Writing Wednesday: Swears

When I was about 13/14, I was obsessed with Rob Lowe. I got each of his films in turn from the video shop and watched them until they were almost worn out (when the screen started to flicker and the edges of the tape went frilly, it was time to give another film a turn).

Class (which also starred Andrew McCarthy) was one of my favourites (probably second to St Elmo’s Fire). I don’t know if you’ve seen Class and I don’t want to spoiler it, but Rob and Andrew have a fight. It goes on for a while, in different locations, and Rob’s character is mad as hell. At one point, Lowe says, “I’m going to kick your ass”*. A while later, Class was shown on TV and the line was changed to “I’m going to kick your head in” and it struck me as completely unconvincing (granted, part of the problem was that the actor who overdubbed the line had an English accent, but still).

I’m wittering on about Rob Lowe not because I’m finding myself a little bit obsessed again, thanks to this Vanity Fair cover, but because of a discussion about swearing in YA that I inadvertently started while requesting help with my line edits on Twitter. Lovely Jo has blogged about it at Once Upon a Bookcase (I love Tom Clempson’s comment) and equally lovely Raimy is pro-swearing at Readaraptor. I was just planning on letting the two of them duke it out, but then I thought I should probably write about it too…

You see, there was a fair amount of swearing in DELLA SAYS: OMG! When I write, I seem to write quite a lot of swears. It’s not something I’d given much thought to previously – I try to write how people speak and if I think someone would say “Shit” if they, say, knew someone was reading their diary, then “shit” is the word I’d use. My line edits for DELLA included a list of the swearwords, asking me to make sure each was essential. Once I’d stopped blushing, I said I felt they were – either for realism or because there was no viable alternative – and my editor was fine with it, so they stayed in. (For info, DELLA has some sexual content that makes it more suited to older readers, swearwords notwithstanding.)

It was a bit different with JESSIE ♥ NYC. There’s nothing in JESSIE that would make it unsuitable for younger readers (although obviously it is aimed at teens) and so my editor felt we had to be a bit stricter with the swearing so, once again, I went through the book changing or justifying my swears. There were a couple I just didn’t want to change (because I liked them) and some more that I felt I couldn’t change, again because a different word would be inauthentic.

I’ll give you an example. In the book, an 18-year-old American male (I’m trying to avoid spoilers!) has had a huge row with his girlfriend. He tells his friend, “I was so pissed at her, man.” Now there’s no alternative to this. There’s nothing an 18-year-old male would say in this context other than “pissed”. He wouldn’t say “cross”. He wouldn’t say “angry”. He would say “pissed”. And so, in my opinion, it has to stay. But if, say, a British character had said, “I was so pissed last night” I would have happily changed that to “drunk”. I think they’d be more likely to say “pissed”, yes, but it wouldn’t pull me out of the story if they said “drunk” so “drunk” would be fine.

What do you think? How do you feel about swearing in novels? For adults or for teens. Do you use “bad language” in your own writing?

* Up until about a minute ago when I tried to google it, I thought the line was “I’m going to f**k your ass”** and it literally just occurred to me I may have misheard and it was actually “kick”, but I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, I’m hoping the point still stands.

** Given the theme of this post, I haven’t asterisked that for propriety, but to prevent dodgy searches!

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14 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Swears

  1. I’m with you on this one. There are lots of swear words in my first book, maybe a few less in my second. If it’s right for the characters then it’s right for the characters! That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

    Sometimes if I’m reading a book with characters who don’t swear (or who use hugely unrealistic swear replacements), it pulls me out of the story. But then again, some people probably feel the same way about reading swear words in books… so what the @%&* do I know?!

    1. Cat, I’m glad you said ‘what the @%&* do I know?!’ I’ve found it very hard to write about this without lots of gratuitous swearing. I wanted to call it “Writing Wednesday: F**king Swearing” 😉

  2. This is the main reason my first book didn’t end up as YA, because the characters needed to swear, and until very recently I thought this would stop me from ever writing YA.

    However, the latest idea just feels like it needs to be a YA novel. I still don’t know if I’ll be able to write it that way, or if it will morph into adult… Only time will tell.

  3. Well, I am of the great unpublished so I know nothing, but…

    Most of the swearing in my attempts at YA writing are pretty tame – shit, bloody – that kind of thing. But there is one point when everything goes to hell in a handcart and one character uses the F word.

    Because she would, if that were happening to her. She really, really would.

    One of the nice things about my situation (as desperately as I would love to be published) is that I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself and whatever editorial instinct I can muster. So it stays, for now. But I wouldn’t fight removing any of it.

    As soon as I’m in a position of greater authority, i’ll get back to you…!

