423727983_dac49569c5In previous posts, I’ve cussed a bit here and there, even sworn about my religious experience, AKA Mormon mission to Pennsylvania. My first blog was about my soccer playing daughter. I encouraged her in a youth conference letter to: GO FORTH AND KICK … (insert the last part of Harass.) She giggled when she read it. Her mother and I were leaders at the conference and it was fun to see her smile at her father’s loose tongue. Too loose, some would claim, and I don’t disagree. I wasn’t born with a foul mouth. It’s learned behavior that started on a dairy when I was thirteen. The owner, a man named Oscar, claimed anyone who didn’t cuss “never owned a hay baler.”

I’ve buggered my knuckles while wrenching machinery, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, been kicked by horses, slipped on ice, stubbed my toes in the dark, been burned, scraped, lacerated and sworn every time. My dad, whose swearing has diminished over the years, has asked, “Does that make it feel any better?”

I read a study a few years ago claiming that because swear words were connected in our brains as emotional language, the act of cussing in a tense situation actually relieved stress. Some would argue swearing increases our pain when the wrench slips from the baler, but I agree with Oscar and can honestly answer “yes” to dad’s question.

In those moments, cussing makes me feel a heck of a lot better.

So here’s the problem. While it makes me feel better, it makes others uncomfortable. When it comes to literature, I don’t mind it any more than Oscar did, but I’m sensitive to those who do— to a degree.

An author whose writing I admire, Andrew Smith, cusses up a hurricane in The Marbury Lens and its sequel Passenger. In addition to a great story, Andrew puts on a writing clinic as the rough edged teenage boys talk like teenage boys do. To write it any other way wouldn’t do the story or characters justice in my mind. In Richard Paul Evans books he’ll allude to a cussing character, which has worked for me.

The far end of striking profanity in literature comes from a friend and fellow author whose story included a direct quote from Mormon Prophet Brigham Young. The quote was pertinent to my friend’s story and it was quoted precisely as it came from Brigham’s mouth (over the pulpit I might add.)  Sensitive to their audience, the publisher scrubbed the swear word.

To this I said “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me! That’s taking it just too darn far!”

I’m guessing the editor at the publisher (which is named after a sweet smelling tree that’s used for fence posts, and a place where Daniel Boone hid from the Indians) has ever owned a hay baler.

I’ve gone on long enough. What the heck do you think?


The idea for this profanity free blog post was inspired by friend and fellow author Teri Harman’s post on clean romance which I encourage reading.

  28 comments for “PROFANITY NOT INCLUDED

  1. February 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Eric – Great post! I think you summed it up perfectly when you said, “To write it any other way wouldn’t do the story or characters justice in my mind.” I think authors must always walk a fine line between being true to their own values and to their character’s. And sometimes they are not the same.

    I have no problem with mild swearing in books (my own characters throw a few hells and damns around), but I will put down a book with an excessive amount of F-words – it’s just a crude word and while I’ll pass over it a few times, knowing its actually a very commonly used word, if its repeated on nearly every page, I’m done.

  2. February 6, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Interesting, Matt and I were just talking about this the other night. We’re both very sanctity-of-art, anti-censorship minded, do our best to, as you say, do justice to the characters, and then any changes necessary to fit a certain audience or a certain style are made carefully and consciously, but we were noting that those guidelines are really, really vague for authors. Books don’t get parental advisory stickers or G-NC17 ratings. The Gallagher Girls books are on the shelf right next to Swoon with no clear distinction. No one tells us, “One F word, that’s PG13, two would make it R.”

    Granted, I think the rules for movies are pretty ridiculous, but at least they give filmmakers the right to say, “this film falls into X category, and there’s nothing wrong with that, you were warned,” while authors just have to fumble around these vague, unspoken lines and hope to strike the balance the target readers need.

    • February 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks for the response. A life on the farm and construction sites has taught me an appreciation. Words are art, even the profane ones. I’ll read anything that’s well written.

      • February 6, 2013 at 8:33 pm

        Teri has it right, Eric. To one’s own self be true (while keeping the reader in mind).

        • February 6, 2013 at 8:43 pm

          Balance and moderation in all things I guess. Thanks Ann Marie. (I love spelling your name correctly.)

