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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Profanity: Where Do You Draw the Line? (A Guest Post from Author Bridget Straub)

swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...
swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuvahahmo Nederlands: Schelden en vloeken in strips  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
        In this installment of Tossing It Out I welcome the return of  Bridget Straub who blogs at  bridgetstraub: Author, Artist, Mom .  Some of you may recall Bridget's Hijack! post "Life Is a Maze".  Bridget's third novel in a year's time is now out.  In this post she discusses a dilemma you may have faced in your own writing.  The topic of profanity in writing is one that I've been planning to address and will probably do so in the future.  In her most recent release, The Salacious Marny Ottwiler, Bridget had to deal with this issue and now tells her reasoning concerning using profanity in ones writing.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

Is it just me, or do people swear now more than ever? It feels as though, particularly in the past several years, the sensor button has been turned off and pretty much anything goes. I have to admit I am as guilty as anyone. I don’t allow my kids to swear and yet I catch myself doing it more often than I should.

Well, “should” is an odd choice of word. Should we ever swear? Probably not, but I find even my church attending Christian friends swear, and to be honest it always makes me laugh. As someone who went through Catholic school, this is so daring and wrong that it almost delights me. Not appropriate, I know.

Here is where I draw the line (and sometimes it is literally in a line): it is when I am around young children or anyone older than me. In both of those situations it feels disrespectful. Those of us in the middle, however, have been raised on cable television, nudity in movies and that whole sexual revolution. This is not to say I would swear with a relative stranger or walk up to someone and ask how the bleep they are. That would be crass.

This has come up in my writing as well. I don’t ever want to scare away readers, and at the same time, I pride myself on creating characters that are real and relatable. I would never throw in profanity just for the sake of being edgy. At the same time, there are some situations where a person and/or character would not respond with a “Golly gee”, and right or wrong, certain words have much more force. When I write, I rarely know what is going to happen next, let alone what is liable to come out of a character’s mouth. It is one of the things I enjoy most about writing. Even now, I am totally winging this post. Still, at the finish of a novel I read through the manuscript and worry that an entire body of work will be judged by a few words. It’s a conundrum.

Bridget Straub is the author of three novels: “Searching for My Wand”, “On a Hot August Afternoon” and “The Salacious Marny Ottwiler”. All are available on Amazon.

                How do you think is the best way to deal with profanity in writing when it  seems appropriate to your characters?    Does an author's use of profanity in a work bother you?     What do you think is the best way to avoid profanity in writing or do you think doing so lessens the integrity of the credibility of the writing?

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  1. Personally profanity doesn't bother me too much Lee and definitely not to an extent where I'd want to avoid the author who uses it. I'm not bothered about the odd swear word although I do try to avoid it when I write. I use the logic that if there's a chance it'll offend somebody then it's better not used just in case. Great post buddy, it's given me a lot to think about. Thanks very much for your kind comments too man, it's good that you understand that you're appreciated around these parts.

  2. Wonderful post Lee, and most enjoyable to read.

    Thanks for following me much appreciated you can be sure.

  3. I don't think people swear any more than they used to, but censorship in the media is much more relaxed now so we hear it on TV and satellite radio much more. I think ton is far more telling than specific words, but the latter is much easier to regulate and control. Exactly why a child can't call a shit a shit I have no idea.

    Moody Writing

  4. It's an interesting issue, and one I've seen discussed elsewhere, too.

    There's definitely a cultural element to this. In Ireland, swearing among adults is so casual that people don't associate the same level of stigma as there exists in other countries. We aren't even necessarily angry or upset when we swear. It's just part of everyday speech.

    That said, I get so tired of swearing being used in books, movies and tv shows as a quick fix to make the story seem gritty and dark, or "realistic." I couldn't get through the show Deadwood, because it felt like the writers were using swear words as a substitute for good dialogue. It was dull. It didn't make me think any of the characters were tough or intimidating at all.

