Is it OK to Use Swear Words in Your Writing?

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Swearing. Cussing. Strong / bad / foul language. Whatever you want to call it … can you use it in your writing?

Yes.

It’s your writing, and you can do whatever you want!

Of course, there are reasons you might decide against swearing, or reasons why you might moderate your language in different contexts.

Here are a few things to consider.

What Will Your Audience Expect?

Do your readers swear – and do they expect to see swearing coming from you?

Sometimes, subverting expectations can work very well, particularly if you want to make people laugh. For instance, you might use some very strong language on a blog about parenting toddlers and it could be hilarious! Or you might juxtapose strong language with cutesy images.

If it works for you, go for it.

Sometimes, though, going against people’s expectations can really backfire. Maybe you’ve branded yourself as a consummate professional and you have a fairly conservative client base … if you suddenly start tweeting (or even retweeting) posts that include bad language, you could get a strong backlash.

Are You Writing Fiction or Non-Fiction?

If you’re a fiction author, then I think most readers will accept swearing (certainly in dialogue). Sometimes, you’ll have scenes where it would seem downright weird for character not to swear.

Of course, this still depends on your audience. If you’re writing conventional romance, for instance, readers might be really put off by anything more than quite mild curses. They may also have expectations about the types of characters who’ll swear – perhaps minor characters or villains can get away with it, but your heroine won’t be expected to come out with that sort of language.

In non-fiction, swearing can come across as rather gratuitous. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, and it may still work as part of your brand. On the other hand, strong language can be a good way to make a forceful point (especially if you don’t use it often) and it may surprise readers out of complacency.

How Do You Feel as a Writer?

Whatever you write, you’ll probably have a certain comfort level around swearing. Maybe you never swear and “gosh” is about as strong as your language gets. Or maybe you swear cheerfully and happily as part of your normal vocabulary.

I never swore as a young teen, though a lot of classmates did. I’ve gotten a lot more relaxed about swearing over the years. I include bad language in my fiction where it’s appropriate for the characters and situation – usually I feel fine with that, though there are one or two words in my Lycopolis series I’d blush to read out loud!

Don’t feel pressured into using swear words, though, if you don’t feel comfortable with them. A couple of my favourite bloggers (Naomi Dunford and Tim Brownson) swear all the time, and that’s fine for me as a reader … but I don’t try to emulate them here on Aliventures!

Different Ways to Write Swear Words

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: how do you actually write swear words? This isn’t quite as simple as it might sound! (I’m assuming you know the spellings…)

There are four main options for this:

  1. Explicitly: shit.
  2. With asterisks: sh*t.
  3. With symbols: &%$£. (This is the written equivalent of the “beep” over bad language on TV.)
  4. As reported dialogue: Jon swore.

Personally, my preferences are #1 and #4. I think asterisks look mealy-mouthed – everyone knows the word so you might as well spell it out! – and symbols seem rather old fashioned and unnecessarily coy.

Using Option #1: If you’re going to swear, swear! If not, choose a word that you’re comfortable typing. Maybe “shit” is a bit strong for you, but you’re OK with “crap”.

Using Option #4: If you’re writing about characters who’d use strong language, but in a genre where that actual language would not be appropriate, X swore or X shouted a torrent of abuse or similar is – I think – a good option. You see this quite frequently in children’s literature (e.g. in the Harry Potter books, you’ll get lines like “Ron swore”). It could also be a good option if you’re writing, say, light romance or a story for a women’s magazine like People’s Friend.

 

Ultimately, as I said at the start, it’s your writing and your choice. I realise this is an issue some writers have quite strong opinions about … and I’d love to hear yours in the comments!

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

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9 thoughts on “Is it OK to Use Swear Words in Your Writing?

  1. Good topic, Ali. I think you have to be true to your genre, your character, your audience and to yourself. Swearing is a fact of life in many worlds. Before writing, I came from one of cops and crooks. Believe me, swearing is part of that culture and many of the women cops & crooks are fowler than men. So, I believe if you’re going to tell a realistic fiction story you have to say it the way it is. Otherwise, you’ll likely loose your reader.

