When is it okay to swear in writing?

I wrote this blog post because my girlfriend, now fiance, told me some ten years ago, “I know I’m going to love this book because she used the word fuck on the first page.”

That got me thinking about swearing. I don’t swear often, and when I do it sounds awkward. But, read any thriller, horror, or women’s lit novel and you’ll see the timely place F-bomb and much more. But, just because I don’t swear doesn’t mean I feel awkward around it. In fact, placed well, swearing is an effective tool. Too much and I might put the book down. 

So, when is it okay to swear in writing? Let’s find out. 

I was 14-years-old the first time I had an opportunity to swear in a story I wrote. I can remember the moment as if it were only a couple weeks ago. My computer – old – black screen with an orange font, and as I can remember there was only one font choice. I was writing about travelers who were lost in the forest and suddenly glowing eyes began popping up around them. Likely, they were fairies of some kind. Naturally one of my characters said, “Shit!” I didn’t even finish the sentence before I tapped back and deleted the word. I didn’t want my parents to see. This was one of the defining “writing” moments of my life. To swear, or not to swear…that is the question. This sent me on a search (before the internet) to try and find what other authors thought on the subject, any author really because I couldn’t find an answer anywhere I looked. Finally, after several months of typing the word “shit” on my computer, and then deleting it, I asked my creative writing teacher.

“If you think your mom would blush, then you shouldn’t do it.” was her advice, and oh what horrible advice it was.

As I grew older, and the internet came to be I was able to research a bit more. Come to find that the real answer is, it doesn’t matter what your mother thinks (on this topic). People swear. Swearing brings realism to text and characters. However, you need to swear for a reason, not like a preteen trying to act like a teen – unless of course, that is your story.

The two rules about swearing in writing (and pretend I didn’t say this in future blogs about no rules in writing) should be:

  1. Swearing should be appropriately related to what you’re writing
  2. Swearing should not be overused
  3. Swearing should be well-placed and add to writing, not just there because you like the word
  4. Swearing should be age appropriate for the reader.

For example, if a woman in your story just found out she was unexpectedly pregnant, just broke up with her boyfriend, and in frustration stubbed her toe on a table, then you wouldn’t be surprised if she yelled out, “Fuck!” Did I surprise you there? I do a lot of writing for children, so the idea that I dropped the F-bomb will shock some people. But, for the sake of that woman’s moment in a story, it is completely appropriate. Now, if the story was about a 10-year-old who was running away from ghosts in a house and stubbed their toe, you might use an “I-chee-wowwa,” an “ouch,” or if you’re feeling frisky a “Damn!” But, the F-bomb probably should not be there.

While the choice to swear or not swear is poetic and literary for some writers, for many others it is a stumbling block that holds back many a great dialogue. So, if it feels natural,then just fucking go for it. But, make sure mom doesn’t find out.

If you are looking for a writer to help with your book or other writing/editing project please contact me to discuss. You can find my rates and types of projects I work on here.

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