Why the Fµ¢% Not? Thoughts on Profanity for Writers
Writers, by trade, deal in words. Word count, word choice, cents per word – we live by them. So there’s something particularly fascinating to me about the concept that certain words are taboo, off-limits, or “bad.” I’m talking about profanity. (Or curse words or cuss words or swear words or bad words or dirty words or obscenities… so many words for the words on the naughty list.) How much thought do we – and should we – put into our use or avoidance of these words?
My inclination is to answer: at least as much, if not more, than we put into all words – which is hopefully quite a lot. Whether in small, barely noticeable ways or in great, public outcries, our use of profanity can and probably does affect our readership, our careers, and our writing itself. That seems worth a second look, yes?
What’s more, we’re actually all making these decisions all the time, whether or not we’ve given thought to them directly. Whether we’re writing a short story or novel, a blog post for various venues, networking at a conference, tweeting, or giving a presentation, we always have to decide on a level of profanity – even if that decision is subconscious – so it seems like a good idea to make sure we’re being smart about it.
Today I’m opening the subject, pointing out a few different aspects to consider and differing views, in the hopes that, if nothing else, we can get a dialogue going and all be slightly more aware than we were before about the choices we’re making. (And, if you haven’t figured it out yet, this post will necessarily use some profanity for practicality and maybe a few for lols, so if you’re staunchly on the side of I don’t even want to read it, I do suggest you skip this one.) And because it doesn’t feel right for me to discuss a potentially controversial or dual-sided issue without disclaiming my own standing, I’ll share: I love profanity. Love, love, love. And with distinct exceptions for tone and professionalism, am usually on the side of “fuck yeah, curse words.” ;) Let’s dig in.
The General For and Against
Broadly speaking, most people who are anti-profanity seem to be coming from cultural viewpoints. Perhaps their religion prohibits it, or maybe they were raised to see it as discourteous. Others believe it comes across as ignorant, hateful, tacky, or rude. Still others argue that since there are so many people who are offended by it, it’s simple civility to avoid it as well.
Pro-profanity takes many forms, varying from intentionally shocking and aggressive to simply not believing that one should censor oneself for others. Some see it as an inherent freedom and are offended by the suggestion that they should temper it for any reason. Others don’t think other people’s offense should be their problem. Still others inherently disagree with the existence of offense at all; words are just words, and it’s goofy to be offended by them.
And of course, there are shades and combinations of all kinds. With profanity, level, intensity, tone, and context all matter. Even someone who plays with curse words like toys might be offended to hear someone drop an f-bomb in front of a toddler, and even someone who’s staunchly against using profanity themselves might not be bothered by other people using it. We could go on citing arguments and variations and examples all day, but let’s move on to the crux of this post: what should we, as writers, keep in mind when deciding if, how, and when to curse?
Professionalism vs. Creativity (or, Writing vs. The World)
For me, when it comes to profanity, the single most important distinction for writers is our actual writing versus everything else we do. Another way to frame it: books and writing versus authorial presence/brand. Not everyone will see it this way, of course, particularly people who write nonfiction or whose main/only form of writing is blogging, journalism, etc. But for those who write primarily creative works and then spend the rest of their time promoting that work, networking, and looking for their readership, the difference is important.
I will never, ever censor my creative work. That’s just me. I think of writing as art, something pretty near sacred, and I don’t believe in censoring that. When my goal is to use words to tell stories and explore thoughts and provoke emotions, I refuse to limit the words I can access to achieve that. Sometimes that means profanity would weaken what I’m aiming for, but sometimes that means it strengthens it. Personally, I don’t see that as anyone’s business but my own (and maybe my agent’s/editors’, in some cases). Naturally, that stance precludes that some readers won’t read me. I like to think I use it thoughtfully and effectively (as is my intent with all words), but if someone is highly offended by all profanity, they’re not going to be my biggest fan. I’ve weighed that reality and accepted the consequences, as all authors must.
