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When to Use Swear Words in your Writing : Conversation question • Page 5 • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Every month in Writer's Digest's InkWell section, we pose a question related to the writing life. Tell us your thoughts.
Ultimate Cheapskate
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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby Ultimate Cheapskate » Thu Oct 18, 2007 5:24 am


shayd
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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby shayd » Thu Oct 18, 2007 5:42 am

I've chimed in on this before in other threads but I'm already so far behind on a couple of deadlines a few more keystrokes on the subject won't really impact my productivity...

First, to those who genuinely believe that "usin' cuss words" is a sign of low intelligence, loose morals, or limited education, you really need to get out more. Vularities are all around us and they're used by people of all races, classes and creeds. Some of us are better at gauging the appropriate word for the appropriate audience, but to think that only dumb criminals use poor obscenities is just promoting a false stereotype. I've got 20 years of formal education under my belt and I can swear in roughly five languages (depending on whether or not swearing in Yiddish counts as a sepatrate entitiy from swearing in German or Hebrew) I don't speak, five languages but I've pick up a fair number of choice words and phrases from native speakers (most with advanced degrees) whom I've learned from and worked with over the years. I've heard rather explicit swears come from the lips of college faculty, Senators, clergy, and a children's librarian on the Newbery Award committee. They don't use such words as random filler in their daily speech, but it's part of their vocabulary and when the circumstances call for it, and the audience will tolerate it, they let the swear words fly.

Second, like it or not, words and idioms are part of our culture, even those most people regard as vulgar or obscene. George Carlin used to have a routine about words you couldn't say on television. I'd heard all the words before by the time I was 12, I wasn't using them personally, but I'd heard them. The fact is, people swear, they always have; they probably always will.

Third, it is possible to write a wonderful, compelling story without using any swear words. The way to do this is to write a story where none of the characters make a habit of using such words and none of the characters ever get into situations where they might slip and say something inappropriate. Banning the use of a particular word simply because it is currently considered a swear is a bit like writing a story using only those words and names recognized by your word processor's spell checker (okay, I'm dating myself, spell check dictionaries have gotten a lot larger since thet days when it had to fit on a 92k floppy disk, but you get the idea). On the flip side, injecting random swear words for the sake of impact is self-defeating. If the situation doesn't call for it and terms are inappropraite for the character in question foul language is just an offensive speed-bump for the reader, distracting him/her form the aspects of the tale that matter.

Fourth, people often point to "great works" of literature as examples proof that you don't need to use offensive language or racy descriptions to convey the gritty truth of a scene, but they forget that some of the works they hold up as "clean" actually _were_ controversal for their day. There are some words and phrases that were once off-color at best, but are considered innocuous now only because either the standards of the day changed or the use of the word became so commonplace that the impact of the term was lost and "we" forgot where it came from and that it was "supposed" to be offensive, vulgar or have sexual implications.

The question an author must face is whether to be true to their characters and their world, or to self-censor and dliute the emotional expressions of his/her creations in the name of not causing offense or not promoting speech practices the author objects to personally. I never swear in my narrative, but when the circumstances are right, some of my character have been known to use a few choice words in their dialog (sometimes it's not even in English), because the characters are being true to who they are and it's my job as the writer to channel them to the reader, not whitewash them. If I have character that swears inappropriately (as part of her/his character) I try not to give them the mic very often and focus on the reactions of the other characters instead.

A word is just a tool to help you paint a story in another person's mind. Words convey images and emotions and they very fact that so many people take offense at certain words is a testament to their power. Like any tool, the use of certain terms comes with both risks and benefits and it's the author's job to strike the right balance for the task at hand.

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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby Kirby » Thu Oct 18, 2007 6:12 am


dgford
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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby dgford » Thu Oct 18, 2007 2:56 pm

Now you have gone and done it 

     I support every writer in the world and their right to express themselves in any way they darn well please.  I do not find the use of swear words to fit my style in any of my writing, period.  Call it upbringing( I think I brought myself up); everyone in my household used every choice word imaginable around me and I was not impressed, moved, or felt I had to return their words in like kind. 

I am a leader but am co-joined with those who would follow. 

I have strong spiritual leanings, but they are tied to my personal beliefs in a Creator.  If someone asks, I point the way and never cojole, usurp, or force my ideals on to them. 

It shouldn't surprise most folks on these forums, that someone who would try to harness(moderate) a spiritual forum, doesn't indulge in certain language arts.  And it is an art form many will tell you, grant it a cruder or baser one than I use.  But I am far from perfect and my life is hard, like so many other working stiffs.

