To Swear Or Not To Swear

Posted: March 4, 2015 by ajbrown in Writing
Tags: , , ,

My first book, Along the Splintered Path, was released at the beginning of 2012 by Dark Continents Publishing. Up to that point I had never been more excited in my writing ‘career’, as it is. A lot of work went into the collection. Two stories were completely rewritten while one of them was a brand new piece.

At the time of its release I was in a phase of my writing process where I sought to make my stories sound authentic. In order to do that I would have to make all of the dialogue sound as real and believable and accurate as possible, as if someone would actually say the words I had the characters saying. Not that I didn’t already have realistic sounding dialogue, but I generally steered away from swear words. Having characters using foul language equaled authenticity. Or so I told myself.

The book was released and I was immensely proud of it. It received a few good reviews and it sold right out of the gate. I couldn’t have been happier, especially with it being a first book (even if it was a collection).

Then something happened, something that made me less proud of what I had accomplished.

Someone I knew wanted to read the book. This someone didn’t care much for bad language. Suddenly I was uncomfortable with the book, with letting someone read it. Suddenly I wished I had not put so much ‘authentic language’ in it.

Let’s stop here for a second. Not too long ago (well, maybe long enough ago that it was before Along the Splintered Path came out) I wrote a blog about using strong language in writing. I argued for the language, stating quite simply that some words don’t have the same oomph as others.

I view swear words as emphasis words. When someone says a swear word you notice it, you hear it. Immediately you understand the impact of the word in the context of the sentence. Almost always, even in joking around, the swear word stands out. Let me give you an example:

Damn it! As opposed to, Dang it!

You just read those two statements. Admit it, you said the first one more emphatically. Even if you only said the words in your mind, chances are the first one was stronger than the second one.

Here’s the thing, not all words can be replaced with other words. It’s like medicine. Not all medicines have a generic equivalent. If they did we would all buy the knock-off brand and save us a bit of money. Swear words are the name brand words and their softer, not as offending equivalents are the generic versions. The problem is, though the generic medicines work as good as their name brand counterparts, the generic equivalent of a swear word doesn’t have the same impact.

Again, let’s use ‘damn’ as our name brand word. What are its generic equivalents? Dang. Darn. Dagnabbit. Say them. Go ahead. Say them. I’ll wait. Make sure and say all four of them.

Let’s take a look at it now.

Dagnabbit just sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It sounds like something Ned Flanders from The Simpsons would say. Many of you just cringed. That’s okay. I did, too.

Darn and Dang, well they’re okay. But they’re not the same as, oh, I don’t know: Damn.

Admit it. When you read that last ‘damn’ just now you felt the emphasis of it, didn’t you?

This was my argument for using swear words in writing.

Let’s go back to what I was saying before. I used a lot of swear words in Along the Splintered Path. Honestly, the dialogue sounded more authentic with them. But there is a problem with this. I don’t use many swear words in real life. I’m not comfortable hearing many of them come out of my mouth. I don’t want my kids to hear me say them. I don’t use them at work because they sound unprofessional. I don’t use them in general discussions because, quite honestly, they are not needed. I can’t say I don’t use them when I’m mad, but even then it is usually only one of four words, none of which starts with a F or a G plus a D. When I hear other people talking and every other word that comes out of their mouth is a swear word I walk away or I turn the channel if I am watching television or I turn off the movie or I stop reading the book. It’s not that I’m a prude, I just don’t think swearing is all that necessary.

If I don’t use swear words in life, why would I use them in my books?

Back to the person I knew who wanted to read the book. I was embarrassed to tell her, ‘I’m not sure you’ll like it. There’s a lot of language in it.’

‘But you wrote it,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I responded and went on to explain that I wanted the characters to be as realistic as possible and that meant they had to swear because, you know, that’s what people do and I really wanted the characters to be real and…

‘But you don’t swear,’ she responded.

Guess what? She was right. Not all people swear. Not all people care to hear others swearing. Not all people care to read stories where swearing is prevalent throughout.

And I don’t swear a lot.

