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Monday, March 7, 2016

Writing with #$@%&* Profanity

(The best part of the headline is that the symbols don't make sense)

When I was in 9th grade, we read Fahrenheit 451 in reading groups. I loved the book. It's a great classic, dystopian sci-fi. Since we were reading it in groups, we had to read it aloud, and I remember my teacher saying we were allowed to read the swear words if we wanted to, but we were also allowed to skip them. He told us though, that as we read, to think about if it changed the meaning of the what we read.

I didn't read the swear words. Today, I still don't like profanity. I don't swear. But I remember wanting to be able to say that cutting out the swear words didn't effect the meaning of the story. After all, they were swear words. But the truth was, it did.

I know some of my followers are reading this, thinking that this post is a little silly, and they use profanity all the time in their writing. Others reading this may argue that authors only use profanity when they have a weak vocabulary and can't find better words to express themselves. That can be true, but the reality is, that's just not always the case. Making that statement is an over-generalization. There are actually more sophisticated reasons for using it, as I'll explain. But whatever your opinion on profanity is, I promise you'll learn something new about swearing by the end of this post--and how to use that knowledge to your benefit.

First off, did you know there are actually differences between the terms "profanity," "swearing," "cursing," "obscenities," and "vulgarisms"?  If you don't know what the difference is between a curse and a swear, feel free to hop over to this article to learn the difference. While I recognize the technical difference of the terms, for this article, I'll be using them all as synonyms.

(Below are some of my stream-of-conscious thoughts on profanity. Feel free to skip to the next section if you want to get to the mechanics of swearing)

There are two extremes when it comes to profanity. The people who use the f-word in every sentence and the people who will turn off the radio over the first d-word. I live Utah where it's not uncommon to see or hear about people who do the radio thing. As a Mormon myself, I understand the perspective behind it. We believe that bad language drives away the goodness we would otherwise feel, to say in short, simple terms. (With that said plenty of Mormons have foul mouths, so don't overgeneralize us). It was here in Utah where the sequel to The Maze Runner was taken off the shelves of a bookstore that caters to the Mormon community because it swore. (Fun fact, the author is Mormon and lives in Utah).

Okay, to me, that seems rather extreme, especially when you consider the fact that the content of The Maze Runner included experiments on children where they were chased down and killed by monsters under the authority of adults. Not to mention all the place-holders swears the first book of the series contained.

And it gotten taken off the shelves for a few swear words? Am I missing something here? A few d-words are worse than a child getting shot by an adult? To be fair, the bookstore is trying to cater to their community, which I guess considers swearing worse than getting shot by authoritative adults.

I am part of the community, and I love my community, but some things, like that, seem a little extreme, even to me. To me, content and theme and teachings of a story carry far more weight than a few swear words. After all, those are just words. The ideas being taught can be far more damaging than some bad language.

If I was that strict, I'd have to have been home schooled in middle school. I would have had to leave almost all the concerts I've attended (*heartbroken*), stopped reading Harry Potter at book four, missed out on my favorite movies, and my life would be a lot less colorful (in multiple meanings).

 If I'd given more weight to a few foul words than content, I'd be missing out on a ton of great, inspiring, uplifting, positive influences in my life that have expanded my mind and understanding of the world. My life would have not been richer. I would not be smarter.

Furthermore, yeah, there are actually legitimate reasons that there is profanity in books, and here is how it works and why you might choose to use it. (I'll talk about the other extreme of using loads of swear words in a later section.)


In 11th grade, a theater teacher told my class that swear words were there to add emphasis to what was being said. He was right. In fact, I talked about how this works a bit in the "Emphasis" section of my 15+ Humor Tactics master list. Things are funnier when they have emphasis. That's why so many comedians use foul language. It makes their jokes funnier.

