Friday, May 20, 2011

Curse Words in Print

My mother read a draft of my latest novel the other day and halfway through one chapter she looked up at me in a very motherly way and said that she just came across the first “naughty” word in my book. I completely forgot that I even had any profanity in my story, and felt a little bit like a kid caught with one hand in the cookie jar as my mother stared across the room at me much the way she might have done when I was four. We both had a good laugh about it, but it raised an issue I had not thought about in a long time: what place, if any, do curse words have in a book?

I’m halfway through rewriting my historical novel on the American Civil War, entitled The Long Defeat, and have made significant improvements thanks to great feedback from many of you as well as other friends, family, and even a few literary agents. I really don’t use curse words for the most part in my writing, but a war novel without them seems a bit unrealistic to me. Nonetheless, I do feel that plenty of authors today employ profanity more for shock-value than in an effort to really advance a story. 

What do you think? Have you used curse words in your stories, books, or blogs? How do you feel when you come across them in other people’s novels? Is it okay to use them a lot, a little, or not at all? 


  1. LOL the same thing happened to me with my second book. A teenage boy stuck in a tough spot said a naughty word. And my mom didn't like it LOL But really, "golly gee whiz" would have seemed completely out of place.

    To be honest, I do try not to use curse words in my writing, but really, you have to do what is natural for the story, the character and the situation. It is very obvious when writers try too hard NOT to use one...just as much as it does when they are overused for shock effect. A fine balance, but sometimes the "bad" word is really the only word :)

  2. Very, very good point about authors trying hard not to use curse words versus authors who use them too much. Both extremes are quite similar in many ways. I really try not to use curse words in writing much myself either, or I simply say that a character cursed, but don't actually say what the word was. But you're right that sometimes no other word will suffice:)

  3. Not sure if you've seen it, but Jackson Pearce (one of my fave writers, she's hilarious and all around awesome) has a really good vlog on this subject -

  4. You guys have covered a lot of good points.

    I think it's mostly an issue of tone/voice. Word choice is one aspect of this. Misusing curses is kind of like misusing big words or similes -- it feels like an awkward authorial intrusion.

  5. Personally I don't use curse words, but then I don't write stories that require them. I don't like them when they are there just for shock, nor when they are over-used because they lose impact.

  6. Thanks for the link to Jackson Pearce, Michelle. Def worthwhile:)

    Hektor - nice comparison to misusing big words and similes...I think you're on to something there:)

    Lynda - very true about over-used curse words. I find the same thing true when they're uttered repeatedly in real-life as well:)