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I've noticed that some of the most successful writers refrain from using profanity, such as Stephanie Meyer and Norman Mailer. Are readers turned off by swearing in books?

More importantly, is it wrong to use profanity? Is it bad writing?

Should I replace my shits with "sh*ts"?

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No matter what you do, don't use "sht". Either, well, shit or get off the pot. That is, use profanity, or don't use it at all. What I really can't stand is people replacing swear words with almost-similar-sounding words that *don't make sense. A friend of mine said "Scheibe" (disc or window pane) instead of "Scheisse" (well... shit). Hated it. If you want to (or in writing, need to) swear, do it. But do it openly. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 19 '10 at 13:34
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sh*t looks more vulgar than shit. the more you censor, the ruder it looks –  Pacerier Sep 13 '11 at 10:59
    
One thing to consider is that swear words often seem "stronger" on the printed page than they are in a spoken medium, so you should probably use fewer of them. But do still feel free to use them. And definitely don't star them out. F*nger. –  TRiG Jun 13 '12 at 18:53
    
I'd suggest that Stephanie Meyer doesn't swear because her audience is young adult, she probably doesn't want her books to be considered too 'adult' –  Dan Hanly Dec 5 '13 at 16:19
    
Are there any East Indian or Oriental Movies or T.V. that blaspheme against their respective religions , or is it just a North American Tradition to blaspheme as 'freely' as swearing? –  user128932 4 hours ago

13 Answers 13

up vote 24 down vote accepted

I think that technically the only reason not to use profanity in your writing when you want it is if censorship will prevent you from reaching your target audience.

For example, you want tweens to read your book but their fucking parents won't let them because of the fucking swearing.

Swearing is like salt on food though, too much or on the wrong dishes can just make you seem like you don't know what you're doing. If there's too much salt then you can get tired of the taste.

There's a book called Watch Your F*cking Language: How To Swear Effectively. I haven't read it myself but I've been wanting to pick it up.

Don't try to pander to people's tastes.

Your writing will appeal as a whole to your audience. If you cut out the swearing for the sake of the few who don't like swearing, then you may degrade the quality of expression of your work. At the same time, removing the swearing does not necessarily please the people who would already dislike your work anyway.

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I'd say swearing is used based on the target audience, i've seen many posts that target the youth to have a lot more profanity than posts that are targeted at a general audience. Profanity has become a tool where people try to show their anger at some unfair result or injustice being served. –  Aadi Droid Sep 11 '11 at 15:34
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Swearing in general shows a lack of respect for your reader(listener when speaking) unless you know them personally. It also tends to show a lack of professionalism when you use it inside of your profession. –  Chad Sep 16 '11 at 18:20

I read an article by a film critic once where he commented (not an exact quote, quoting from memory), "When was the last time you heard someone say, 'That could have been a good movie, but they just didn't use the f-word enough.'"

His point, of course, was that the opposite is true. There are many people who do not like profanity and who will not read your book if it contains more profanity than they are willing to tolerate. In some cases their tolerance level will be zero. There are very few people who will throw a book away because it doesn't contain enough profanity. You will lose far more readers by including profanity than you will gain by it.

It is rarely "necessary" to use profanity. I often hear writers say that people like their character would use a lot of profanity in real life, so to be realistic they must use profanity. Yes, if you say that two sadistic killer drug dealers get into a turf battle and then one shouts at the other, "You silly person! Why are you so mean to me?", that is not going to sound believable. But would it really be unrealistic to say that he shouts, "You worthless scum! You're gonna die for this!" Okay, maybe in real life he'd say "You f---in' scum! You're gonna f---in' die for this!" But so what? It would be rare that the slightly milder version loses anything of value to the story, it is not inconsistant with the characters ... and it avoids offending many potential readers.

There are many times in fiction that we avoid being too explicit to avoid unnecessary offense. If you want to say that a character is sick, you may write, "He threw up." You don't have to do into detail about what it looked like and how it smelled. Some readers may revel in the added realism of such detail, but most will simply find it distasteful. I realize that characters have to go the bathroom, but I'm not interested in reading the details of how the procedure went. Etc etc.

Many people use profanity as a cop-out way to add drama to a statement. If you're an illiterate high school dropout and you want to express strong emotion, maybe the only way you can do that is to use profanity. But if you're a writer, you're supposed to have a command of the language. You should be able to put words together that explore the depth of human feeling and thinking. I've read lots of writing advice that says, You can't make a bland statement dramatic just by adding three exclamation points. I think in the same way, you can't make a bland statement dramatic just by adding three curse words.

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"I believe that having S*** and F*** in your conference slides or titles doesn't make you cool or professional, or a better coder. It makes you look crass."

Scott Hanselman, Profanity doesn't work

For those who don't know, Scott is a major player and top-tier blogger in the .Net progrramming world, and this is his tuppence (two cents). I don't know if I agree with all of it, but as always, he's written it down and reasoned it out, and therefore it's worth reading.

