, a story does not happen in real time. It is a process. Written words do not slip out in a conversation. They were carefully laid out to elicit a specific response. Most editors will probably tell you that a story full of "Fuckity-fucks" is either an in depth analysis of the life of Joe the hillbilly, or it is the yammering of someone who didn't have a lot of time to spend on their story. "BUT I NEED THE CURSE WORDS FOR REALISM!" Do you in fact? Will the reader not get the same idea from a group of carefully placed descriptions? Are you absolutely sure you've explored all venues of creative expression first? The curse word is empowering. Yes, it's allure is intense. It carries the power to nullify and vandalize and entice. And who wouldn't want that? But consider this. It is much harder to build something than to destroy it. Are you short changing yourself when you drop that "F" bomb? Was it a way of being efficient? A time saver? Was time spent researching alternate, less exotic description averted? Was it really your best choice? Only you and your editor can answer that… But the editor will answer a lot faster. -M.C.

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  6. Wow! I take a lot of time away from blogging and come back to my buddy Erin using every filthy word in the book!! Lol!Hi, Erin. It's been too long.I'm afriad that I all too often use profanity, and I am not at all happy about this. I wish I were much better. With regard to my writing, my first novel is a PG-13 read, so I shied away. On the other hand, if one is being chased by a killer, they are not going to say "shoot" and "darn it" either.I think it's a balance.Very cool topic.-Jimmy

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  7. words = emotion. they are the colors we paint with. fiction writers must really ask the question continually of how do their characters respond, react, communicate – what emotions do they feel and how do they express them? If they cuss – then so be it – to my way of thinking it is not your choice at all, it is your character's..

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  8. "If they cuss – then so be it – to my way of thinking it is not your choice at all, it is your character's.."disagree. Whether you are writing the character or the narrator, omniscience is applied in any case.

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  9. Well GD it all… seriously, great post on an important topic. It all depends upon the character. Like dialect, though, a wee bit goes a long way.One of the most powerful ways to use cuss words is to have a character who would never, ever curse do so at the precise instant life goes chaotic. As with sex and drugs, I try to avoid being gratuitous with my cusses. My characters, on the other hand… Peace…

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  10. Me, I love cussing. It might be a sign of unimanginative writing but I use them all the time like you would salt and pepper. I've just read George R.R Martin's series, and that man is one filthy mouthed bastard but I loved it.

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  11. Hey Lee, You know me. I have a thing about story structure. I'm not saying people should eliminate all curse words. But as an editor the same old thing you hear hundreds of times is this "devil made me write it" defense. All I'm saying is…Oh, really? If it truly enhances the flavor of the story that's one thing. I just think there is this huge insistent need to hold on to the power and machismo of it-the coolness factor. As an editor I say "Hey, let it go. You the author have all the power you need already." Do this. Google the word "Orly". Study all the pics that the search returns. When you're typing your next sultry steamy story that requires so many curses…that is the image you will see before every curse you type. It's me saying "Oh, really?" hahahaha

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  12. Wow! You guys are awesome. Love all this great feedback on a topic that I think is important in writing.Laurita, I loved your comment, “It’s all about honesty. You have to stay true to the story.” Excellent.Kevin, I agree. With certain genres, you can get away with more profanity, and it might also be ‘expected’ more too.Jodi, yup. Truth of the character and story, and then just run with it.Chris, George Carlin holds a special place in my heart, and I love your example about the Kindergarten teacher!Angel, you touched on an important point – realism, and I think that is often when profanity comes into place, grounding the story or character. You and Jodi made excellent examples of other ways to use profanity too, by F*&% or effin. Those are creative ways to get the point across without the harshness of the word itself. Mark, I’m so glad you commented. As an editor, you have to make the ultimate decision of whether or not profanity will be included in a story or accepted. I do agree that as a writer, you have the duty of choosing creativity over the easy flow of curse words, and as empowering as they feel at the time, sometimes if we let work cool enough, and come back to it, those curse words often stick out a little too much.James, yes, this was a rather filthy post! Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you, it is a balance, and definitely more genre oriented.Michael, “words = emotion. They are the colors we paint with.” Absolutely! I understand where Mark is coming from, that the writer should ultimately have the choice, but sometimes, certain characters steal us away, prompt us to think differently, and demand to be heard uncensored. Linda, you brought another interesting point, that sometimes, a character’s cussing may not actually be their norm and really pinpoints a breaking point. Love that. That’s when it is especially needed.Lee, I’m glad you stated how you feel, because I admit, sometimes, I just love to cuss. There is a freedom in it; however, I don’t think all writers know how to do it properly, especially if it is excessive, so those that do, rock all the more.Mark, using cuss words in writing I think is a skill, that many writers haven't perfected. Those that do use it, King, etc., have learned exactly where and when to use it. Like Angel said, every word in the sentence has to be the best word.Thanks everyone.

