Monday, March 7, 2011

To Swear or Not to Swear

I had a thought the other day while reading a YA book thick with swear words.

Wait. Pause a minute. Please know that I'm not opposed to the well-placed expletive. Honestly. And even books liberally peppered in swear words don't bother me. I can handle it. I realize that a lot of people in the world talk this way, and I know authors are simply trying to be realistic.

But I'm starting to think of swear words the same way I think of adverbs. In books, I think the rule of thumb should be: Use them sparingly.

I think a lot of writers use swear words as a crutch.


Because bad language automatically heightens tension.

Because it can (though not always) cover up poorly-written dialogue.

Because it provides shock value.

So, if you're using a lot of them, try going back through your manuscript and analyzing them as you would adverbs. Do I really need this word here? How can I make this sentence stronger without this word?

Overuse of swear words makes them, in the long run, less effective. So use them only when you need them, when they really fit what your character needs to say. Otherwise, chop them.

And another thought: I know the main reason for using swear words in books is realism. But don't forget, books are not reality. We prune dialogue, saving only the most crucial elements of conversation, at the expense of realism. So, we shouldn't distract readers from the plot with too many swear words.

But, that's just my humble opinion. What are your thoughts? Please feel free to disagree!


  1. I totally and completely agree. When used sparingly, they get the point across. Otherwise, they stand out more, and become annoying.

  2. I agree. They're like adverbs or fragments or any other thing that loses meaning when used in excess.

  3. Well said, Amy. I confess I can't get through a book with too much swearing. I also cannot watch horror movies or eat shellfish ... they all make me sick.

  4. Agree with you. Loved your comparison to adverbs...made sense to me.
    I just read a war series and was a bit hesitant because the previous war book I read I couldn't finish. Surprisingly, this series (I read all three!) didn't use one bad word and I didn't miss it.

  5. 100% agree. Sparingly. It almost takes the meaning (and impact) out of them entirely when you see them overused.

    ~ Wendy

  6. Very good point. I'm a terrible potty mouth in my real life and my biggest problem is having characters swear when that isn't their personality. I like the idea of thinking of them like adverbs. Poifect!

  7. At a writing class I went to last year- sorry I can't remember more about who it was- the writer told us that you should use the f word as carefully as an exclamation point.

    In real life, people may use it every third word, but on the page, it stands out much more, and readers, even ones that have no problem swearing, get fatigued reading it over and over.

  8. Esther VanderlaanMarch 8, 2011 at 6:07 AM

    I completely see what you mean. Still, I am not a fan of swear words.

  9. I'm with you on this one. I've actually found in my own writing that most of the time, I don't need them at all. I don't like reading books with too much swearing myself. I find it mostly unnecessary.

  10. Couldn't have said it better myself, Amy. I still have never used a swear word in a manuscript I've written, but I can see why other writers use them. Like you said, though, they kind of become meaningless after repeated use.

  11. In fact, I love this post so much, I'm tweeting it:)

  12. I have a really hard time with swear words. I'd love to leave them out entirely, but since I write YA I'm afraid it will sound unrealistic or make my characters sound goody-goody. Sometimes it's really hard to find a realistic replacement. And yes, too many is definitely not a good thing.

  13. I agree too. It would appear to be unanimous so far. Over use of swear words is a lazy way of writing. Just as a local accent can be hinted at with a few well chosen phrases, so it should be with swearing.

  14. Wow, I'm so surprised EVERYONE who commented agreed with me. :)

    Thanks for the comments!