But it also creates emphasis outside of humor. It can convey powerful emotions. It's best if used after those powerful emotions have already been evoked, because swearing releases some of that build-up. I'm a huge fan of Interstellar (Yeah, I know, who knew? I only did a whole blog series on it). There is one f-bomb in it. And I have to admit, it was perfectly placed. It was one of the only uses of it where I went--yes! It happens when Cooper is walking alone with Dr. Mann, whom he learns actually only signaled the Endurance to come to his planet because he was afraid of dying. The dialogue and acting in that scene is spot-on. And as a viewer, I really felt the emotional build-up and horror of the situation. It's horrific. And Cooper goes, you effing coward. And it works so well because of the emotional build-up of the scene. In fact, the stakes are so high that even the f-bomb doesn't carry enough weight to release it, to validate it.

So here is one way profanity can be pleasingly powerful: when the emotional build-up of the scene is far greater than it.

Emotions > Swearing

As you likely know, different swear words contain different levels of emphasis, a d-word carries a lot less weight than the dreaded f-bomb. So, to get this technique to work at its best, don't use a word that carries more emphasis than the emotional build-up calls for (unless you are going for humor).


Emotions > d-word

Emotions X 10 > f-bomb

Not This:

Emotions < d-word

Emotions < f-bomb

This is one reason why I would argue that if you want to include profanity in your story that using a boatload of profanity in every chapter is probably not a good idea. Not only is the emotional build-up not in the reader, but the more you use it, the less emphasis the word has. Have you ever been stuck in an environment where there is a ton of foul language? I know in some places in Africa, the f-word is honestly used like just another word. What happens? You become more desensitized to it. It carries less weight, less meaning.

And also, like I said, it can actually take the emotional build-up out of the reader. I've talked about this several times on my blog. (Let the Reader do the Work, Writing Empathetically vs Sympathetically and Sentimentally) But often, your goal as a writer should be to build up the emotions in the reader, and usually in order to do that, you can't have the character releasing all that emotional tension. If the character is releasing all the emotional tension, the reader won't feel the emotional tension in him or herself. The character has already released it all. It's okay if your character releases some of it after the emotions have reached a certain height, but it's (almost) always best if they don't release all of it (if you're trying to create those same emotions in the reader, that is. Sometimes you want the reader's emotions to deviate from the character's)

Emotional tension > character's release of it.

Profanity can release some of that tension and validate that emotion, but only if those words aren't overused. Even if your reader swears all the time, if your story doesn't, it'll still carry more weight when it does, because you've establish an environment. It's like the difference between hearing someone swear in the halls of middle school and hearing someone swear over the pulpit in church. If you use profanity sparingly, it will carry much more weight.

But truth be told, there are some reasons why writers might choose to use them a little more generously.

Environments and Character

Okay, so, as I just implied in my middle school vs. church example, swearing can carry different weight in different environments. I know, some people might be thinking, "They are the same word. They should carry the same weight regardless." Maybe in a perfect(???) world that would be true, but the reality of our society is that they don't. It's more socially acceptable to swear with a bunch of sailors than it is as a teacher in a special ed class. If you are dealing with environments where profanity is commonplace, and you want to render those environments realistically, your characters are probably going to swear up a storm. In the military, or with gangs, or criminals, or out on the wharf, you can hear some pretty colorful language. By the way, that doesn't necessarily mean that the author agrees with that language. In Stephen King's book On Writing, he talks about how he does find foul language to be very rude, but he includes it in his books because that's how people talk--at least from his experiences.

But keep in mind that the dialogue we use in fiction isn't actually a mirror of reality. If it was, it would drag and kill the pacing of the story, for one. It just needs to sound realistic enough. And I think you could do the same with profanity, if you were after the realistic representation. Make it realistic enough. With that said, I believe that if you don't want to write that much profanity, there are ways to get around it. A lot of readers don't want to read that much profanity anyway, so in my personal opinion, you can get away with glossing over it and turning a bit of a blind eye to that aspect of your environment. I don't think it weakens the story. It really depends on the story and how realistic you want to represent it.