    • Ash Ronin
      February 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm

      I’ve always found the controversy surrounding swearing in literature kind of funny. Literature is a form of entertainment and the idea that swearing doesn’t belong in literature is kind of snobby when you consider how much of it is in music, movies, and now television. In my household, swearing wasn’t a big deal except for the dreaded “f” word. To this day, my mother will still smack me upside the head if she hears me utter that word.

      You really can’t go into public without hearing SOMEONE swear these days, so if you’re writing something that takes place in modern times, it’s unrealistic not to include any swearing (Unless you’re setting your story in Pleasantville, Nova Scotia (Sorry if you live there and you’re not all that pleasant, I didn’t mean to stereotype.)).

      There is also the argument that using swear words is lazy and unintelligent writing. In my opinion, swearing excessively is lazy and unintelligent writing but when used properly, at the correct moments, it becomes another tool in the writer’s toolbox. For example, a character who swears around friends but doesn’t around parents and authority figures. What does that convey to you about that character? How about a character who just cusses whenever they feel like it, no matter who’s around? How about a character who you don’t see cuss at all during an entire story but lets out that 1 word, then sheepishly apologizes to those around him for doing so?

      There are plenty of things that can get a person to put down a book, even if the writing is good. These can include racial slurs, sex scenes, goofy behavior, an over-the-top character, the repeated use of a word that just grates on someone’s nerve. For example, whenever I see someone use the word “dryly” when referring to how someone delivered a line, I put the book down. It’s a crutch word for Richelle Mead and after reading the Vampire Academy books I can’t stand that word. Whenever I see it in books now, the book hits the wall moments later.

      As for the “intelligent” aspect of swearing; I swear all the time and when I took the WISC as a kid, I had an FSIQ of 127. I’m hoping at some point to take the WAIS because with a score of 130 I can join MENSA.

      In my opinion, writers should use swearing intelligently.

      • February 6, 2013 at 9:46 pm

        You’ve hit on one of my favorite topics. How many ways can we show the audience our stories? Your examples of how to use language in doing this are superb.

  3. February 6, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Ditto to everything Teri said. And I love this post. I did have a swear word (maybe two?) in my book Big in Japan, and I know it ruffled the feathers of at least one sister in law who refused to read anymore to find out the ending after that (I think the word was heck. Minus the ck, add double hockey sticks). Ah, well. What can you do–I’m a dairy farmer’s daughter!

    About 6 months ago our stake partiarch told an amusing story from the pulpit at stake conference with a swear word as the punchline. I’m pretty sure he’s a farmer, as well.

    • February 6, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      Buck Cooper, Sumo Hero and Texan would cuss? You did a great job of writing a squeaky clean noble protagonist! Sounds like a great stake president!

      • February 6, 2013 at 9:24 pm

        Stake Patriarch. My Bad. Buck Cooper rocks!!!

  4. February 6, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Loved reading this one, Eric! I’m pretty staunch about not swearing in any form. If I don’t do it, then I don’t put it in my writing for others to read either. That isn’t to say I don’t remain true to my characters, especially my foul-mouthed bad guys :). What I find fun (and sometimes challenging) is how to let the reader know the character is swearing, without actually WRITING the word.

    I sometimes have my character say, “What the…” but I don’t write the rest. Sometimes the person swearing gets interrupted JUST before he says the bad word, preventing it from coming out. Sometimes a loud sound occurs at the same time, keeping others (and the reader) from hearing the profanity. A character can simply observe from a distance, “the fists waving high in the air accompanied by a beet-red face and mouth contorting into various forms of angry twists, sneers and frowns.” This observation suggests obvious swearing. A character can perceive “a mumbled expletive under the person’s breath.” A rough and tough character may also simply remain silent, “his narrowed eyes bespeaking a more sinister man than the foul words spoken by his comrades.” Being that I write historical fiction, I can also use medieval swear words that have no meaning for, and don’t offend, people today (example: fie, s’wounds, dash it all).

    My opinion: Your writing reflects your personal standards. If you don’t want to write swear words into the story, there’s ALWAYS a way around directly using them – ALWAYS – if that’s your goal anyway – LOL.