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  13. Fuck me, this is a great topic! LOL!My take is this. Profanity has it's place in a story, as does blood, sex, violence and love and soppiness. Like it or not, criminals swear, as do scum bag druggies and trailer trash and homeless people, etc, etc. You have any of these characters then they are going to swear, some are going to do it every other word. As writers we should stay honest to our characters. You wouldn't expect a character who's about to get his throat ripped out by a vampire or werewolf to calmly accept his death, "Oh dear, this is going to hurt!"If profanity is "real" then it needs to be there.Great post, Erin!

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  14. What a great topic. I can't bear hearing people use effin this and effin that in ordinary conversation. It's peurile, unimaginative and an insult to the English language – as well as to the origin of the word itself. If you're going to swear, mean it. Fill it with all the power it deserves. To me, this applies to using swearing in writing too – and I do use the F word. In fact, I love the F word and occasionally use it with relish in my own speech – but its use in my writing is calculated.Incidentally, in England I'd say posh people swear as much if not more than non-poshies!

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  15. George Carlin is pertinent to this topic. His Seven Words You Can't Say on Television is one of the all-time great bits in stand-up, and some wonderful insight into the use of certain words.Carlin also popularized swearing in American comedy to such a degree that it's overdone and generally awful. He's more responsible for ruining a generation of stand-up comedians than any other, because people didn't think his stuff through. Then again, neither did he – and so some of his later albums are embarrassing with how much he descended into abbrasive-is-funny.It's a balancing act, no different than whether a word with six syllables fits the flow and dimensions of the story. Use the words poorly, and you're wasting the reader's time. Use curse words poorly and you're both wasting time and offending.

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  16. Lily thanks for being the only person who agrees- at least somewhat. In most writing (not all, of course there are exceptions) I find the absolute splattering and plastering of profanity to be nauseating and banal. If the author is a word smith and able to concoct the perfect balance of profanity and non-profanity, I find that he or she usually just elects not to at all. The stories that have stuck with me the most, the most awe-inspiring and lasting stories, contained no profanity at all. That's how I know it can be done.

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  17. I will use it sparingly. I can't have my psycho killer say "oh gosh" but, at the same time, I can write around it where it seems to fill his conversation by inference.

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  18. David, I agree, just like sex and romance (ugh), profanity does have its place in story.Lily, me too. I use the F-word more freely in regular speech than I do in writing; however, I think this is the realism that people strive for, and so it is a fine line, because maybe, some of us, read to escape, escape realism.John, Carlin is definitely a good example. I loved his act on the seven swear words not used on television, but like anything else, it can be overdone.Mark, I agree, many writers do use the F-word poorly. Its inclusion into a story is often cliché, and I know I’m guilty of that. But those that do it right, you almost don’t even noticed the word is being used because it is inserted into the story at the moment of extreme conflict, which is usually where the readers thoughts are tied, and so it works because it adds to the realism of the moment.Laura, you are a great horror writer and I rarely see profanity in your writing, which just goes to show, it can be done.

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