  4. Having read Della, I think it was fair enough to include swearing and I agree that there are times when another word won’t do. On the other hand, I buy educational rights in my day job, and there have been times I have had to abandon a perfectly wonderful novel because the swearing means it can’t be used in the classroom. Sometimes we can get away with one or two if they’re really defendable, but any amount of swearing usually draws complaints from teachers and parents. This probably isn’t an issue for most authors who may not want their novels to end up as class readers, but in some cases, it’s a shame and it can have an impact on sales and rights buy ins, so I think authors needs to be aware of it.
    Oh, and PS: that Rob Lowe cover? I die.

    1. Thanks, Gaby. Yes, I definitely think it can limit the market for a book somewhat – not just for schools, but also libraries and book clubs – so authors obviously have to take that into consideration.

      And your comment on the Rob Lowe cover made me laugh out loud.

  5. Ah, what the heck, you know my views on swearing! But honestly, if I’m reading a book and a character swears I can overlook it but if I feel it’s just gratuitous, then I have to give it a miss. I was brought up – home and school – to believe (a tad old fashioned, mebbe!) that those who feel the need to swear have a very limited vocabulary – erm, and are to be pitied. I can’t stand it in films, either, it just ruins any enjoyment for me. Having said that, I do say bloody and also, bugger – which both look quite vulgar now I’ve typed them. I’ve noticed that people nowadays seem to use the ‘f’ word as an adjective all the time – how did that happen? Only today a woman in John Lewis (John Lewis!!) was shouting it at about a thousand decibels as she disappeared up the escalator. Cue red faces of JL staff all round, though no-one said anything to her. Before that, a group of teens (well, three then) in Costa Coffee were shouting it all over the place and their voices seemed to amplify as they said that particular word. I just don’t like it. But what I really want to know is – at what point do people think it’s okay for children to start swearing? And if they’re going to be swearing as teenagers and adults, why can’t they swear as children? Is it like smoking or drinking? Is there an age when it all begins? I’ve often wondered about that. When is it okay for our kids to swear? Especially if we do. And is it hypocritical to tell them off if we do it? I’ve never believed in that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ business. (But then again, they’re only words!) When I write my novel, there won’t be any swearing (at ALL), just so you know!

    1. That’s a really good point about when it’s okay. I tweeted someone earlier about how I can’t bear it in anyone of primary age, but I think once they get to senior school they’re all going to be at it.

      I wouldn’t swear in front of Harry and I wouldn’t tolerate him swearing in front of me. Occasionally I slip up (I said “bloody hell” when I broke a dish the other day), but that still doesn’t make it okay for him to say it. I don’t necessarily believe in ‘do as I say, not as I do’ either, but there just are some things you can do as an adult that it’s just not acceptable to do as a child!

      As for “I was brought up … to believe (a tad old fashioned, mebbe!) that those who feel the need to swear have a very limited vocabulary – erm, and are to be pitied” I just think that’s utter nonsense. Shakespeare used – and coined – profanity. As did Chaucer. Expletives are as valid as any other words. (And I think – though I’m not 100% certain – that the f word is the most versatile word in the English language.)

  6. Really interesting discussion. As you know I don’t swear, but I know that I’m very much in the minority for that. I definitely think that it can add authenticity, and don’t have any issues with reading it. I remember being a little surprised when I read Skellig that there was swearing in it, but it definitely worked with the story and characters.

    It’s something I’ve thought about lots as I think about my own writing plans. I’m sure I’m going to reach points at which my characters will swear and I think I’m going to have to just bite the bullet and let them.

  7. I’m not sure how I feel about this… Sometimes some of the most authentic and funny lines in books contain a surprise swear word. (I tend to call it cursing…I think I prefer swear!) There’s something I was reading semi-recently…gah I can’t remember.

    I don’t like when it’s over used. I haven’t really seen it in books but I was at a play written by a student recently and it was funny to a point but there was definitley too much swearing. Also I did a module in Creative Writing last semester and one week the tutor said “Sometimes there’s no other word that will do” meaning “F**k” and then the NEXT week we had to look at a piece written by someone in the group (we had pen names! How fun) that said the f word like 10 times in 3 pages and there was no need for it, and this one guy refused to read it out and it all got very awkward.

    I don’t really like swearing, I wish I didn’t. I never used to. I think it’s my boyfriend’s influence. He swears ALOT.

    1. Thanks, Fiona. I always think of a Billy Connolly joke about how his mum always used to tell him to make sure he was wearing clean pants in case he got run over. He says he imagined the ambulance man coming to the house and telling his mum he’d been killed in an accident and adding, “And his pants were a fucking disgrace.” Now that is much funnier with the swear, it just is. 🙂

      But I agree with you that it shouldn’t be overused, but that’s the same for everything, i.e. it’s just good writing, surely, and not specific to swearing?

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