If I am a Jack^*s for my thoughts and beliefs so be it - I sleep good nights. 

Greywolf 


abqwriter
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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby abqwriter » Thu Oct 18, 2007 3:20 pm


dgford
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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby dgford » Thu Oct 18, 2007 5:32 pm

Hi,

I think all of this back and forth motion in some of these great forum talks should start to draw the real writer's out of the crowd.  Two things I absolutely love are prompts and challenges - they could be the life blood of the writer, I know it was a certain prompt in "What If" that got me rolling more in the writing realm.  And that was just a writer's book that I borrowed from the local library and now I own it.  It sits right there on the shelf next to my "Writing Down the Bones" book.

I enjoyed you comment.  Gotta fly.

Where eagles fly,

Don


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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby bongobro » Mon Oct 22, 2007 5:28 am

I have friends who use the F-bomb as all eight parts of speech anytime, anywhere. When I'm one-on-one with such dudes, I often sound like bargain-basement George Carlin. And I borrow Mark Twain's sage suggestion "When angry, count to ten; when really angry, swear" all too often.

On the other hand, I don't go into a job interview saying "Hey, Mr. Smith, how the f--- are ya?" I wouldn't think of using the same language in front of women and young people as I would use with a brother drummer or cigar buddy (and even they aren't all potty-mouths, either).

My standard is simple: Think of the intended audience. If I'm writing a how-to article on car care for a family magazine, I don't write it the same way I would write a similar article for a hard-core biker magazine.

In adult fiction, I think of salty language just that way: Salt. Rather than turning a character into so much pine or balsa, A well-placed "s***" -- or even a "F---!" describes a character's reactions and motivations with one word. In some cases, it tells more about him or her than puffy paragraphs about the car he drives or the clothes she wears.

And in a few cases--a novel set during the Vietnam War or the biography of a rock-and-roll group--a little more salt may be okay and even expected. That does not mean unscrewing the cap and pouring out the whole shaker. Too much salt on a steak destroys its great flavor. Overuse of swear words destroys the flavor of great writing.

As writers, we are gifted with great imagination. We are also gifted with common sense. Too bad we focus on one to the expense of the other.

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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby donroger » Mon Oct 22, 2007 8:54 am

Swear words do offend some people. Not swearing offends no one. This is not just a point in writing but also speech. Swearing is common in many circles of people, simply a fact. Whether or not to use it in my opinion is restraint not complete illimination. It must be used seldom and be fitting for the character, or used out of chacter as to show extreme shock. Just as it would in real life.

Just my opinion...Don


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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby T.M. Starnes » Mon Oct 22, 2007 12:40 pm

I think it depends on the character and the personality you wish for them to have. Also on the audience that you are writing for. Whether people want to admit it or not elementary age kids are using foul language especially the "F-bomb" because they are told not to. I personally limit my swear words because if I wouldn't want my family reading my stories without a realistic reason for the character swearing I shouldn't be writing what I do. I was in the Navy and the most used descriptive word in ANY language was the f-word. Most of the time you would learn the curse words of another culture first so you would know if you were being cursed at. I personally write my characters swearing when they are so angry that they can't think. Or as I said the audience or the realistic personality of the character you are writing.

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RE: When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

Postby CandyApple » Tue Oct 23, 2007 9:03 am

Using swear words in your writing should be relevent to the time period and characters depicted. (This applies to other offensive dialect aspects, like "nigger," as well.) If your character would cuss, whether at regular intervals or just occasionally, the writer should include this into the character's speech or else it rings false.
This is true no matter what audience you're writing for. For example, my favorite YA novels are those that aren't afraid to throw in a cuss word or two. Why? Because the writer is trusting me, as the reader, to be able to stomach foul language, even though I'm a teenager.

When was the last time you stood in a high school lunch line and listened to the conversations going on around you? For me, it was only a half hour ago. Can you guess what word was used most frequently? The "f-word." It was amazing actually, the versatile connotations of that word. It ranged from the worst insult to the kindest compliment. This is our language, and while sometimes it does evince a lack a vocabulary when used too much, most of my friends (the intellectuals of the school) cuss frequently enough for it to be considered part of our dialect. The point is, none of us have virgin ears (or eyes), so we've dealt with these words before.

Throwing in an expletive can emphasize a person's emotions or reaction. Beating around the bush, or the cuss word in this case, can get annoying and, more likely than not, your reader will recognize your efforts to avoid the word. So just suck it up and SAY IT ALREADY!

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