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Should you use profanity?

Swearing in books is something I often get asked about.

As someone who was brought up not to swear, it wasn’t an easy transition to include obscenities in my writing. I use them sparingly, if at all, because I’m conscious my parents read my books. (And don’t get me started on writing sex scenes but that’s a whole different blog post!)

Some readers are put off by excessive swearing. This was the case with me when I struggled to finish Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***. I think his advice is pretty solid, but I felt it got lost in all the F-bombs.

At the other end of the spectrum, such language is part of our culture so it would be difficult to imagine a ban on swearing in literature such as the law passed in Russia in 2014.

Like everything, it’s about balance, and if used appropriately and in the right context, swearing can add emotion to your writing. However, balance and context are very much open to interpretation.

Ultimately, as the author, it’s your call but here are four things you might want to consider when using profanity in your book:

1. Consider your genre

If you’re writing a children’s book, then obviously you’ll keep your language clean, but if you’re writing a war fiction series, it’s going to be difficult to add realism without at least a smattering of swearing. Other genres, such as crime, which feature tough criminals or hard-nosed detectives, often include swearing as part of the dialogue. Hard-core vulgarity is not always necessary though as authors such as Lee Child demonstrate.

2. Consider your character

In real life, we get angry and need an outlet – we’re only human after all. If that outlet for your character is swearing, then a well-placed expletive can reflect your character’s feelings succinctly. Character plays such an important role in good writing, so it’s important to stay true to the authentic voice of your protagonist.

3. Consider the alternative

Swearing or lazy writing? If you do decide to use profanity, make sure it’s not just a case of lazy writing and ask yourself if there’s a better way to tell the story. Also, remember that there are different types of expletives, so if you think you’ve gone too far, consider a less shocking option.

4. Consider your own feelings

If your book was published, would you be comfortable with it? Working on a manuscript, safe behind our desk, it’s easy to forget that people, including our family and friends, will read it. This point is beautifully emphasized by John Grisham when he was asked about swearing: 'I write a book I would be proud and comfortable for my mother to read. No cussing, no F words, nothing to embarrass her. She was my barometer.'

Seems like I’m not the only one guided by my parents!

What do you think about swearing in books?



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Karen Osman

I'm Karen, a best-selling novelist who left her corporate life to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Since then, I've written everything from travel articles to web copy before winning a novel writing competition which led to a 3-book deal. 


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