Writers and readers assume that words have meaning and value. The prevalence and nonchalant attitude surrounding profanity in western culture might have us believe that using hardy vocabulary is appropriate willy-nilly – after all, that’s how we live. But perhaps that is the best reason to pay the most attention to when and where and why we drop these words: the more they are used casually, the less impact they bring to the page. We are depriving these infamous words of their full assault value when we use them like grandparents giving chocolate candy to toddlers (and the results in both cases are disastrous).
Everything I need to know about swearing I learned in high school. This boils down to two principles. One, for the best effect, swear sparingly. Two, swear when the situation requires it for authenticity.
When I played volleyball in high school, I played with a team that was expected to win the state championship. We played hard, and we won. Our coach was even-keeled, level-headed, and never swore. I don’t know if that last part was on principle or the thought just didn’t cross her mind. I was the youngest on the team so I didn’t get much playing time, but I will never forget the day my six teammates slouched off the court for a time-out during a regional match. They knew they deserved an earful. We were playing a second-tier team, and we were losing. If we lost, we were out of the tournament – nowhere close to state finishers. Our coach knew this was ridiculous. “Damn it,” she started.
I remember the shock on everyone’s faces. I remember the team marching back to their places on the court and winning. Why? Because she let the d-word fly when she never had before. Because we knew then that our play had breached a level of catastrophic nonsense that required a sharp kick in our collective mental focus to restart us. She could have railed on and on about inspiration and perspiration and superheroes and butterfly wings, but none of that would have had any impact on us. Boy howdy did that “Damn it” get a response.
In non-fiction, regular swearing makes the author sound angry or cynical. This came to mind while I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. The content in the books was solid, but both authors peppered their writing with a noticeable amount of cursing. I get it: when you drop profanity in here and there it makes the writing sound chummy. Experts can dole out advice about how to make mediocre writing less mediocre (or whatever advice they’re toting) without the reader feeling as though the author is breaking their fingers and smashing their keyboard. But also, I’m reading this because you’re a professional, not because you’re my college roommate. I don’t want to know about your ability to swear, I want to know about your writing. You’re not supposed to be my bud. (I accept that their response to this opinion can be “Yes, but I’m laughing all the way to the fucking bank.” Fair enough, doesn’t change my mind.)
In blog posts, the occasional pops and snorts of colorful banter are reasonable, but again, if it’s the only tool the writer has other than an emoji, I’m going to pass. Why? Because, when used in excess, expletives are empty words. Even when we use them in conversations, they’re similar to the presentation-busters of “oh,” and “um” and “uh.” In other words, they suggest inexperience, lack of polish, and carelessness. When someone uses a lot of swear words, I assume they don’t have much to say.
In fiction, constant swearing is lazy. A writer should be able to describe a character’s mood without resorting to every creative combination of four letters known to humanity. Just as a writer will (should) rigorously review and edit for tone and length and clarity, so too will a writer edit word choice. Each word must count for something. Move the plot forward. Reflect a character’s emotion. Describe context. When each word must defend its existence on the page, a well-timed, well-placed swear word will justify its presence.
My English teacher senior year of high school explained it this way in a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “If your leg gets blasted off in war, you’re not going to say ‘Oh, fudge.’ You’re going to scream “Fuuuuuucccckkkkk!'”
This isn’t about being offended. It’s about being distracted. A swear word (or lack thereof) should not detract from the action. Quite the opposite. It can and should be used to draw sharp attention and focus to a situation – either for authenticity or for shock. It can only be effective in writing if paired with the content and characters of it’s surroundings. If you’re writing in a war zone then using lollipops and ladybugs as verbal exclamations will make me close the book.
There is a scene in my Work-In-Progress that needs a swear word. I have placed one there specifically so that it will bring the full heft of its power to shock and alert. But making that word valuable is going to take a lot more hard writing on my part. Are the characters believable? Does the character’s background reasonably develop so that using the word will provoke a response from the reader? Does the timing work with the situation and the progression of the novel? So many more words need to go into the story for that combination of four letters to be effective.
If I can do all that, then dropping in this word will serve its purpose. That’s a huge “if.” But it must be done in order to work. After all, I’ll be the manuscript’s first reader, and now we both know how I feel about extravagant swearing in what I’m reading.
What expectations for swearing do you have when you’re reading? How do you determine when and where to include profanity in your writing?