When (and when not!) to swear in writing

We’ll keep it brief and at least moderately clean, but this is the post we discuss swearing and bad language when it comes to writing fiction. No, we’re not going to give you a list of words to use instead of ‘fuck’ – we’re not that prudish. Indeed, rather the opposite. Sometimes you need foul language and obscenity, but you need to get it right. So we’ll talk about the presence of swearwords in writing, and what’s best for you and your genre, your style, your characters, and so on.

Perhaps I’m not the right person to address this idea. This novel of mine contains 139,000 words, of which no fewer than 71 are ‘fuck’ or its variants.

Which suggests that the first lesson of this short post is a simple one: it’s okay to use the word ‘fuck’ for effect, depending on genre.

And to be clear: mine is a crime novel. Its heroine, Fi, is gritty and direct in her speech. For me and my story, not to use the word ‘fuck’ would be to betray both character and story. The presence of some swearing in the story is as important to the atmosphere and mood as the presence of the Welsh hills themselves. Bad language doesn’t have to be lazy writing: it’s often essential.

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At the same time, if my story were something quite else – a light romance set around a pensioners’ knitting circle – excessive use of foul language would be quite inappropriate. Here, it would be less a question of what word to use instead of ‘fuck’, and more a question of why you want extreme language in the novel anyway.

And if you do want strong language, then you can use anything from the rudest words in the English language to things as mild as ‘crumbs’, or ‘bother it’. It all depends on context.

Having said that, you also do need to bear in mind that swearwords sound fiercer on the page than they do in life. Soldiers may use swearwords freely. (One possibly apocryphal tale from WW2 has a Scots driver analyse his broken car with the fine sentence, ‘the focking focker’s focking focked.’) But to use them on the page as freely as soldiers do in real life – that’s probably excessive. You are imitating the effect of reality, not reproducing it.

For the same reason, repetition grates on the ear, so even if you want a scene full of strong expletives, it’s probably worth tossing in some variety, or at least making sure that any repetition looks chosen, not inadvertent.

But in the end, there is only one rule here. Be true to your characters and to your story. If you do that, the language that you use will be appropriate. And your publishers won’t bat an eyelid. I have never had a publisher question my use of swearwords. And if readers don’t want a book that contains foul language, then they shouldn’t pick up a gritty contemporary crime novel with a heroine who did not go to the right sort of finishing school.

Oh, and one last thing. It’s a cliché among the sort of people who don’t like bad language that the use of expletives arises from a lack of imagination. Well, perhaps, in some contexts. But in others, even an expletive can be a writerly word so long as it’s deft, well-chosen. Here’s a tiny snippet from my third Fiona Griffiths novel. (And it’s naughty, but I like it.)

I have a brief interview with the duty solicitor. She seems like a nice woman – Barbara, mumsy, keen to help. I tell her to fuck off. Then sit without speaking for ten minutes. Then we’re done.

For my money at least, that instance of the word ‘fuck’ is precise, neat and well-chosen. The  description of Barbara – mumsy, nice, keen to help – is struck down and cancelled in a single word. The abrupt ending of our hopes for Barbara mirrors precisely what has happened in the interview room itself.

When to swear

Swearing in itself doesn’t matter. All that matters are your story and your characters. If some obscenity is right for those things, then it’s right to use it.

For example:

  • War fiction (even, quite possibly, historical war fiction) is probably not going to come over as very realistic, unless there’s some bad language. That doesn’t mean your characters should swear as much as real soldiers in actual combat: your job, always, is to create the semblance of reality; your adherence to actual reality is much less important.
  • For the same kind of reason, contemporary grit-lit, all sink estates and drug dealers, will sound wrong if characters don’t swear fairly copiously. A boozy, relaxed contemporary love story won’t probably have copious swearing, but it too is unlikely to want to avoid it completely.

More broadly, swearing is exciting because it’s taboo-breaking: the amygdala in the brain actually responds differently to swearwords than it does to any other type of language. In effect, obscenity gives the writer a very specific colour that nothing else quite does.

Possibly, your canvas doesn’t need that colour – Jugular Crimson, let’s call it – but if it does, or might, there’s no real substitute.

And because swearing is taboo-breaking, it also introduces an edge of force, of toughness that otherwise only violence, or the threat of violence, quite can.

My own crime novels, for example, do feel quite dark. That is: they speak of a world where violence is possible and where its consequences actually matter. (No Colonel White bumped off with a candlestick, and no one quite caring about his death, except that it creates a jolly good mystery.) But although my novels carry that edge of force, of possible violence, they aren’t actually especially violent at all. There’s not a lot of on-screen violence. Very few gun-fights, punch-ups, car chases and the rest. But my violence, when it comes, is, I hope, well-chosen, and a spatter of bad language in the book maintains a sense of edge, of pressure.

When not to swear

If you’re writing for young children, then bad language is just not okay.

When it comes to writing for Young Adults, swearing is allowed, so long as the themes of your novel demand it and you’re writing for the more mature YA audience (that is, one likely to be making its own book selections). US audiences too tend to be more prudish than British ones: many is the time I’ve been reproved by American readers for my use of the ‘f-bomb’. I’ve never yet had a British reader complain.

On more general fiction, you just need to feel your way for yourself. If you’re writing Jane Austen era romance, you might wish to avoid obscenity. On the other hand, the probability is that past ages swore much more than we do, and a writer like Antonia Hodgson deals with the Georgian period in a very different way from Jane Austen.

But it’s your call.

Happy swearing writing.

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