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I don't think there is an answer to the question, because if your writing a scene in a prison maybe or even a high school there will probably be some swearing if your comfortable with writing it, but if you are writing a book about 'the bunny in the woods', then swearing most likely isn't appropriate. The first thing you need to ask yourself is whether your comfortable with swearing or not. If you aren't don't use it. If you are use it. If you are going to use it, though make sure you don't not use it then use it completely randomly, like in the previously mentioned Harry Potter books. I personally swear a lot, but know people who never swear and don't like it. I don't think the question is ever "who your writing for", but what do you feel is right for the story. The story should be most important to you while your writing it. I am American and the way i've grown up is immersed in anything, but what you'd call "Mainstream". My parents and all the people i've grew up with are bikers and i've grew up at motorcycle rallies, so it's just natural for my characters to use curse words. For you it may not be. Just use what you feel is right for your book and the characters you have in it.

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my personal opinion is: "if it isn't absolutely necessary, don't use it". I have found that I enjoy books, movies, and comedians much more when they don't swear every other word.

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I totally agree megan. If a curse word does not add anything then it will probably detract. –  Chad Sep 16 '11 at 18:16

When I write, I generally just write in my own vernacular, using the diction that I use when I speak, unless it's necessary to change it a bit for a certain character. That's what I'd suggest. If you'd swear when you say what your character says, make him swear, by all means, depending on the audience at which you are aiming. That being said, having more than five words that are or are worse than $#!+ in a given two paragraphs can be off-putting sometimes, so don't over-do it. And try to avoid using anything worse than f***, which can have a similar effect. If one is writing in third person, there should be no swearing outside of dialogue, unless it is stating what a character is thinking, whether directly or indirectly.

And do not under any circumstances say something like sh*t or f*ck when you're writing, and certainly not if it's dialogue. It's just ridiculous.

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I am not a writer. I am a reader. You need my opinion. ;-)

By all means swear but it should be natural. Don't swear just because you want to or don't avoid it just because you don't want to.

Also think about your target audience. Do NOT swear if the book is intended for youngsters. Because if you do so "target audience" like it BUT their parents don't. So, book won't sell (at least openly).

If you are writing books for 18+ please please swear it turns people on in a strange way.

Rule of Thumb: Excess of everything is bad.

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I see the rationale behind the idea expressed in many of these answers, to stay true to what you think your characters would actually realistically say.

Two things I'd like to add though:

  1. Just as with sex and violence, you can shrink your audience by including swearing. Avoiding offensive language is not just for the prudish and pretentious, a lot of people will skip your book - especially if children comprise any part of the audience. Consider work-arounds that cut it out without the story losing anything (these can actually work quite well for some writing, see my other answer).

  2. With explicit sex, violence, and swearing (and other things large numbers of readers have reason to find offensive) it can be just as effective (sometimes more effective) to not describe it explicitly, but leave some of it to the imagination. See this question.

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Keep in mind that you can easily swear without swearing. Try one or both of these, where appropriate:

Indirect swearing:

Say that someone swore, just don't go into detail. For example, if J.K. Rowling has her characters swear, what's written is something like: "Ron swore loudly" rather than the word(s) he/she actually said.

In-world swearing:

For sci-fi, fantasy, historical, etc, use exclamations to further immerse the reader in the setting. For example: in the wheel of time books "Light help us" is used instead of "God help us" - because the Light is the concept of God in that culture/setting.

Even in a contemporary setting, see if you can invent an interesting idiom to make the character more colourful, rather than using common swearing.

Most writers seem to add explicit swearing to get a certain shock value or "gritty realism" if your book is set in a contemporary English-speaking culture setting. In other settings, for example, a science fiction or fantasy world, or a different culture and/or historical period, swearing can actually hurt the sense of realism.

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+1 These are both very good points. I have read some fantasy novels that include certain swear words, but they're used in such a way as to be appropriate. As two of my favorite series, though, I love how Rowling and Jordan both handle swearing in a fantasy setting. I also appreciate that as the HP books near their end, there is a tad more "bad words" when appropriate. It's never extreme, but it fits the story and the characters in them. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 20 '10 at 3:21
    
@Nathan: Actually I was completely shocked that Rowling used the word "bitch" at the end of Deathly Hallows. I didn't find it inappropriate in context, but it was so out of place in the whole series. Even the Death Eaters never used muggle swear words. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 20 '10 at 14:14
    
@Mr. Shiny and New: I've read those books quite a few times now, so I don't remember my first reaction, but considering that she was yelling at the woman who had killed one of her sons, I thought it was appropriate. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 20 '10 at 14:44
    
@Nathan: Oh, I'm sure it was appropriate for her to say that. I'd have said it or worse in the same circumstance. But it was out of place in the TEXT, because that kind of word had not been used anywhere else in the series that I recall. All of the profanity (that I recall) was made-up, or words like "mudblood", or indirect. Seeing "bitch" was jarring. (A separate debate, which occurs to me now, is whether we should care about profanity in a "children's" book which has so much violence... :) ) –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 20 '10 at 14:55
    
I agree with the "Ron swore loudly" approach. In a similar vein, the original Battlestar Galactica series had the characters using made-up exclamations like "frack" and "faldercarb". Of course the latter technique only works in made-up worlds. In either case, it leaves it to the reader to imagine how mild or vulgar the exclamation is. "Ron swore loudly" will lead some readers to fill in "golly wow" in their heads, while others fill in the most vulgar obscenities. Then no one is offended but you still get most of the punch. I'm sure it doesn't always work, but it often does. –  Jay Jan 14 '13 at 16:26

Could you tag that with a country? Because things are quite different here in Germany (and most of Europe, the Brits excluded ;D) than in, say, the US (where most participants here are likely to hail from). So, for questions of "What's publishable/what can audience stomach" it's not unimportant to know where things are to be published.