Other than environments, you might just have characters who swear a lot. People swear. It's a fact. And maybe swearing is a part of your character's common vocabulary. Maybe they're a preteen trying to sound adult, or maybe they just like all the emphasis it carries. I've edited stories with real tough guys and have to admit that there are places where it would have sounded stupid for a character like that to say "dang" instead of something stronger. If you don't believe me, it would be like the equivalent of you saying "gee-wiz," after you'd just cut off your finger while cooking. I guess that would look something like this:

Emotions > Swearing -10^8

I usually see this happen with first-person stories, where you are quite literally in the tough guy's head the whole time, so the whole story has a tough tone about it (almost like the story is establishing its own kind of environment). And then you get "gee-wiz." Okay, wow, not only does that not add to the characterization or story, but it doesn't even sustain the characterization and story you've already established. It actually takes away from it. You can write around it if you want. One way to do that is simply writing, "I yelled every profanity I could think of." But if you don't want to do that, there are a few more things to take note of.

If you are dealing with a character or environment that uses a lot of profanity, you can still squeeze some emphasis out of it. You just have to pick the weaker swears to establish the tone and save the stronger ones for the serious situations. So maybe your character throws out d-words and h-words like she's eating candy. Save the f-bombs for the big stuff. If you use everything like candy, then you have no emphasis to draw from when the big stuff happens. Be smart. Save the big ones.

How much (if at all) your character swears comes from their characterization--who they are, attitude, how they present themselves, what kind of environment they grew up in. One tough character that comes to mind is Johanna from The Hunger Games. There are two f-bombs in all of the movies, and they come from her. And again, they were admittedly perfect and in character and even clever. But unlike Cooper's, Johanna's isn't there to release and validate this huge huge emotion the audience feels, it's there for characterization. It's there to get across what Johanna feels and at the intensity she feels it. With the structure of the story, we as an audience can't feel what she feels to that intensity. It just can't happen. The story is structured toward Katniss. Our emotional experiences deviate at least some degree from Johanna's. The profanity is there to illustrate her characterization and how upset she is. It gives us a taste of her character.

What was clever about it though (this is just as side note) is that The Hunger Games is a television show, so in the movie they actually censor the f-bomb out. And it's so perfect on so many levels. Johanna is trying to express how mad she is that she has to go back into the Games, and the same people who are forcing her to do this, bleep her out. She doesn't even have control over expressing herself. (And again, the perfectly beautiful irony of her language being bleeped out on a television show that shows children fighting to death for entertainment.) Man, it's good. But it also appeases the real audience--they didn't have to actually hear the f-bomb either.

How to Start a Story with Profanity Wrong

Some beginning writers feel like they need to make the opening of their stories profane and graphic. I think the tendency might come from the need to start the story with a bang, or to get the reader's attention. In reality, this is almost always a bad move, for several reasons.

Remember that whole section I had about building up the emotions in your reader? When your reader starts your story, they don't have any emotions built up yet. So the profanity and graphic content isn't releasing any. It doesn't mean anything yet because they aren't invested in the story. And actually, it can backfire and make them stop reading your story. It doesn't pull them in. It repulses them. In most types of stories, profanity and graphic content needs to be earned. The build up, or theme, or argument the book is making needs to merit it. Otherwise it doesn't effect the audience the way it should. Otherwise it's just gratuitous. It's just there for shock, or the sake of being there.

It also hurts your chances of getting published. The more graphic your opening is, the narrower your audience becomes (translation  --> less $$$). And less money means less editors wanting to publish and promote your book. Don't forget, writing professionally is a business. And people need to make money. Sure, you can point to bestsellers that are very profane and graphic, but their potential audience is (almost always) smaller, because they've cut off the chunk of audience that doesn't read graphic content. It also can keep your book from getting into schools and libraries.

Now that doesn't mean you can't start with the big and heavies (murder, rape, etc.) or profanity ever, it just means you need to be smart and clever about it. Maybe you are writing a book that deals with the aftermath of rape. Chances are your protagonist is going to get raped in the first or second (probably first) chapter (cause story structure). Basically, you'll need to start your novel with that--but you don't need to make it graphic, even if it was for the character. Let your reader get invested in the story and character first, then the story can earn the need for something more graphic. In fact, in situations like this, where something graphic hasn't yet been earned, it is usually more powerful to imply and suggest such things and let the reader finish the horror of it in their own heads.

