Should you use curse words in your story?
By T. Lynn Adams
At a recent back-to-school night, my child’s elementary teacher approached me and said she wanted to read a certain book to the class but there were curse words in the book. As a mother and a writer, how did I feel about that?
The book was by an award-winning author and did have a message, but my personal standards—as a mother and a writer--left me uncomfortable with the swearing.
Every writer has places in their work where they could add curse words. But should they?
From several sources, I have heard and read that cursing in stories distracts the reader, even temporarily. Swearing should be used sparingly, if at all.
The best (and most humorous) comment, however, came from a published author who did not attend any church and swore quite frequently. He did not like using curse words in his own writing because he said it caused the flow of the story to stop while the reader passed personal judgment on the use of that word. They may agree with its use or they may disagree. He further explained that even those who curse may think, I would have said something different. The point is, he taught, a curse word takes every reader out of the story for a split second while they decide to accept, reject, or correct that word.
I appreciated his wisdom and in my private, silly mind, considered asking him if he thought curse words in conversations did the same thing—but I decided to keep quiet.
Did you know that an expletive is a word, frequently profane, used to fill a vacancy in the text or replace another word? It does not add meaning; it adds emphasis.
So, if you’re not adding meaning or value to the text, should you use it? Is it a completely wasted word?
If you are using it only to add emphasis, are there other ways?
What if you are trying to paint an authentic character, an era, or a lifestyle and cursing is part of that? Are there other tools that can help you create that realistic portrayal?
Maybe my response to the teacher will help writers struggling with this dilemma. I told her when I read stories aloud to my children at home and I run across a curse word, I never say it. There are other ways around it. I may say, “he cursed” or “he swore” but I do not say the word.
As a mother, I feel children get enough profane from this world without me adding to it. As a writer, I cringe at anything that stops the flow of my story, even for a second.
That doesn’t mean curse words should never be used. In some places and at some times there may be nothing else left to say. As the writer of your story, you need to decide if a curse word is worth its affect, or if other tools or other words can be just as powerful. Remember, once in print a curse word is permanent; it will never come back out.