That said, let's get to it.

As others (and I myself) have said: read read read. It's at least as important as the practice of writing. And if you do, you'll see examples. Lots of em.

I'm a huge fan of Terry Pratchett. He... does use swearing, even though you get the feeling his characters don't. Sometimes it does feel a bit too little, especially in the context of Ankh-Morpork and the City Watch. But on rereading, I found an "oshitoshitoshit" in Eric, and other bits. But, yes, in some books for some characters not enough. (Still like 'em though)

And then there's the character of Mr. Tulip in "The Truth". Who swears pretty obviously. But... it's "--ing" this and "--ing" that (yes, there's a pause, and the other characters are wondering why it's there. Like when profanity isn't bleeped but blanked :D) Showing that you can put in lots of swearing without swearing, and everyone knows it's swearing, and you get a nice comedic effect, and there's no actual swearing.

Oh, I'm rambling. Let me just, in closing, agree with much of the answers. The only thing that's really important is that it feels "right", or natural. Oh, and if your characters swear, let them swear right... which may need some "method writing", meaning, getting to know (or knowing) people who swear like that ;-)

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I think there are two things you need to consider.

  1. What is your audience? If you're writing for grade schoolers, possibly YA, Christian fiction, etc. you may want to avoid swearing.
  2. If you believe the swearing would not be a problem for your audience, then you need to consider the character who would be doing the swearing (including the narrator, if it would be in the narration). The dialogue should stay true to te character speaking it. If that person is someone who peppers their speech with expletives, then put them on the page. It's going to seem really absurd if your mass-murdering bike gang leader hangs around the prison exercise yard saying "I'm gonna shank that gol-dern, no-good Bill at lunch tomorrow."

Also, cutting all expletives or leaving them are better than censoring, as far as I'm concerned. We all know what the * in sh*t means. Even the twelve-year-olds.

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Wrong questions. Not "who's your audience" (I think it's who, not what, considering it's actual people we're talking about, but I'm not a native speaker, so what do I know... but I digress). It should always and only be "what's you story", and everything follows. Then you may find that the story is suitable for a specific audience, but... the other way around is at least not what I am here for. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 19 '10 at 12:53

I think Stephen King's comments are helpful in this regard. He says to write what you know. If you work or live around people who swear, quite frankly, you're probably going to have a hard time keeping it out of your books. In which case, I'm not sure you should even try. People swear - that's life. That's just the way things are. If a person doesn't want to read that, then that's entirely up to them.

And there are certain scenarios in which it's almost a must. If you're writing a war story and a guy gets his leg blow off, then he better darn well not be lying there yelling, "Oh sugar, it hurts." If an old grandma stubs her toe on the other hand, then she might say just that.

I work in a factory, and if I was going to depict life in the factory, I couldn't do it without throwing in some foul language. In all honesty, it actually makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear how some of the guys talk sometimes - but my views of decency and propriety don't change the way the world actually is.

If I want to avoid that, then I probably just won't write those kinds of stories.

I'd also mention briefly that if, on the other hand, you don't swear, you're not ever around people who swear, and it's very awkward for you to be around or write about those sorts of things - well, then it's probably going to come across in your stories as awkward and unnatural. Just like if you try to avoid using foul language when it seems very appropriate for you - if a character is screaming something bad in your mind, but you purposely don't put it down on paper, well, I think that tends to show. But if your characters wouldn't swear and you force them to just to try and make them seem more real, then it will seem unnatural, too.

I don't think there's an answer of "too much" or "not enough" to this question. It depends on the story, the context, the characters, and even what comes most naturally to you as a person.

PS: There are a lot of popular authors who have written stories with quite a bit of profanity. Stephen King, as mentioned before, being a prime example. It fits his books. There are definitely people who have a problem with it. He gets hate mail sometimes over it. Honestly, I think that's just ridiculous. If the reader doesn't want to read the F-word, then he just shouldn't read King's stories. The point being: don't try to write popular books. Write what you know.

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There must be a reason for Misery. –  John Smithers Dec 19 '10 at 21:27

I don't know if there's a right answer for this question, but as a reader, I don't mind seeing a "shit" in a book used appropriately. Language can help establish character or set a mood. The line from enough to too much is grey (to me at least) - if it was one character, they could potentially swear in every scene. However, if every paragraph contains swearing, it could be distracting.

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I don't mind profanity at all, no matter how much. If it feels appropriate. But then I'm German, and we're a lot more open in that regard. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 19 '10 at 13:04

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