Now, some people might read that and go, "Well, then I'm just tricking the reader into thinking this is going to be a tame story and then betraying them by making it graphic later." No, that's not what I mean. Yes, how graphic your opening is does set the tone of the story, but I'm talking about really graphic content that you probably haven't seen in published stories. (There's a reason those stories aren't published.)

If you are going to use a lot of profanity in your book, you'll probably, yes, want to clue the reader in on it in the opening, but give the profanity a purpose. If it's in the opening, it's probably there to establish character voice--that's one of the best ways to use it in an opening. So make the character's voice defined and great. (See my post on creating character voice). Same thing goes if you are establishing a mood or tone. Don't just throw it around to be obscene. Give it a deliberate meaning and a presence. The only time where you might want to open up ridiculously graphic is if your story is based on a humor that works off that throughout the story. It exaggerates and pokes fun at it.

Consider Your Audience

One of the most important things to consider when deciding how much profanity to include in your story, if any, is your audience. If you are writing a middle grade book, that pretty much rules out any profanity. Middle grade is expected to be very clean. And if yours isn't, you'll never stop hearing about it. Lemony Snicket got plenty of complaints for including the d-word in one of the Unfortunate Event books.

Young adult is a lot more tolerant of colorful language publishing-wise, but foul language can make it difficult to get it through the parents, teachers, librarians, and other adults it has to go through to reach the teen to begin with.

And of course, in literature for adults it's welcome.

But audience moves beyond age. If you are writing christian fiction, you're going to want to cut and avoid the swears. People who read christian fiction aren't going to want to read that. Look at the themes and content of your novel. If you are dealing a lot with the big and heavies (murder, child abuse etc.), especially in gritty and realistic ways, your audience will likely be much more tolerant of profanity--after all, they picked up a book with a harsh subject matter to begin with. They probably know what they are getting into. On the other hand, if you are writing a fairy tale about unicorns, it's best to cut back or leave out the swears (unless this is a ridiculous humor piece--humor has its own rules). Now, notice I didn't say that if you are dealing with the big and heavies that you have to swear, just that it's more likely that your audience will be tolerant of it. The tone of the big and heavies go a long way--in either direction.

How much profanity you use should depend on the story you are telling, your audience, and how much you feel comfortable with.

How to Avoid Using Profanity

Telling. As I mentioned earlier, you can often get around profanity by simply writing, "he swore under his breath." This still gives us characterization and explains what happened. It relays how the character feels, but keep in mind it doesn't emphasis or give the same emotional validation or release. Using the actual word will always be stronger. That doesn't make it a better option. Remember, you probably don't want it to be stronger than the emotional tension. Sometimes you actually do want to weaken the swear for better effect.

You can use stand-in fillers: dang, freaking, crap, and all that. Some people still consider these swear words, but with less weight. Where I live, most people don't. So you'll hear a lot of interesting swear word stand-ins from Utah Mormons, in fact, someone created a funny video about it.

Personally, "dang," "freaking," and "crap" aren't real swear words to me, and I use them regularly. Admittedly, other stand-ins do make me uncomfortable. Either way, they are still tamer and carry less emphasis than the real deal. A great resource to find more is Urban Dictionary. Sometimes I go there when I'm looking for a swear word filler.

You can just avoid profanity altogether. Use other emotional indicators. Restructure your sentence to get more emphasis (also talked about how to do that in my humor post). Just remember that many of these indicators don't carry the weight or stress a good ol' curse does. But with that said, some of them carry even more.

Make up your insults. Utah Mormons are great at this. "Flip" is a cultural favorite.

