Thoughts on Writing – To Swear or Not To Swear

Warning: This post is meant to be an informative article about swearing in fiction. As such, I have not censored the words involved. If you do not wish to read the actual words, you may wish to skip over this particular post.

Before I finished editing Magic’s Stealing, one of the lines I was torn on changing involved whether or not to have a character swear. In all fairness, I tend to lean on the side of, ‘as few swears as possible, but do what feels right for the character and sounds better.’ However, I ran into the problem that this particular swear would be in the very first chapter, and I was worried that readers who generally avoid swearing might avoid the book if they happened to see a curse word so early.

First chapters set up a standard of what the reader should expect. If you see magic early on, you expect magic. If you see dark, creepy landscapes, you expect horror. Clones? Sci-Fi. And if you see swearing in the first few pages, you’re likely to expect swearing later.

However, in Magic’s Stealing, this is the one time throughout the entire book that we see a modern day swear. Everything else is set specifically to the world.

Here’s the passage:

Coming? The pink ribbons carried Daernan’s thoughts to Toranih’s mind, and she fought the urge to swipe them away.

Toranih knelt beside the window so that she was eye-level with the owl. He tilted his head and blinked. She snorted. “I’ve been expressly forbidden from attending the festival,” she said in the most high-and-mighty voice she could muster. “So, no. I’m not coming.”

Not that she minded missing the event. Too much magic and too many people teasing her about when she and Daernan would make their courtship a formal engagement.

She turned from the window, lit her oil lamp, and then mentally killed the crystal’s light.

The ribbons vanished.

Let me guess. Your father wasn’t happy that you challenged Lady Ikara to a duel, then respectfully threatened that she ought to let her fiancé fight for her, lest you knock her off her high horse onto her—he mentally coughed for effect—her lazy ass?

Toranih shrugged. “She insulted you. Good excuse not to go.”

Originally, the line read

Let me guess. Your father wasn’t happy that you challenged Lady Ikara to a duel, then respectfully threatened that she ought to let her fiancé fight for her, lest you knock her off her high horse onto her—he mentally coughed for effect—her lazy bum?

Given the circumstances, showing Daernan quoting Toranih exactly, and having her say a curse word (in this context), helps to clearly show the type of character she is… even if most of her other curses are either world based (“For the love of Shol,” “Cursed Trickster,” “Isahna-cursed…”) or simply said as She cursed under her breath.

In the long run, I decided to use the actual word. For one, it fits her character and the situation, and for another, it’s not that “bad” of a swear. (Keep in mind, this is YA. We can see some really strong cursing depending on the characters and genre involved). In all honesty, I don’t know if I would have thought about it twice if it hadn’t been for the fact that–before edits–the story almost felt like it could be classified as middle grade.

I tend to look at cursing as having a variety of “types.” You have what feels to me more like classic curses (whether they are or aren’t)… such as damn, hell, ass, etc… and then you have what feels more modern (even if they have been around for ages) fuck, crap, heck… and even then, the ‘strength’ of the reaction a person will give to each varies entirely upon the person. Others could care less what curse you use as long as you don’t curse in vain (This is an interesting article on the subject of cursing in vain, if you’re interested in Christian theology. It also shows how deeply ingrained religion is regarding various curses). Consider that you can get creative, too. (“Odin’s beard” for Norse mythology, anyone?… Take a look at this site (renaissance faire-themed) for a few examples of how you can string together world-based curses).

(As a side note, this post as a whole has the most curse words I’ve ever written in one place. Outside of the occasional “frack” I used when role-playing a certain character a while back (you can probably blame the original Battlestar Galactica for that one) you will rarely hear me curse. Rarely. Can’t say it doesn’t happen, because things sometimes take me by surprise, but still. This is rather interesting to write).

Curses also tend to be based on context clues and tone.

Take a look at the word “ass.” When refering to a certain barnyard creature, it’s not a curse. Call the guy sitting next to you an ass, and now you have a swear word. (According to, a swear word is “a word used in swearing or cursing; a profane or obscene word.” That is, something that is offensive.

The great fun of trying to decide whether to swear or not is largely based on whether or not you wish to risk offending someone, or alienating members of your audience who might find certain terminology offensive. On the other hand, you risk offending someone if you don’t include the swear where they feel one should be.

Isn’t writing wonderful?

This is why it pays to know your audience, and know what terminology they accept. If you’re writing for yourself, you can do whatever [the fuck] you want. Note that adding the swear doesn’t fit my normal writing style, and writing it felt really out of place. If we’re looking at this from a character point of view, this doesn’t fit the established rules for my “character.”

Take a look at this scene from my husband’s and my manuscript of Distant Horizon:

Behind us, Jack snorted. “Superheroes– like comic books. You’ve heard of comic books, right? Video games?”

The three of us exchanged glances. We’d played interactive educational activities on EYEnet, but those weren’t particularly humorous.

“You’ve… you’ve heard of video games, right?” Jack pushed himself from the doorway and gaped at us.

Lance shook his head ‘no.’

Jack grunted. “Pops, I’m telling you– the Community sucks.”

Tim stuffed his hands in his pockets. “The Community is safe, secure, efficient. It’s not… bad.”

