Cursing Up a Storm

E. Tip of the Day: Vulgar Language—Is it needed or not?

It goes back to growing up as a child, being told you’re acting disrespectful to Gramma by swearing in front of her. Then, being threatened by Gramma that she’ll wash your mouth out with soap if you continue to use those strong–and very wrong–words. Gramma obviously doesn’t like swearing.

But in today’s society where most curse words are accepted as part of the regular vocabulary on TV and radio, it seems okay to use those words as part of the dialogue in a novel. But is it really okay for characters to swear on screen in dialogue? Ask these questions of yourself to help determine the answer for your particular writing style.

1) Do you feel uncomfortable as a writer having your character swear on screen? Does it go against your own personal beliefs? (If the answer to this question is “yes,” don’t do it. It’s that simple. You should feel comfortable with your own writing.)

2) Is cursing something your character–if they were alive and well in real life–would really do? (If the answer to this question is “no,” and you’d still like it in your dialogue, then you need to figure out why it’s really important to you. Also, make sure it is properly set up why your character does let loose and swear so it doesn’t push the suspension of disbelief for that particular character if they normally don’t swear.)

3) Does it fit within the general guidelines of the sub-genre you’re writing in to use curse words in your novel? (If “no,” then why are doing it? For controversial reasons?)

4) Are you using curse words to add tension to the scene sprinkled in here and there? (This is one of the purposes of using curse words in dialogue. If “no,” then why are you doing it?)

5) Do you think your readers will be offended by reading curse words in your story? (If “yes” then don’t take the risk of alienating your readers. After all, having a large readership is what you’re working for.)

It’s important to review whether or not it’s really important for your characters to swear in your story. Excessive overuse of any curse word is unnecessary and poorly translates to the page. If you have further questions about your novel and the use of curse words within it, contact us for a consultation. Our editors would be happy to help you!

Happy Writing! 🙂

4 thoughts to “Cursing Up a Storm”

  1. Great advice. For me, it always goes back to the character. Does this character curse or not? I have one who never curses. It’s not her style. Another one, only when he’s extremely frustrated or angry. I can’t say I have any that make it part of his/her vocabularly, though.

    I guess it depends, as you mentioned, on the genre, and the author’s skill. When I was a teen, my Mom used to purchase me and my sisters books by John Benton. Oh, we could read. When we were home, our noses were in books, not the TV. Whoops, anyway, John wrote true stories of girls he counselled who’d fallen into prostitution, drugs, crime, etc., and how they turned their lives around. Y’know something? He never used one curse word in any novel. Now that is skill.

    1. Exactly! It’s much harder to show the emotions without curse words, than with them in the story. I agree with you. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us! 🙂

  2. Author Linda Howard said she sat at the keyboard and filled the page with F*bombs to get used to seeing it on the page and to get used to typing it, because if it was natural for her characters to use the word, she wasn’t going to let her own inhibitions get in the way.

    I worked with two different editors on two different projects, and both flagged a couple of what I considered mild curse words because they didn’t like them. We had some discussions about it, and in the end, they agreed that their job as editor was to make the work stronger, but not to let their own prejudices make a character’s vocabulary sound off. (Trust me, cops don’t use the word “jerk” when referring to murderers)

    1. Exactly! It’s important to know which characters would use curse words realistically and which ones wouldn’t. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

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