In The Maze Runner, the characters say words like "shuck" and "shank" and "klunk," and in Harry Potter character's often say "Merlin's beard!"  Made up swears can work for a particular society or culture (a group of boys stuck in a maze, a hidden wizarding society). It can be on a small scale--your protagonist and his friends have made up their own slang that only they get. Or it can be bigger--the whole state of Utah recognizes the word "flip." If you play it off well, you can even create a character that uses swears only he understands and knows (but you have to explain it well). Here are some tips to creating your own swears and derogatory language:

1) For the most part, keep made-up swears to one or two syllables. There's a reason our swear words are short. Can you imagine saying a six-syllable swear every time you were mad? Sure, some curses might be longer, but people use them rarely and to different effect.

2) Look at this article that explains the different types of profanity (swears vs. curses and so on), and consider using it to come up with your own for your society. Merlin is a famous, powerful wizard, so there's a reason the characters in Harry Potter use him in their swears. Often profanity has to do with deities or sexual status or birth status or bodily vulgarisms or social standing.

3) Consider the origin and history of your word. If you are worldbuilding, what would your society consider important or valuable? Back in the day, parentage was very important to our society, so we have a lot of words that have to do with your birth status or your parents or, in particular, your mom. Maybe your world values people by a different status. If it's racial, you can come up with derogatory racial slurs (hey, we have that). In Harry Potter, we have "mudblood" as an insult. Maybe in your world your career is what defines people, and being a mortician is the lowest of the low. Then you can come up with derogatory terms with that. See what I mean?

And there you have it. A guide to how profanity functions in fiction. Whatever you guys all decide, I hope you have a flipping good day, and will be back for my next writing tip. ;)


  1. I'll be surprised if I ever use profanity in my books. While I do swear occasionally if I'm really upset, it's a spur of the moment thing. I don't feel comfortable putting it in a book where I'm consciously thinking about every word. It won't be spontaneous.

    Also, I plan to write lighted, humorous stories and I don't think swearing has any business in those types of stories.

    1. Yeah, I can get that point of view. And yes, it probably doesn't fit your type of stories. While a lot of comedians use profanity for humor, I don't believe you need it to be funny. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. In the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson, the characters (a group of winged kids raised by horrible scientists) are often swearing. But James Patterson blocks it out by saying they swore or "(insert swear word of your choice here)" and other things like that that will give the emotion, but not a load of curse words for the reader. Your post made me think of that.

    1. Oh yeah, thanks for that example! Yeah, stuff like that can work--it really depends on the scene, what kind of story you are telling, and you as an author, but that's a good way to find a medium.

  3. Thanks for this genius article. Not just helpful, also massively educational for me wirh yiur reviews of the use of profanity in other books and across genres.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad it helped! Yes, I tried to include all the variations, even if I myself don't generally read them.

  4. What if one's stories are full of nothing but profanity and vulgarity? I'm trying to find my genuine voice as an author and for that I do a freewriting exercise where I just begin a story and just let it flow. What comes out, surprises even me. It's full of rage, f-words, and really weird descriptions of sex. After I finish a story, I think, wow, I can't publish this anywhere! It's so dirty! But the thing is, it's also the best writing I've ever done. It just flows. It's funny. I don't know what to do with it?

    1. Hi Rudya,
      Have you tried writing by restricting yourself from those words and topics? I understand the freewriting approach can work for many people, but also for many people, they become better writers by restricting themselves. Restrictions can challenge you to stretch in ways you wouldn't otherwise. It could be you need to stretch and grow more? I have heard (not saying this is your situation, as I don't know you personally) that some people tend to get vulgar when they don't know what else to say or write--if that is restricted, then the person must stretch to find other ways to express things and other topics to write about. If you don't want to write that kind of material, maybe practice not writing that way, and over time, you may discover or create the voice you want.

      Also, I would add that sometimes if the plot elements aren't strong enough, writers may go to extremes to try to make up for what isn't there (things can get melodramatic or graphic, because the writer is trying to create a "punch" but they are missing the elements needed to do that naturally.)

      Those are just some thoughts that come to mind for me. A lot about what to do, gets down to you personally, what you want to write, and the goals you have. Best.


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