Jack is anti-Community, very much a rebel, so he’s going to use curses however he [damn] pleases. Tim, on the other hand, has been raised in the Community, where cursing is seen as inefficient… though they have a few of their own choice phrases (For the love of efficiency, Jenna, hurry up and finish your homework!). When Tim tries to refute Jack, he almost quotes him, but he doesn’t, because saying a curse makes him feel awkward. (Like me and writing half the curses in this post. Though, arguably, it’s questionable whether Tim would have even heard that particular swear). Again, this reveals characterization… not that all characterization is in whether they curse or not. That’s just one tiny aspect of dialogue you can fiddle with.

Now let’s take a look at how we can approach cursing in fiction.

Say the actual word: If you’re writing an adult novel or upper YA, you’re probably safe to use the actual word given your target audience. If you’re writing middle grade, using a substitute might be better. The benefits of saying the actual word come when it isn’t avoidable (the sentence doesn’t work without it, or removing it makes a scene unnecessarily comical), or when it shows a personality trait of the character. You might not use swear words in regular prose, but you might add them to dialogue. Whether you sprinkle them in or apply a heavy dosage depends on the genre you’re writing and your target audience.

Use a substitute: Particularly useful if you’re writing middle grade (where parents tend to be a bit pickier about what their children read), or if you want to add comedy. Also useful if you want to add flavor to the world. Of course, some people prefer to see the actual word, others don’t. Just make sure that the word used fits the situation and feels natural.

However, there are downsides to using a substitute.

If you aren’t careful, you can turn a completely innocent word into a curse for your poor, unsuspecting reader.

When I was a kid, my parents had a filter on the TV. It censured and replaced certain words from the captions (I have a partial hearing loss, so I have captions on whenever possible). I didn’t really care for cursing, so I didn’t mind… with a couple exceptions. One, the filter didn’t always recognize the difference between names and swears… Principal Prickly on the TV show, Recess always had his name filtered, and while watching 8 Simple Rules, the word ‘sex’ would often be translated to ‘hugs.’ (It was a really strict filter).

The problem was that my mind automatically began to translate everything back… even when I wasn’t watching TV.

This is around the same time that a certain “Free Hugs” movement became popular.

*Ahem.* (See what my mind translated that to? Took a while for me to stop wincing every time I saw a sign for free hugs).

Let this be a warning… people will still know the original meaning.

Alternatively, you can also create a negative meaning to an otherwise innocent word. For example, if you tell kids to substitute ‘witch’ for ‘bitch,’ we now apply a derogatory meaning to the word ‘witch.’ Of course, you have the Halloween nasty, evil witch (of which this is probably meant to reference), but keep in mind that there are people who consider themselves witches in practice and don’t act in the way that the term ‘bitch’ usually implies.

That particular factor was brought up when I was reading articles regarding the Clean Reader app (Read the article here about what the Clean Reader app is, and here for the article that mentions the problem of substituting “witch” for “bitch,” if you’re interested).

Also, slight derail, words can take on negative sub-text through similar routes.

For example, take a look at the word ‘gyp’ (as in… I’ve been gypped!) It wasn’t until recently that I became aware that the term derived from the word “gypsy,” referring to a stereotype of gypsies as thieves. Now, in some areas, calling someone a gypsy is a major slur. In others, not at all. Depends on who you’re talking to and how you’re using the term. But it’s something to be aware of.

Like all curses, slurs, and swears… whether or not something is offensive depends entirely on the audience. (In fiction, you can recognize this in how characters react to each other based on what they say or don’t say).

So, you can use a substitute, but make sure it has the meaning you intend.

Reference without specifying: You can sometimes suggest that a person cursed without ever saying what was said. He turned the corridor. Three giant monsters stood in his way. He cursed. This plan was getting worse by the minute.

We’re told that the character curses, but it’s left to our imagination as to what he actually says. I tend to use this one when a world-based curse won’t work. Alternatively, how other characters react to something said in a foreign language we don’t understand can give us the impression that they cursed or said something insulting… even if we don’t know for certain. (Consider how R2-D2 and C3p0 talk in Star Wars. We don’t know what R2-D2 says, but we have a pretty good idea thanks to C3P0’s reactions.)

Eliminate: When in doubt, leave it out… or not. Sometimes a sentence really doesn’t need the cursing to flow properly, and will feel stronger without it. (Remember earlier, where I bracketed the curse words) Sometimes a slight rephrasing of the sentence can eliminate the need for a particular word. Test how the sentence sounds with and without the curse (speaking aloud can be helpful here… though you might want to be alone when you try this) to determine whether the curse adds to the story.

There are some words I tend to avoid when I write, because I personally don’t like them or want to perpetuate a stereotype. For example, I tend to avoid slut because I don’t like vilifying someone just because they sleep with multiple partners, or bastard because I don’t like vilifying people born out of wedlock.

Granted, there may be times when they story calls for these particular slurs, and to use anything else sounds ridiculous. But I typically try a bit harder to avoid those than other curses.

The point is, whether you use cursing in your writing is entirely up to you. If you get your stories published through a publishing press, they may have their own house rules about what stays or goes. But otherwise, you get to decide based on your own needs, and whether or not you think it will work for your target audience.

Like all words in a story, the swear should serve the story. If it doesn’t, cut it. (Your word count will thank you). If it does, keep it.

I hope you found this post useful. How do you handle swearing in your stories?

Further articles of interest:


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