I’ve seen this topic on many blogs (including the WordPress News one) recently, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about it myself: swearing in writing.
The common argument against it is that if one has to use swear words to express a certain thought or emotion in writing, that person isn’t a very good writer and needs to expand his or her vocabulary. While an overuse of swear words may indicate a weaker writer, I actually think that it’s sometimes helpful to the writing to have swear words sprinkled throughout a work of fiction for voice–in certain circumstances, that is.
Audience. Audience is the key. To whom are you writing? Children? Teenagers? Some audiences are more okay with swearing than others (in general, of course. There are always exceptions). If you’re writing a children’s book, you’re obviously not going to use the inappropriate language. “Billy the dog ate a f—ing hog!” I don’t think so. That wouldn’t go over well.
Next, think about your character. A frustrated teenage girl (hint: me) is probably more likely to swear than a nun. What is your character’s personality? Her occupation? Take all this into account. Also consider the scene. What’s going on? When I use language in my writing, it’s usually only in scenes of frustration, great danger, or annoyance.
I know not everyone is going to agree with me here. Some are probably going to say “Oh, Abigail! You’re a great writer; you should rise above!” I am rising above. I’m rising above the stigma attached to swear words in fiction. Being an author includes finding ways to make my writing better. And, let’s face it–if you’re a young runaway about to be caught (a story I’m writing currently), are you going to say “Oh, goodness me! I am close to being caught! Dear heavens!” No. That’s not realistic. It’s all about creating a unique character who’s easy to relate to. If using a swear word here and there helps create that person, I say go ahead.
Again, though, I use them very sparingly. When I read books with excessive language, I become very annoyed, especially if it doesn’t make sense to swear in the situation. “Hi, would you like me to go buy you some f—ing milk before checking out?” Taking out the swear word in that sentence would be a good idea.
Also, I don’t swear here. Too many of my readers would get upset, which would basically be like shooting myself in the foot. I will, as you can see, replace letters with dashes. Even then, I use them only when I’m talking about swearing, as I have been in this post, or quoting somebody.
Just food for thought–aren’t we the ones attaching stigmas to these words? The f-word–and any of the words deemed inappropriate, for that matter–has plenty of weaker synonyms that are considered acceptable (I say weaker because they don’t have the same jarring effect on the reader that is often beneficial to writing). They’re only bad because we say they’re bad. (And I’m not talking about words that are discriminatory–those words are hurtful to other people.)
In short, cursing in writing is like salt. Just a very small amount can really improve, while too much will destroy and weaken.