    I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, a friend recommended a Harlan Coban novel. I got part way through and was immersed in a fairly good story… but there was something about it that didn’t ring true. Then it hit me. I came to a place in dialogue where a character had to use the F-word. Coban wrote in *in dialogue* as “F@#&”. It stopped me in my tracks and I put the book down. I don’t know if that author has some moral conviction about swearing and I don’t know how that got past a publisher/editor but it so unsuspended my disbelief that I never looked at another of his books.

    I think swearing has little place in non-fiction as it really doesn’t contribute to the message. In fiction, especially in dialogue, I strongly feel that if that’s what a character would say in real life then you owe it to your audience to ring true. You probably sense I write crime and not Christian. 😉

    • Thanks Garry! I am totally with you on this — I can’t imagine that most cops (or criminals!) stick to, “Oh bother…” or “drat”. 😉

      Gosh. I’d have put that Coban novel down too. I don’t think the thriller genre is a great choice for authors who are *that* squeamish about swearing!

  2. I’m with you on number 1 and 4 being my preferred method. I rarely swear when writing fiction, but would if I thought the dialogue required it.
    If you are going to swear, I think moderation is key, I get very bored reading through whole paragraphs of bad words, and I don’t think you achieve the impact if swear words are spattered about all over the writing.

    • Yes — like any fairly stand-out word, less is more! I think swearing can also have a strong impact if it comes from a character who’s quite softly spoken — it can really highlight emotions running high.

  3. I believe that swearing is appropriate in limited quantities and only in genres where in real life the speakers would be expected to do so. My current WIP has a male who is vulgar opposite a female that is not. I think the contrast, as well as limited usage, are what makes it work.

    That said, I have never heard someone give a positive critique based on foul language. A teaspoon of cinnamon will enhance a recipe, a tablespoon in your mouth will put you in the emergency room.

    • Yes, I certainly don’t think it’s a good plan to include swearing in (say) a gentle romance or in genres where readers might have strong feelings about it (e.g. Christian fiction).

      I like your analogy about cinnamon! And swearing for swearing’s sake always seems very adolescent to me. Like any writing tool, it needs to be used with care.

  4. Hey Ali,

    I watched a documentary about Tony Robbins called “I Am Not Your Guru.” It covered one of his Date With Destiny seminars. What surprised me most about the squeaky-clean Tony Robbins was the amount of cursing he did during the seminar — tons of F-bombs. He says he does this to interrupt people’s patterns and get them focused on what he’s trying to teach.

    I don’t curse often, but when I’m trying to make a point, jolt the reader awake, and get them to notice something I really think is important I will curse.

    • That’s an interesting angle on it: I think swearing can certainly grab attention, and in fiction, the right word from the right character at the right moment can racket up the tension.

  5. Hi Ali,

    Been away from this blog as well as your newsletters for a couple weeks. Reading the old gold now.

    But I skipped this post. Because I have never even once sworn (hope that’s the correct word) in my life. I’d do the same as the image in this post does – cover my ears/take my eyes off, if I hear/read such words.

    See what Mahatma Gandhi had to say about words:

    Your beliefs become your thoughts,
    Your thoughts become your words,
    Your words become your actions,
    Your actions become your habits,
    Your habits become your values,
    Your values become your destiny.

    Without the least amount of doubt, this is true. I heard an experience of a man who was a professor in a college. He had to walk past an area where poor and uneducated people lived in huts, etc. There would be frequent clashes between people there, and children playing there also used to swear.

    Now, this professor had never used swear words all his life. But, he had to listen to them almost every day on his way to college and back home. One day, he didn’t go to college and didn’t inform them. So, the head of the college/principal sent someone to his home to check what was the matter.

    The professor lived alone in a small house. The guy entered his house, and saw that the professor was sleeping, and had high fever. But he also heard him uttering something every now and then. He went back and informed the college principal that the professor was ill.

    When the professor went back to college, this guy who had been to his house, spoke to him and said that he was amazed that the professor swore in his sleep, which he never did when awake. The professor wondered why such a thing ever happened. Then he remembered that he used to listen to swear words almost daily, for years, on his way to college and back home. This had gone inside his sub-conscious mind, which opened in sleep.

    Another thing – would someone like to pick garbage from the dust-bin and eat? No one would do that, right? So, why do people want to use garbage words which are not only useless, but also carry negative energy with them?

    P.S.: Just my opinion, I think others will have different opinions that’s fine.