To Swear, or Not to Swear, that is the question by Neil McGowan


This post is brought to you courtesy of profanity. Or perhaps the lack of it, and some thoughts on when, or indeed, if it is appropriate when writing.

This train of thought was started the other day by my elder daughter. She's fourteen, and my alpha reader for my YA books. (And boy, does she tell me if she thinks something doesn't work, but that's a story for another time.)

She's been an avid reader for as long as she's been able to read, and has recently caught the 'fan-fiction' craze. We were talking about this – genuine interest on her part as I don't really understand the allure of it myself – and she told me she'd started writing some, based on her favourite Marvel characters.

We had a good chat about it, as she seems to be serious about writing (even asking what the difference was between a rewrite and an edit) until her younger sister, who's her test reader, let slip that she'd used swearing in her writing. Her response was she'd heard much worse in school (I can well believe it) and it didn't count if you didn't say it (not so sure on that one).

It started me thinking, though. As she pointed out, I've had characters swear in my books; this includes the YA ones, although it's rare for me to swear in real life. It's not that it offends me, and I'm not even convinced by the argument that it's a substitute for poor vocabulary. For me, the nature of my day job (teaching clinicians how to use digital systems in the NHS) means I have to be precise in the language I use.

(Side note here – I also tend to be given lots of technical documentation to write 'because you're a writer' as if that means it'll be easier – it isn't; I find it hard as the text has to be precise and free of ambiguity, nothing at all like writing fiction.)

So, why do I have characters swear? For me, I think it comes down to context and situation. The type of stories I write (mostly crime & thriller, with some horror and science fiction) seem to produce characters who are not averse to using the odd swear word; it seems to sit more naturally than in, say, a light romance, as the characters are more likely to be in situations that would engender the use of such language. I can imagine someone like Dickens's Fagin is much more likely to drop an F-bomb than, say, Jane Austen's Emma.

Situation plays a part, too, I feel. For example, in my last horror novel (Nanobite, about genetically engineered vampires and great fun to write), I had a scene where one of the characters who's been in an accident is being tortured by a vampire. I couldn't imagine anyone in that situation saying 'ouch, that stings,' but I reckon the air would've been blue with swearwords I've probably not heard yet.

This brings me to my point, I suppose – done well, it seems part of the character and you barely notice the swearing; done badly, which in most cases seems to be for the sake of it, and it removes that suspension of disbelief that we all strive for as writers.

As an addendum to this, whilst writing this post I was reminded of the Cleanreader app that caused a bit of a stir a few years ago (the details are all available online if you're interested). Basically, this app took the contents of a manuscript (ebook, for obvious reasons) and replaced all the profanity with 'cleaner, more acceptable' versions. The uproar from the writing community was swift and severe – the app was withdrawn within a week – with people such as Joanne Harris weighing in and pointing out that as writers, we weigh our choice of words very carefully in an effort to create the desired effect. Someone also pointed out that some of the changes made the text unintelligible – I'm still not sure what a cigarette rear is, but I'm guessing it's a butt. I remember thinking at the time what fun it would be to run a travel guide through it – for example, I live near a town called Cockenzie – wonder what they'd make of that? And I don't even want to think about Penistone or Scunthorpe…


Susan Price said…
I completely agree, Neil. (And that app! Computerised Bowdlerism.)

Linguists say that profanity has no relation to the size and richness of the vocabulary. It's an emphasis. Indeed, the most sweary man I ever knew was a poet and a son of the manse. Draw your own conclusions.

As for using it in writing -- well, obviously, it's inappropriate in a picture book for 3 year olds. (Though I can well imagine Daddy Bear, on returning from the walk in the woods, saying, 'WTF?'

But to portray characters in a comprehensive school and have none of them swear, ever? -- Non-swearing squaddies in a WWI trench? Construction workers. Detectives in a squad room?

In books for adults and young adults, writing realistic dialogue that fits a character will involve swearing.
Neil McGowan said…
Hi Susan, yes, exactly my point - realistic characters may well swear and cuss. I wrote a novella a few years back featuring a bunch of university students hiking and camping around Loch Ness - I had a couple of beta readers say there wasn't enough profanity in it for real students!

I love the idea of Daddy Bear coming home with a WTF though - that appeals to my sense of humour, might have to see if I can do anything with that :)
Griselda Heppel said…
Ah the perennial question! At least it is in children's books. In books for adults it doesn't matter one way or the other, surely, and in YA it's bound to figure (though by my guess you still have to be a bit restrained, especially with the US market in mind?).

But I write for MG ie 9 - 12 years and have had to accept that even though children this age will use all kinds of expletives, this is an area of realism you can't reproduce in a book aimed at them. A swear word written down is about 20 times more prominent than one said. Have an 11 year-old use one and it will burn a hole through the page.

I sometimes wish I was writing 80 years ago (not really), when you could have children exclaiming 'oh my goodness', 'great Scott' 'you filthy swine' 'jeepers creepers' and other such gems, without looking silly. Even 'crikey' would be good. But your poor hero, falling down a well, attacked by mad crows, set upon by bullies, I don't know, they have to be able to say something, don't they?

In the end I discovered that actually, they don't. 'What's going on?' can be just as strong or even stronger than 'What the F is going on?'. It's all about the buildup.

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