When to Use Swear Words in your Writing

When you're deciding whether or not to use foul language in your writing, ask yourself these three questions.
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What's Your Take? Morgan Hunt offers her standard for deciding when–or when not–to use foul language in her writing. Do you have a foul-language standard? E-mail your response to writersdig@fwpubs.com with "Proceed with Caution" in the subject line, or get in on the conversation at writersdigest.com/forum in the "Conversation"

Remember the George Carlin bit about seven words you can never say on TV? Well, never say never. Those words–and their second cousins–crop up routinely on cable stations, as well as on the silver screen, on CDs and in modern novels.

I'm not convinced the proliferation of obscenities and profanity in our culture is a plus. As a parent, I cringe at our culture's tin-ear tolerance for obscenities, but Puritanical censorship isn't the answer; swearwords express things humans want to say. To me, they're to writing what rain is to the land: you need them occasionally to make your created world bloom with color. But too much can be dreary or destructive. To navigate between prude and crude in my own writing, I ask myself these three questions when I hit a roadblock:

1. DOES IT WORK FOR THE READER? My mystery series is intended as an intelligent woman's beach read; my target readers are college-educated female Boomers. Intuition told me this demographic would tolerate occasional swearwords but would shun their constant or intense use. Research confirmed my take on my audience's tolerance of bleep-ables.

With my readers in mind, I decided my amateur sleuth would swirl azure tints into her verbal palette but would rarely paint the world blue. In Fool on the Hill, I questioned whether to have her quote a particular Humphrey Bogart quip without censoring his use of the f-word. I chose to allow it because it told the reader something specific about her character, which brings me to the next question.

2. DOES IT WORK FOR THE CHARACTER? Are swearwords essential to help the character squirm, grow or revel on paper? Are they not only an acceptable choice, but the best choice for a character and circumstance?

"When rewriting, I do scrutinize a character's word choices to make sure the language rings true to the situation and evokes the character's personality and mood," says bestselling novelist Lolly Winston. "If a character's swearing a lot, she may seem more harsh or bitter than I've intended. For example, I found myself toning down Elinor's language in Happiness Sold Separately, because I wanted her to be acerbic and funny, not bitter or hostile."

Writers sometimes kindle scenes of eroticism with swearwords. But books like Mary Gordon's Spending and Gabriel Garca Mrquez' Love in the Time of Cholera grill characters to perfection with few obscene flames, even in the most lascivious moments. Inspired by such writers, I allow my protagonist to unleash her libido sans Anglo Saxon bluntness.

The sometimes currish murder suspects in my mysteries present a greater challenge. We live in the real world; those who disrespect human life enough to kill aren't going to balk at a word rhyming with duck.

Certainly swearwords have been used by some of the greats to portray unsavory characters. In Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, there are the f-word conversations of frat boys and campus jocks. Its repetition simulates a dialect, which Wolfe calls "f*** patois." His use of swearwords is intentional; it lays bare the rebellion and arrogance of the privileged students who choose such coarse idiom.

But moral rot doesn't compel verbal raunch. Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter doesn't say, "I ate his liver with some f*****g beans." If Lecter spoke that way, we could perceive him as crude or inarticulate. Though Harris puts verbal venom in the mouths of other characters, the f-word he gives Lecter is "fava." We're forced to accept Lecter as a man of education and refinement, making his malignance all the more chilling.

If your readers will accept obscenities and your character could conceivably say them, your last determinant may be one of conscience.

3. DOES IT ABRIDGE MY INTEGRITY? My spiritual beliefs influence my willingness to use swearwords. So does my concept of what it means to use my talent worthily. Some words I simply won't use. But I'll use most of the words on Carlin's notorious list when they fit the character and situation.

Writing requires fine-tuning; paying due attention. A writer knows when words–obscene or otherwise–just plain work. Alan Russell, author of The Fat Innkeeper, which won the Critics' Choice Award and The Lefty (for humor in a mystery), agrees.

"In that book, when my protagonist encounters a beached whale at the oceanfront hotel where he works, he exclaims, Call me f*****g Ishmael!' I never second-guessed myself on that because it seemed absolutely right to me." If it's appropriate for your reader, and if the character and situation call for it, go ahead and swear.

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