That said, I do censor my non-creative writing-related work. I won’t try to sugarcoat it; it’s just smart business to be aware of putting people off. Just like I weigh the risks and benefits of discussing politics, religion, and the Oxford comma online, I weigh my amount, degree, and timing of profanity. I’ll get into the issue of context a bit more later, but perhaps the most important element of context is the distinction between creative profanity (the words in a book/story/poem) vs. personal profanity (the rest of the words an author speaks). To put it into perspective: many people who are totally fine with an author portraying characters who curse to varying degrees still might not want to follow an author who curses constantly online.
Audience and Readership
Aside from one’s existing personal inclinations to avoid or revel in profanity, the most obvious consideration for writers should be our target readers. While a picture book author might curse casually in her regular life, she probably doesn’t want to do so online as an author. (And with the exception of Adam Mansbach, definitely can’t get away with cursing in her creative work.) Even if her actual child readers aren’t the ones following her on Twitter, their parents might be, and seeing the author of Bunny’s Best Friend slinging around sailor talk could well give them reasonable hesitations as to picking up the next book. Likewise, Christian/religious/inspirational authors probably need to be more careful about the words they use, both in their work and in peoples' presence.
On the other hand, readers of gritty, hard-hitting action thrillers probably won’t bat an eye at the occasional f-bomb in their Twitter timeline, and might not even register some of the weaker ‘curse words’ like Hell, crap, and asshole as profanity at all. Likewise, authors with largely adult-only readerships like horror and erotica are fairly hard to shock, and so those readers aren’t likely to care if the author uses profanity in their authorial presence, much less in their actual work. In fact, depending on the genre, style, etc., they may even find it strange if an author’s online presence is squeaky-clean.
Authors of other genres ranging from sweet romance to memoirs to literary fiction will have to do market research (i.e., read) to determine how much profanity is expected/acceptable for their specific readers. Style, subgenre, and age level are all factors. Young adult, for example, allows for different degrees of profanity depending on age, tone, and (old fogy alert) the changing times. Kids these days, and all that.
The conflation here of creative work and authorial presence should make it pretty clear that, while I do see them as distinct, it’s undeniable that one does affect the other. One’s “brand,” after all, is ideally designed to attract the right readers for one’s books.
Last but not least, we do have to take into consideration how context affects what’s appropriate. Just like in your personal life you might choose different words based on whether you’re in a crowded family restaurant or you’re alone with your closest friend, writers, too, should ask themselves, “Whose house am I in?” For example, I use whatever language I find most fitting and effective when I’m writing a post for my own blog. That’s my house. But when I’m writing a post for LitReactor or Writer Unboxed or someone else, I adjust my level according to their standard (whether unspoken or hard and fast). The way I see it: their house, their rules. If I'm not cool with someone's house rules, I can leave.
Likewise, profanity often comes across as less professional, and even creative fields like ours require moments of higher professionalism. So while I might pepper it into social media (which I see as largely casual) as desired, I’m very unlikely to use it while presenting at a conference or talking on the phone with an editor, etc. For me, while profanity can be fun, powerful, or useful, it’s not at all necessary in my business interactions, so it feels like a no-brainer to limit my use in any situation that could, essentially, impact whether or not I sign the deal, land the job, get the gig, etc. That said, even professional occasions vary in context. Speaking on a late-night panel at a horror conference might call for some low-level profanity to land the joke or make the point, while doing so at a morning solo presentation at a general writers’ conference could feel awkward and forced, if not downright inappropriate.
The specific word(s) in question and the use of them in practice also greatly changes the context of profanity. You guys, I had the most magical fucking day has a very different vibe than You’re a fucking idiot, Dave. Emotion and purpose drastically change how bad “bad” words sound. And of course, so does the word choice. I don’t think I even need to cite examples of the drastic range of profanity available, and their varying degrees of taboo (though that’d be fun). We all know that some words generally slip under the radar while others stand out like sore thumbs.
This is a topic that could go on forever. There are so many perspectives and words and circumstances that influence one’s opinion on whether or not profanity is acceptable. All of us, all the time, are making these decisions for ourselves, but authors, especially, can draw their attention to that process to make the smartest possible choices for ourselves as authors. When we look at what we want to write and who we want to read it, it becomes a bit more clear what types of words we can say and when.
So let’s open this up to some discussion. Writers, have you given much thought to profanity before, and how it ties to your authorial presence? Do you have strong feelings one way or the other? Are there aspects you shy away from or struggle to balance?
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