    By the way, you inspired me to write something about this on a future blog post too. Thanks for starting the conversation, Eric 🙂 I’ll credit you in it.

    • February 6, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Elsie, I loved your response. I’ve heard people say that profanity will hurt readership because some will refuse to read cussing while nobody refuses to read “clean literature.” Obviously there’s a market for both. I have put down several books where the characters didn’t ring true, because the author wouldn’t make them swear, but I’ve never put down a well written non-profane book where the author show’s me through excellent writing the character’s profane behavior without using the words.

    • February 7, 2013 at 2:52 pm

      I love Elsie’s response. And I think the issue is that swearing isn’t the problem as much as using profane words. People swear– and sometimes how they swear is part of their personality: Holy Cheese Wiz, Batman! I do all of the above in my novel to avoid profane words, but my middle grade MC has catch phrases she loves: Sugar Beets! Hold your Pickles, Snap! (she lives on a farm and her twin’s frustration phrase is Dung Beetles! (he likes bugs).

      I think if you have a teen character who swears you can also have a quick back story of someone like a grandma or favorite teacher or other person they admire who has challenged them to stop swearing and the teen starts or substitutes the word and everyone knows WHAT the teen wants to say without having to read it. Of course they will slip at some point– but use one of Elsie’s suggestion to cover it.

      I do feel that just because you can say or do something doesn’t mean you should. Some of the best insults, swears, come-uppance, scathing scenes have been written without even one profane word– making them all the more brilliant. Just my two cents.:)

      • February 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm

        Hey Monique,

        Nice to meet you and thanks for chiming in. I’ve gotten lots of rational, well articulated responses, yours now included, on all sides of the issue.

        • February 7, 2013 at 7:14 pm

          🙂 I will say this– it is easier to avoid swearing in my MG novel than my YA/NA family drama. 🙂 Even so, I prefer no profane language in my books– the ones I read and the ones I write. 🙂

  5. February 6, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks Teri. A great response. I might have to cut a few F-bombs from the Samaritan’s Pistol.

  6. Holly
    February 6, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I have to say that I love Elsie Park’s response. So much that I might go out of my way to find something written by them. I can handle the minor swear words, but if I see an “f word” in a book, I usually debate whether to continue on or not, especially if it is early on in the book. I always wonder how many more I will see, and what other content might show up in the book that I might not want to read at this point in my life. I personally do not like to see that word. If this is your first published book it will set the standard for what your readers can expect in the future. You might not want to lose potential readers unnecessarily. That being said, it’s YOUR book.

    • February 6, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Thanks Holly. Love the response. Words to consider before my last editing cycle. I think I’ve pared it down while remaining genuine as much as possible. I agree with you and Elsie. There are always ways to creatively portray characters.

  7. February 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    We just had a huge debate about this in our house. In my middle grade/young adult book One Shark, No Swim, book 2, I have a character reflect that he didn’t know somebody was such a bad-ass. My squeaky-clean 15 year old son went through the roof. When I argued that this was pretty mild and I doubted you could find a 12 year old who hadn’t heard it and that it described the situation pretty succinctly, he didn’t care. His whole concern was that I should be better than this. What will the church-going neighbors think?! When I remarked that I’d said worse daily in front of him, God, and the neighbors, he told me I wasn’t reacting the way I should. (He’d be an awesome Hell-fire preacher. Jiminy Cricket has nothing on him.)Finally, I said we’ll see what the editors say. But it does have me thinking–and watching my words a little more carefully.

    • February 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm

      Your response had me laughing mine off. At the end of the day, my characters swear less than I do, so I think I’ll sleep okay. I’m sure your second book will be on par with your first.