    Contrast that to Rome, which has swearing, but also excellent dialogue and casting. The swearing is used to embelish a certain atmosphere and culture within different social classes. It's used as an underline to the story and dialogue, not as the key dialogue itself.

    I don't find any swearing, in and of itself, offensive. I may find certain contexts offensive. I hate to use the cliché, but it's the way someone is said, rather than what is said. But that said, I take it as personal taste. Just because I get bored of over-used swearing or find a particular phrase offensive, doesn't mean I want authors to censor themselves. It just means I'll make different reading choices.

  5. The interesting thing is that we're seeing less and less hard swearing (the f-word, for example) in American movies, because so many studios want to avoid an R-rating.

    So the same kind of action movies that, in the 80s, would have had the f-word being thrown about all over the place, now only allow a single use, if that.

  6. Do I do it in real life? Sure! Not in casual conversation though, but rather in anger.
    As for my writing, both online and in my books, damn is the strongest word I will use.
    And anything with taking the Lord's name in vain is out of the question. I don't even like watching a movie with that in it.

  7. In my novel about to be released, there is very little. The MC worst words are 'pee' and 'crappity-crap-crap. Some of the other characters use the b-bomb and f-bomb sparingly. But the em-dash is great to cut them off with.

    However, in my new novel its about modern day peeps with drug and alcohol habits. Two grandmothers. One a Baptist and the other a New Ager. And their new baby grandson who is caught in the middle of two drug addicted parents and a really bad drug pusher. The language is sincerely graphic and the grammar usage of some of the characters is just as offensive. I now wonder if there should be a Jerry Springer genre.

    Anyway, my opinion personally on cussing: Save those words for real life situations when you really want to make a point.

    Hug and chocolate,

  8. In my writing, I let my characters words be true to their personalities. Dang gummit just won't work for a serial killer. Me? When I stub my toe or something like that, I hear words come out of my mouth that would make a trucker blush. So much for being a refined lady.

  9. Bridget -- Thank you for giving me a guest post that has already in the first hours generated some excellent comments.

    Yeamie -- You deserved the kind words. I too avoid using certain language out of respect for those around me. I notice that a lot of people don't care any more. I think they started for shock value and now it's just part of their deserve to sound edgy.

    Yvonne -- We'll get your following back. I'm glad to see you commenting again.

    Mood -- I'm not sure how old you are, but I assume you grew up in the 70's or 80's and if that is the case then you are probably right about usage of profanity. In the 50's I rarely if ever heard much beyond "damn" or "hell" and maybe "bastard" or "son of a bitch". I did hear my mother say "shite" now and then. These are all legit words that could be found in the dictionary at the time, but they were still considered to be impolite and improper to say on a regular basis. The late 60's changed and after more profanity became common in the entertainment media then it became more commonly used in casual conversation. Prior to that I don't think you'd very often hear someone in public just dropping potentially offensive words into their conversation like you do now or in the past 30 years.

    Paul --Excellent point about context. Very good comment.

    Alex -- Agreed. Though I rarely use potentially offensive words in my everyday life.

    Shelley --You express the same dilemma that Bridget refers too. Your comment reflects what a lot of us probably consider.

    To all-- As I was responding to these comments I remembered that this is Bridget's post and I let her respond to the future comments unless I just can't keep quiet. I do plan on covering this topic from my point of view in the near future. I'm sure Bridget will be here after she wakes up. It's early here right now.


  10. Interesting post. Even more interesting comments. I do think we'e all been somewhat desensitized over time to the rude, crude, cuss words. Anybody remember George Carlin's 'The Seven Words You Can't Say on TV' comedy bit. Today the list is a whole lot shorter.

    Personally what I really find offensive is taking the Lord's name in vain. There are some who would say any cussing is doing so, but I mean the particular GDing of people, places and things. My personal favorite (NOT) is in the movies when children do it.

    All that said, I'm working on a screenplay idea that has some pretty raw language. Worse than I would ever use. I'm trying to decide if it is gratuitous or necessary to the truthfulness of the times and story.

    Unfortunately, I have also been told that my 'favorite word' of exclamation is a synonym for manure. Guilty I'm sure.

  11. I don't think people swear more now than they have in the past. I've been doing it regularly since 1985 (not coincidentally the year I moved out of my parents' house). And I also go to church. And I'm Catholic. I don't use the Lord's name in vain, but other than that, to me they're just words & I've yet to find any suitable substitute for a choice f-bomb. But that's for speaking. As I just demonstrated, I shy away from putting the words into print, because for some reason, they seem to come across as more harsh in that format. If it's right for the character, I say by all means use them, but if it's going to risk jerking the reader out of the story, leave it out.

  12. I don't swear, beyond the use of dammit or hell, around my mother, kids, or business settings. I do swear around contemporaries. I've used a few stronger colorful metaphors now and then.

    In my writing, I keep it real. If you're writing military, for instance, they swear and copiously. Your characters have to be realistic. I don't believe in writing sex or swearing for shock value. It has to fit the setting and situation.

  13. People definitely swear more than they used to, at least publicly. Today's high school and college kids have the worst mouths (with 3 boys in both, I've spent plenty of time on campus to hear). I think this has to do with it becoming more acceptable on TV and in society in general.

    You will have your whole body of work judged by one swear word. It's happened to me. Fortunately, it's only been a few, and I'm okay with that. Honestly, if someone is offended by that, they're not the right audience for my books and that's okay. In all but one, the story takes place in today's world with college-aged characters, some of which are evil and crass. They're going to cuss. But the one story takes place in Ancient Greece and it contains no cuss words. I don't know what, if anything, was considered profanity back then. The f-bomb wasn't even created yet. Christians came up with what words are considered cussing and offensive starting in the 1200s-1300s.

    Bottom line - you have to stay true to your story, your characters and yourself. If you write for yourself as your ideal reader, which is the best way to write, then you'll know where the line is.

  14. I really like Nicki's comment.

  15. Personally, I don't really swear. I honestly can't remember the last time I did unless it was the last fight I had with my wife (big fight), and that would have been years ago. My wife does swear but not excessively. My kids fall back on "poop" as their swear word. Yes, seriously. (It makes me want to laugh every time my daughter says "what the poop!")

    All of that to say that I mostly stay away from swearing in books that I want to be accessible to kids. Some new studies have shown that the connections we form with characters from books are as strong as the connections we form with our real live friends. Therefore, if a beloved character swears, a child reader is more likely to also pick up swearing.
    Which is not to say it's not non-existent in my writing, but it's not in "everyday" usage. When I get around to writing my first adult oriented work, that all may change.

  16. People swear a lot more in public now than they did when I was kid. They don't seem to care who is around - tots, grandmas... that I find a little sad.

    In books and other media it all depends on the plot and character, though when all they do is swear, it does turn me off.

  17. This is great. I love what is being said and that everyone can be so honest. I too hate it when shows, movies books, etc. use swear words just to be rough and edgy. It comes off as crass and lazy. The character of Marny Ottwiler is going through some very trying times but the overall tone of the book is funny.
    Thanks for all of the discussion. I can't wait to check back later and read some more. I'm definitly awake now.

  18. I think it's a fine line to walk and any time you swear in a novel you run the risk of offending someone. That being said, novels shouldn't be comfort food.

  19. Using swear words in writing?

    Only when necessary, and it must used for the purposes of realism. I don't get offended by most swear words, usually only the ones that denigrate certain segments of society.

    If it fits the character, it should be used. There's nothing worse than watering down your prose to suit the 'general public'.

    Example: men working on their cars swear more than one would think, (just sayin').

  20. This is a constant issue with me. Of course, I write both MG and YA, so there's a huge difference between the two with respect to language. I use nothing even close to profanity in my MG books. "Heck" "Rats" is about as profane it gets.
    In my YA I have to have some realistic language, but it's definitely character driven. Profanity isn't included unless it's absolutely necessary to carry the story or to develop the character.

    To avoid language I don't think is appropriate, I often let actions take over. "Flipped him the bird" can replace the word. Or I'll go for respelling, "Friggin." Again, this happens because the character demands it happen.

    Great post, Lee.

  21. Language doesn't bother me, except when it's used in a way that's meant to hurt people. I don't care if someone says *@#$ when they drop something on their toe, but I don't want to be CALLED a *%$#.

    I don't think any writer should ever censor themselves. If you don't use it, fine, but if you FEEL like using it, then you should go with the flow.

  22. I think swearing is not offensive if it fits the character and situation. Writers shouldn't be censored for that kind of thing, but I don't want every other word in the novel to be a swear word either. That would turn me off.

    I don't use swear words in my writing, however, I am using them sparingly in my current WIP when the situation calls for it.

    Very interesting subject to think about.

  23. The year I worked auto salvage was the year I learned how not to cuss. All the guys around me dropped the f-bomb with every sentence, and I quickly realized that people who talk do not sound smart.

    I almost never cuss and almost never put anything like it in my books.

  24. I don't mind profanity if it fits a character. On the other hand there is nothing worse than a character that sounds like a grade schooler trying to use grown up words. It has to fit. And by the way, the text color on that dead salmon background color is hell on the eyes! Still, love your blog though.

  25. First of all, I am 53, and anyone who is at least as old as I am KNOWS DAMN GOOD AND WELL that people use profanity more now - both in private and in public - than they did three or four decades ago. Anyone who says differently is either too young to know or is just not very attuned to dialogue around them.

    Where I have worked for the last couple months, there are some women in their 30s who routinely drop the F-bomb in the company lunch room, and no one thinks twice about it. That kind of language was rarely if EVER used in the workplace back in the '80s and even early '90s.

    So, yes, American society has DEFINITELY loosened up about profanity in the last 30 years or so.

    I myself DO use profanity, but wish I used less. However, I am selective about WHERE I use it. I NEVER use it around children, and rarely use it around senior citizens.

    That said, Hell and Damn are like salt and pepper to me; I generally season my language liberally with them. And in casual conversations with friends (and occasionally even on my blog) I will drop heavier profanity - Sh!t pretty regularly, the F-bomb occasionally.

    What I NEVER do - whether speaking or writing - is take the Lord's Name in vain. No G**-damnit for me! On the exceedingly rare times when it does slip out of my mouth in a moment of great anger, I feel guilty about it for weeks and will even pray for forgiveness. (It IS breaking one of God's 'Ten COMMANDMENTS', you know?) Anytime I hear someone around me say "G**-damnit" it nearly literally has the effect of "nails on a chalkboard" to me.

    I once wrote a gritty urban story as a screenplay - before I found Christ - and I was rather proud of myself that I'd managed to make the alcoholics, the pimps, the prostitutes, and the punks seem realistic while only dropping the F-bomb twice in the WHOLE story!

    Unfortunately, I also took the Lord's Name in vain about every fourth page.

    If I were going to rewrite that screenplay today, I wouldn't hesitate to remove every single G**-damnit and replace them all with a "f**k it".

    I don't mind some profanity used in a realistic story, but when it is used to excess (as it often is), it bothers me. The movie 'Raging Bull' was pretty much ruined for me due to the ridiculous amount of F-bombs.

    There's a time and a place for it, but the degree to which "every word goes, anywhere in public" today is really sad, and is just one of many indicators illustrating how far our society has fallen in regards to decency.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  26. Our speech choices as people are totally different than those we make for our characters. Certainly, characters vary widely, so of course their speech patterns must, also. Imagine how flat a story containing characters who all sound alike would be. Boring! On the other hand,using cussing as a sole mechanism to establish traits for a character is also boring.

    Many of my characters are real potty mouths.
    Personally, I am usually not.
    But, I don't judge someone who chooses differently, unless they are choosing to do so around my kids.

  27. For me, profanity in writing doesn't bother me but it has to fit the character and the story. As soon as it starts sounding forced or becomes gratuitous, I get turned off.

  28. Profanity only bothers me if it's inappropriate. I have used it myself when necessary, in my writing and in my life!

  29. In fiction, I believe it totally depends on the character and situation. An Army sergeant and a nun would most likely react and speak very differently in a stressful situation. I don't shy away from writing profanity if it fits the character and story.

    In real life, I may have a potty mouth at times. Sigh.

    Hi, Arlee!

  30. My first thought was - depends if your audience is Canadian or not. But I have always wondered who determined certain words are bad. It's so silly. I think some words have excellent shock value and reveal a character with a certain clarity. I think bad writing should be the offence, not language.

  31. Christina
    Why Canadian? Do they swear more or less?

  32. The rule of swearing in writing, to me, is the same as the rules of anything else in writing: if it's what would really happen, do it. Keeping writing real is part of what makes the world inside a book easy to relate to. I have a character who is a Navy SEAL, and while he has a certain quirk that keeps him from cussing like a sailor ALL the time (pun intended), as an above poster pointed out, there are some cases in which, "Holy moly," just isn't a realistic response from that type of character.

  33. I am a "by the seat of my pants" writer so it's really quite simple for me. It if was in the first revision, I keep the profanity. It "fit" the character. It came naturally. I don't add in profanity.

    I'm not easily offended, though. I don't care what language you use. It doesn't bother me. I just want it to mesh with the character. I don't want the ex-SWAT member saying Gosh darn and I don't want the kindergarten teacher saying Fucking hell in front of her class. That's not natural. It doesn't feel right.

  34. I was raised not to swear at all. We weren't even allowed to say "gosh" or "golly" - even though we loved Gomer Pyle. In movies my parents didn't object to "clean cussing" but nothing vulgar was acceptable to watch. I still remember the first real "cussing" I heard on television - it was on Simon and Simon when one of the brothers was kidnapped.

    That said, in reading I tend to not be bothered by it if it really fits in the book. I recently read a book that I felt the vulgarity used was forced - thereby making it stick out for shock value.

    My kids don't think too much of it, and even my 13 yo says she thinks her books should have "some", because it makes it more realistic.

    For me? I can't imagine every using it in my writing. My kids think when I say "crap" that I'm cussing . . .

  35. I find that swearing stands out more in writing than it does in general conversation so I prefer for it to be used sparingly ie when it suits the situation and character and any other word would sound stupid/fake.

    I had be particularly mindful of this when writing The Big Smoke because it's aimed at teens and I think you can get away with even less with that audience - not that teens themselves mind so much, more the gatekeepers.

  36. I don't use bad language. I have never used it in my entire life. I've never written it either. Is there a place for it? I'm not really sure. I think there are some movies where it seems to fit, but only as a reflection of reality. Other times I'm thinking "man, that just sounds stupid". I'm not offended by it, but I don't want to hear a lot of it, and I really don't want to hear it in front of children and the elderly.

  37. Bridget -- Thank you for getting the conversation started here.

    And thanks for all the great comments that have been left on this post. You have helped guide me in presenting my own post on this topic which will be coming soon.


  38. I can handle it in a book or a movie, but it has to be minimal. When characterizing real people, I suppose a writer feels the need to represent how people really are.

    Because my life is fairly tame, I don't encounter people cursing all day every day, so I tend to limit art and literature that is way out there, too.

    It's interesting how some people will curse when they hardly know you. My "new" excersize teacher drops the f-bomb, not even considering that I don't and might not want to hear it. I was thinking of inviting a "church friend" to come with me, but if she heard exercise lady's mouth, she probably wouldn't come back. lol Sooo... I'm not going to invite her. People don't even realize what it is costing them at times.


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