Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


While I was over at Maya Reynolds blog this morning (today she has an excellent post on censorship), it brought to mind the use of profanity. And while her post deals specifically with someone else's hissy about the use of the word 'scrotum' in a middle-grade book, which isn't profane by any stretch of the imagination, I'd like to talk about the use of profanity in adult-level novels.

First off, let me say that in my younger days, I swore like a dock-worker. I didn't think anything about it, and it certainly wasn't done for effect like some young people, but looking back it certainly didn't do much to make me appear intelligent. Still, my way of thinking about it has always been they are just words, and whether they have any affect on your sensibilities depends entirely on you. (Remember, once upon a time Dick was just short for Richard and Bitch was just a female dog.) As I've grown older, I've found better and more appropriate words to replace most of the profane, but my opinion hasn't changed all that much.

A prime example of how not to use profanity would be those comedians (especially since Eddie Murphy's 'Raw' - although he was by no means the first) who feel the word 'fuck' adds to the punchline. Sometimes it does; most times it doesn't. And most of the time it's used purely for 'shock value'.

So what do I, as a writer, do with profanity in my novels? As with anything, I use it where it would be appropriate both to the story and to the characters pattern of speech. Inner city youth? Swears often. Highly educated astrophysicist hero? Very little, and never the worst of the words. Smarmy pseudo-scientist? In private, very often; in public, very little - depending on what word suits his purposes at the time. (Truth be told, when he's with his lackeys, he's a potty-mouth. He thinks it makes him look tough when in reality it just makes him more of an ass.)

Purposefully peppering your prose with profanity until it is purple works about as well as too-much alliteration. On the other hand, purposefully steering clear of all profanity - if your work is set in this day and age - would make your work sound unnatural. (Unless you're writing a book about the Amish or the Mennonites... Hell, even Mormons swear every now and then.)

As with anything, please remember the cardinal rule, of writing and life: With all things, moderation.


Anissa said...

Great post! I couldn't agree more. It's odd, but in my complete manuscript my MC swears. Not a ton, but definitely more than I do. It's just how she is, especially at that point in time. Now I'm writing #2 and she's doing it so much less frequently. Still on occasion, but it's diminished.

Moderation, as you said, is key. People swear, it's a common part of verbal expression these days. To leave it out completely (especially in a situation where you would expect it to be present)certainly would be jarring.

liz fenwick said...

There wasn't a single profanity in my last work beyond damn but the current one has a 15 yr old and her language is littered with it. Her step mother resorts to using it as well but much less frequntly. I will propbably edit some of it out in the next draft as i don't want to pull the reader out of the story which too much which i read some where profanity can.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Yup. We just need to ask ourselves "Is this really necessary here?"

One thing I do, is I read my dialogue out loud. If I can't carry off a certain bit and remain true to the characterization, I reword it.