How To Offend Your Mom: Using Swearing In Writing

You fucking grapefruit twiddler.

Much to my mother’s consternation, I swear. A lot.

It’s not her fault. She tried—still does, as a matter of fact—to get me to stop cursing, but it just didn’t take. Personally, I think it functions like a release valve on my brain, letting off some of the emotional pressure. And considering what some people say that’s not technically swearing but far more hurtful—“that’s so gay” is a phrase I particularly fucking hate—I think the world can deal with my occasional scatological reference. To me, the fucks, goddamns, and bloody hells are like chili peppers: not to everyone’s taste, but I like the bite they provide.*

In writing, though, I take it a little differently. Not writing here, obviously; this blog is as close an approximation to how I think and speak as I can get pixels racing across your screen to provide. But when writing fiction, my use of what my father refers to as Industrial Strength Language** is more…thoughtful. I was going to write ‘restrained’ there, but that’s not true; there are stories where I swear enough to make the page burn. It’s just not the reflex action it is when I speak.

I once read the following quotation attributed to Mark Twain***: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” However, all this did was make me say ‘damn’ an awful lot. And I’d argue that sometimes you need that intensifier to get the message across. Just use it intelligently.

Using swear words in fiction is just like using any other fucking words: they must serve a purpose. Whether that purpose is defining character, intensifying speech, or otherwise adding the delightful spice of profanity to the bland oatmeal of a scene, it needs to work. You wouldn’t use the words ‘grapefruit’ and ‘twiddle’ repeatedly for no reason, would you?**** ‘Shit’ and ‘fuck’ are no different.

You should also consider your audience, especially if you’re writing for submission to an anthology, magazine, or other market that has clear limits on what can and cannot be included. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot for the sake of ‘authentic voice’ or whatever bullshit word people are using these days to avoid editing. If the cursing serves a definite purpose, then keep it; otherwise, cut it like you would any other word that wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time.

And if you keep all the swearing, maybe don’t let your mom read it.

*I always imagined this as coming in a 55-gallon metal drum covered with warning labels.
**Unless I’m angry, oddly enough. I’ve noticed that the angrier I am, the less I swear. So, if I ever speak to you like a nineteenth century school marm, run.
***Some checking on the internet, however, did not reveal the source text. If anyone knows where it came from, or if it’s entirely misattributed, let me know. The picky, paranoid academic in me finds the lack of evidence…disturbing. ****Though “you twiddling grapefruit” does have a certain ring to it as a curse.