Writing Corner: Swearing

Today I’m going to talk about using swearing in your writing. Swearing as an idea is not very well defined but I am going to use it to mean any words that are crude, religiously profane, graphic, or sexual. Books are not usually rated, but movies are so we can think of swearing as anything that would increase the rating of a movie to make it more mature.

Should you use swearing in your writing?

The answer is that it really depends. In the end, swear words are like any tool a writer has and there is a time and place to use them.

1. Think of your audience

This is really the first thing to consider when deciding how much and what types of swearing to use. If you are writing books for adults, then it’s no problem to use swearing. However, if you are writing a book for kids, you probably don’t want to (at least if you want to get it published). Books for teens are a grey area. It really depends on the type of story and what words you use.

2. Think of the type of story

The point of using swearing is to make dialogue more realistic. After all, people swear in real life and so having swearing in your story could make it authentic. However, authentic dialogue is not always good dialogue. After all, in real life people use things like “uh” and “um” a lot but using a lot of those types of pauses would get tiring to read unless there was a good reason. In the same way, think of swearing as a tool to create a certain effect or atmosphere. It can be an especially powerful tool as well, especially if used sparingly.

A story about gangsters might be an appropriate place for more swearing than a story of upper class ladies in Victorian England, although again it depends on the tone you are trying to set. If it is an absurd or funny, bits of profanity that are out of place could add to the funny tone. Back in 2003, I wrote a story called Dearest Melissa: A Letter While Stuck in a Tree. It was supposed to be absurd and was written in an old, flowery style. The last line is “Call the Mounties, my dear. Otherwise, I fear that I am screwed.” Screwed isn’t very strong profanity but it makes a sharp contrast with the style of the rest of the story for comedic effect.

Ways to use swearing in your stories

Swearing is used in spoken language, so it’s usually used either in dialogue or in narration in stories with a conversational tone, which is when the narrator is talking to the reader directly.

As I said above, if you are writing a story for adults and the story calls for it, swearing can make the story more authentic feeling. However, you may not feel comfortable writing swearing or it might not be appropriate for the story or audience. As for myself, I rarely use swearing in my writing and nothing too profane or graphic. That’s mostly because I generally don’t swear myself and I tend to write stories for teens or kids. It is possible to get across the idea of swearing in different ways. Here are some ways:

1. Using softer forms

This is where you use a softer form of profanity. In English there are levels of how bad/strong/graphic certain words are. For example, words like “darn, dang, gosh,” are so mild that they sound quaint. Having a character say, “Dang, I missed my train” is fine, but the effect is that it’s a mild inconvenience, not a life-shattering event.

On the other hand, if you want to write a comedy, making people who might swear a lot use this kind of language would be funny. Just be aware of the effect you are creating since it will sound laughable. For example:

“What is this poop?” the drug lord shouted. “You know darn well I asked for a hundred kilograms of cocaine.”

2. Creating your own profanity

If you are writing a fantasy or science fiction story, this might be a realistic option. Just be aware that since they are made-up words, the reader won’t feel any sort of emotional reaction to them. For example:

“Grax!” Lem shouted. “Where did that flenging dragon come from?”

“It was hiding in the well,” Yorick groaned. “Right under our darsing feet the whole time.”

Or you could go the Captain Haddock method of just yelling gibberish.

This is an extreme example, of course, since using this many made-up words together can seem a bit forced. However, if you make them fit into the context of your story, this could work.

3. Substituting other words or blanks

If you read old books, you might see places where the characters swear but it is just a line since they’ve censored the word. This was usually done when there was some very rough character, like a pirate, who would have sworn but they couldn’t publish it. For example:

“I don’t give a ——- what you do,” Mr. Harkin snapped.

This definitely gets the idea across, but avoid any unpronounceable words in your story.

This isn’t done these days, but there are other ways to make substitution if necessary. In the book Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, one of the important points about the main character is that she swears. However, since it’s middle grade book, the writer can’t actually use swearing in the book. So, the main character (who is also the narrator), says she will use the word “snow” instead of swearing. We know that’s not what she’s really saying, but it’s a way to get around the issue.

4. Use exposition

What I mean by this is to say characters swear but don’t actually write it out. For example:

My dad came into the back yard and saw us holding my brother upside down over the pool. He swore and broke into a run.

It’s a way of conveying the idea without actually swearing. It works, although the emotional impact of the dialogue is blunted. It’s best not to do this a lot since it is telling what happened instead of just showing it. It’s the same as this:

He told her to sit down. versus “Sit down,” he said.

In conclusion

Swearing is a very specific and special type of language. There are many places where it would not be appropriate but it is up to the reader to decide that depending on the type of story they are writing and the audience they are writing for.

What do you think? Are there any stories that absolutely need swearing or does it depend on the writer? Let me know in the comments.

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at info@greenwalledtreehouse.com.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. My high school English teacher told us to use #4 (if we wanted to pass his class). Now that I have my own blog that is completely unrelated to school, I think I’ve used every option except #2.


    1. Yes, I definitely wouldn’t encourage any of my students to use swearing, although I suppose there are a lot of levels of “swearing” so it’s a gray area sometimes.


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