Here’s the point to all of this, and it doesn’t just pertain to swearing. If you do something that you would be embarrassed to tell someone or to have someone see/read/hear it, maybe you shouldn’t do it. If doing that thing makes you uncomfortable when someone ask you about it, then maybe you shouldn’t do it. Or maybe you shouldn’t have done it.

And then there’s the fact that I had to explain why I had written all the swear words in the first place. If you have to explain your actions, chances are they are actions you should not have taken.

I learned this lesson from that friend. And it embarrassed me. I couldn’t, in good conscious, say, ‘you’ll love this book, but you’re going to have to overlook all the cussing.’ I told the person the truth. ‘You may not like the book.’ And it hurt to say that. I knew the person wouldn’t buy the book, and if they did, they probably would have looked at me differently afterward, maybe even shook their head in disgust at how man F-Bombs I dropped between the front and back cover.

Some of you may say, ‘so what? That person can get over it.’ Yeah, maybe so, but to me, it would be like one of my parents or my wife being disappointed in me. They might get over it, but it would always be in the back of my mind that they had been disappointed in me for something I did.

There’s also this thing called a first impression. This was my first book. Sure, I made a good first impression on a few folks, but what of the ones who may have liked the story, but didn’t care much for all the language? Here’s the thing: I want readers of all ages, male and female. I’m not naïve enough to think I can win over everyone, but I would rather not push away those readers who would otherwise like my work.

Some of you think I’m being ridiculous or over sensitive or maybe even over thinking this. I assure you, I am not.

I went back and reread Along the Splintered Path not too long ago. I cringed with each swear word. Then I took the swear words out and rearranged the sentences and do you know what happened? The stories were just as good without the foul language and the dialogue was just as realistic.

When I rewrote Cory’s Way, my first novel, I specifically targeted swear words to cut. I rewrote sentences in order to take those words out. I even rewrote one entire chapter just so I could take out one word. Are there a couple words in there that are strong? Yeah, but nothing like before I edited it and no actual swear words. I even took out a paragraph that I thought I went overboard with. And guess what? I believe in Cory’s Way, one hundred percent. I believe it’s a great book, one that has very little language in it. I am so confident in this story that I have given books to people with the understanding that: ‘You don’t have to pay me now. Read the book. If you like it, then you give me the money for it. If you don’t, you give me the book back.’ All of them have paid me for the book. Anyone thirteen years of age or older can read Cory’s Way, and they will like it. And I am not ashamed to let anyone read it. As writers, we should never be ashamed to let people read our work. If we are, well, maybe we shouldn’t be writing it.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another…

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Comments
  1. Shanna Wynne says:

    I really love this post. It’s about writing the book you want to read – not the book you think you should write. I remember AGES ago getting flack from a reader about a short story where a woman, discovering that SIDS was actually an evil monster that killed babies, has an all out battle with the beast, and kicks it, punches it, etc.before finally killing it. And this male reader said “I thought it was great EXCEPT I thought the woman was unbelievable. Fighting? Kicking this huge monster? Hitting it? Women don’t do that.” And for a long time it messed with me. If I’m honest, I realized not too long ago that I stopped writing female protagonists – and it had a whole lot to do with that. i thought I just can’t do women right. I’m Autistic, I have Aspergers, and I don’t fit the common “idea” of what a woman thinks, acts, or does. My thinking and acting processes have always been described as fairly masculine. But.. I’m a woman. I have a woohoo, not a ding dong. (I say those words for your sake, AJ. Just know that I would’ve gone there, but I love ya.) So why can’t I write characters that are female and like me? I realized I can write any kind of woman I want, and suddenly that readers critique just fell away… like a snake shedding its skin.

    So AMEN to your post. Write what you want to write, what you want to read. Be true to yourself as an author, and don’t let other “expectations” get in the way of that.

    • ajbrown says:

      Shanna, you’ve been listening to me, haven’t you? I always say be true to yourself and you will be fine.

      I remember the story you speak of. And I disagree with the reader who said women don’t fight and hit and kick. They do and to say that a woman fighting and kicking a beast who is trying to kill her baby is what is not realistic. You keep writing my little hobbits and we’ll keep loving you.

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