  8. February 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Great post, and having lived in PA, I totally understand the need to swear;} For me, it is a difficult decision. I have taught my children that we shouldn’t cuss. For me to cuss in my books would go against everything I’d taught them. The characters I write about in a couple of my books are drug smugglers. I somehow don’t think they’d hold to any moral code about swearing since they kill people at the drop of a hat, not to mention lace candy with heroin in hopes of getting children addicted. But still, I can’t do it. I debated long and hard on the issue. Most of my friends swear, in fact my LDS friend regularly drops the f-bomb. Do I think less of her because of it? No. Yet I still can’t do it. I’ve eluded to it. “He spouted off a list of swear words as he….”
    While having an internal debate about whether or not to include limited cussing in my work one day, the words to the young women’s theme (I was an adviser at the time) came to my head. “I will stand as a witness of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places.” I thought about not only my children reading my words, but of my young woman reading them and decided then I would only elude to swearing like in the sentence above.
    Do I think less of writers who include it? No, not at all. The choice is personal, one that each person must make for themselves. Thankfully we still live in a semi-free ;} society and can make these choices.
    Thanks again for the post.

    • February 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      Another great response. Thanks for reading. I pay all favors forward!

  9. Tim Keller
    February 6, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Great post Eric,
    If the character would say it, you have to write it. Otherwise the dialogue will come off as flat and unbelievable. And that in the end, will cause far more people to put the book down than a few well placed F-nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
    I look forward to reading your book.

  10. February 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    A well thought out and articulate response. Thank you!

  11. February 7, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    I’ve struggled with the idea of swearing in my writing, because I, too, am religious, and I served a mission myself to Paris, France back in the day. I don’t want my writing to reflect badly on me or my religious beliefs. But here is what I have finally come up with.

    I haven’t yet found that moment when no other word will work better than a swear word, but if I do, I will use it. Personally, I can separate myself from my characters. I create characters who lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, murder — why do I feel I have to stop at swearing? To me, it feels a little hypocritical. But I understand that there are authors who don’t feel that separation and who don’t feel comfortable using swearing. More power to them for choosing not to use profanity.

  12. February 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Great posting and fascinating comments. In my first book, I had a horrible, trashy, abusive father and I knew he wouldn’t say darn and heck. I struggled with how to represent him because I wanted his awfulness to be obvious and I wanted him to be real to the readers. At the time I was writing Gifted, I was the mom of four kids, age 16 down to 7 and a young women’s president. I know that in my own experience, when I read or watch something filled with profanity and foul language, I find that those words begin to come to my mind when I’m in a situation that would often provoke cursing. We’ve turned off movies and television shows because of too much bad language. I decided at that time that I’d figure out other ways to get display his vileness and to allude to his potty mouth. I didn’t want to have my book be something that would put those words into my children’s and young women’s minds and would make it more likely that those words would come to their minds and possibly lips. Stan’s character came through without using the actual words.

    Just because we hear it in music, movies, television, schools, the workplace, etc, doesn’t mean we should put more of it out there through our books. I can read over some swearing in a book (sort of editing it in my head) but if it’s excessive, I can’t finish a book.

    One thing to consider–and of course, it’s important to remember your audience–even though Gifted wasn’t aimed at younger readers, I had a few school teachers tell me that they read it to their classes and were glad that Anna’s story could be shared in a way that was appropriate for their elementary age students. If I’d actually printed all the words Stan would have used, I doubt that could have happened.

  13. February 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I write for two different audiences, one where my LDS publisher won’t allow a da** or he** through the editing process, which is fine with me. The main characters I have in these stories are Mormon and don’t swear anyway. They really reflect who I am. My reader audience will automatically know that PROFANITY is NOT INCLUDED when picking up my books from this publisher. But I also have several manuscripts aimed at the national market where I borrow those curse-type words straight out of the Bible, and I think we all know what those are without my having to spell them out here. I think it would be odd if my hardened CIA character didn’t let slip a swear word under an extreme circumstance every now and then. But never the f word, or I’d take her off the page and give her a good rewrite.

    I write mostly from the first person POV. They aren’t murderers and such, but heroes, and I can control how any villain’s language is interpreted on the page from the main character view. ie … He then let out a string of swear words that would make an old farmhand proud before balling up his big hand into a iron fist …

    I think fundamentally we write who we are. I was raised by a Mormon accountant and nowhere near a farm. I don’t swear as a rule, but over the past year I have deliberately, and strategically, called someone a jack*** and said da**, although not in the same breath. The only reaction I got was laughter–from my very shocked (bishop) husband, which in turned made me laugh so hard I forgot what I had been angry about to swear at to begin with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *