I answer many questions on Twitter and Facebook on all aspects of writing. The most common question lately is “Should I use profanity in my writing?” The answer is simple:
The question itself, however, is telling.
Why Do People Swear?
I doubt I’ll cover new territory here. People swear because profanity is emotionally charged. It can express anger, frustration, fear, sadness, pain, despair, joy, violence, ignorance, racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, you name it, and sometimes all of those with a single word. Nothing gets people’s attention quite like an appropriately timed swear word. And few things are as entertaining as a person who has raised the use of profanity to an art form.
Yes, I know you might disagree with those statements. And I don’t give a $#%^. See what I mean? I could have kept it G-rated and said something like “I know you might disagree, but I respectfully submit that I have my own opinion on the topic.” A perfectly valid response.
But it wouldn’t have reached down and grabbed you by the … now would it? Of course not. When you read the profanity, even though it was “bleeped” out, your mind supplied the details. And in that moment of time you had a visceral reaction, either positive or negative depending on your personality. But you had a reaction.
Like I said, nothing ground breaking. Just a prelude to the answer you really came here for today.
Should I Use Profanity In My Writing?
I mentioned earlier that this question was “telling”. What I meant was the question reveals more about the writer than the writing. What does it reveal?
It tells me that you’re worried about how others will perceive you personally when they read your work.
Am I close? You don’t have to answer if you’re not comfortable. Just read on a bit.
Writing is the process of taking a piece of ourselves and putting it out there for the world to see. It doesn’t matter whether we’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction, every character, setting, plot, and subplot reveals something about who we are.
Let me give you a glimpse into your future as a writer:
There will never come a day in your career when you’re not afraid of what you’re writing.
Re-read that if you have to. I’ll wait. Back? Ok.
Every word we write invites judgement, criticism, commentary, perhaps even introspection. We may write something that surprises us…and leads us to question where it came from.
Here’s a secret about writers: we’re a real self-conscious bunch of people, and we’re scared to death of rejection. But if you filter every word you type through the perceptions of your mother, father, siblings, spouses, partners, neighbors, church friends, and pets, your career will be over before it begins. You may come up with a great plot, or interesting character concepts, but something…that special something…will always be missing.
That special something is “Voice”.
I could write an entire article, if not series of articles, on voice alone (ooh, there’s an idea!). And people with more impressive bona fides have written entire books on the subject. So let me cut to the chase. Voice is the essence of your characters (or narrator, if you’re in a pure 3rd person omniscient). Voice is who they are. Voice is who you are as the writer. And if you’re not true to that voice, the reader will smell you coming a mile away. You’ll smell like a fake covered in fake sauce and baked in an easy-fake oven.
“But Nat,” you say. “My question was should I use profanity in my writing, and you haven’t answered it!”
To which I reply, “Because you’re asking the wrong person, dingus! You need to ask your character!”
You heard me! The person with the answer to that question is your character.
If you have some time, take a look at How Do You Find Your Character’s Voice. It’s an article I wrote a few months back about a technique I’m fond of using. It hasn’t failed me yet. Nor has it failed prolific writers such as James Scott Bell or Orson Scott Card (irony alert: See below as to why vigorously avoiding profanity works for Card but may not work for you). If your character is a foul-mouthed, drinking, whoring sailor and he never utters any profanity…well…that’s the first foul-mouthed, drinking, whoring sailor I’ve ever known to do so. …In general. Yes, being prim and proper might be that character’s shtick, but you get what I mean.
If your hackles are rising, fear not. I understand and I’ve got you covered. Take a moment to read on to the next section.
Yes, as a writer you need to be true to yourself. Yes, as a writer you need to be true to your characters and voice. But don’t forget the other people you need to be true to:
- Your Audience/Genre – If you forget who your audience is, for a single sentence or word, you will have lost them. If your audience demands a lack of profanity, then you had better not allow profanity to slip into your work. Not unless you’re OK with alienating the very people you’re trying to reach.
- Your Editor – Your editor wants you to succeed. Your editor wants you…needs you…to sell books. You ignore your editor’s advice at your own peril.
- Yourself – I know I’ve said this before, but I repeat it here for a different reason. Remember my mention of Orson Scott Card above? If profanity is something that you are personally uncomfortable with then you will sound fake if you try to use it, regardless of the character in question. In fact, if a lack of profanity is one of your defining personal characteristics, then your characters will sound fake if you use it. Because, after all, your characters are nothing more than an extension of yourself. And an audience can smell a fake a mile away. Be true to yourself, whether that means using profanity or avoiding it.
I’m not here to tell you the world is going to smell like roses after you write something that raises people’s eyebrows. Especially if those eyebrows belong to people who are closely related to you, or who travel in social groups that are important to you. But you didn’t become a writer to fit in, did you? I hope not.
Your writing has a chance to entertain, move, and bring people together. It has a chance to shine a light on topics you care about in ways other writers have not. But yes, it also has a chance to alienate you. There’s a chance your writing will be considered so offensive that society wants nothing to do with you. It’s doubtful it’ll get that bad for you, but writing is taking a risk. Every time you put pen to paper you’re stripping down and getting naked in front of the world. There’s never going to be a time where you don’t question, at least once, “should I have written that?”
You’re a writer. Welcome aboard the crazy train. I’d ask where you’re going, but we all know this train doesn’t stop. Come meet me in the lounge car with the rest of the crazies and we’ll commiserate.
In a future article, in my World Building series
, I’ll discuss how to craft profanity for your fantasy or science fiction worlds. (Yes, there’s a technique for this too! I developed a system of profanity in Necromancer Awakening
, my bestselling dark fantasy.)
So what’s your take on all this BS? Leave me a comment and let’s get the discussion started!
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.