Monday, December 12, 2011

The Power of Profanity.

Do what mom says, not what mom says.

Full discloser, the first word my five month old heard was a swear word, and it was coming from the cheap seats.

But other than when I’m in the middle of natural childbirth, or about to be in a car crash, or really angry at my husband, I hardly ever swear. I can go years between swear words.

I choose not to swear on a daily basis, because then I when I do swear, it’s clear as all heck that I’m serious. 

My husband knows to go do the dishes… stat.

Swearing is like using an exclamation point. If you exclaim too much, then people will think you are insane. Nobody is that enthusiastic in real life. 

Holy pow, batman!
I really think so!!!!!


The sad thing is, that the more you see the exclamation point, the more you don't see it. And then, the less you see it, the more likely it is that you too will sign things on facebook with a billion exclamation points, or even worse... the colon parenthesis that is a smiling substitute.



Swearing is just like that. The more you hear it, or see it, the more likely it is that you too will start using it. That's just a fact that all mom's know, which is why when you write for MG, like I do, you have to watch the swearing. Moms buy the books. And not all mom's swear at their five second old infant, like... some people do.

Orson Scott Card agree's with me. He wrote that the more you swear, the more you limit your audience.

After all, you don’t see a High School or a Community Theater putting on a David Mamet play.

On the other hand, Stephen King writes about the importance of writing honestly. How do you write dialog that rings true, if you are embarrassed to use words because someone might not approve of them? People do swear.  If we want to create characters that are true, that are real, that become friends to the reader, then you should write them as truthfully as you can. If a character really would swear... then that character should swear.

I think the answer is to just write the first word that comes to mind. And then in editing, consider if the word is worth the price.

There's a cost, of course for losing the honesty that the first drafted word gives, but consider that sometimes the first word that comes to mind is difficult to spell, and if you are like me, you edit it out anyway.

Like the above somewhat humorous picture implies, most words could be substituted with another without any dire consequence to the story or to the world.

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” And, to an extent, I agree with that quote a hundred percent…

For certain words.

But not all words are created equal. Not all words are as powerful as lightning, or as magical as a lightning bug. Some words, like the word THE, or AND, are invisible words. They are not powerful, because they are used so often your eyes glaze past them unaware.

Could you tell me how many times I’ve used the word THE in this post? I could, but I’m not going to count them all. I have books to read.

Do you really want to diminish the power of your words by using your strongest words too often?

Swear words are automatically powerful words. These shame-filled words are instruments of rebellion. These words aren’t just made of letters, they are made with memories of the taste of soap, or shadowed hallways, or explosive fighting moments. These words have power. These words can add to the power of your story even BY NOT USING THEM, or by using them sparingly. 

Consider, for example a character who never swears, perhaps a soldier who is teased by the men at arms for his schoolmarm vocabulary. What if you spend some 40,000 words establishing this character who doesn’t swear, and then put him in danger and then let him swear. 


Swear words are just words. But they are also tools, and as a writer all words are your tools. Some words are like hammers or screwdrivers, and are fit for everyone, and others are more like chainsaws, and should be used carefully, and for a reason.

I think every word should fight to be there. Some words don’t fight fair, so it’s our job, as writers, to keep the words in line.

Just don’t tell my mom if... let's be serious...WHEN I swear.


  1. Wow, Sheena, you can go years between swearing. Impressive.

    I don't think I go a day without at least one swear word. My poor kids.

    One thing I've noticed is that using swear words makes me more angry and more frustrated. And I don't like that, so I should work on it. Those words do have power.

    As for writing. I'm a firm believer in making every word justify its existence. :)

    Oh and I like smilies. :) You can never overuse smilies. :) :) :)


  2. I struggle with this because I occasionally have a potty mouth, and I write adults who aren't afraid to use some R language here and there... BUT, what I've noticed is that it stands out more on the page. On a TV cop show, they can do it every other word and I barely notice (I know it bothers some people, I'm just not one of them.)

    On the page, though... it really sticks out. If I put swear-words as often as I thought was realistic, I would be littering some of the dialogue with f-bombs and they become like city lights, blocking out all the stars. I live in Los Angeles. I can vouch for light pollution :)

    Great advice, Sheena.

  3. This can be such a hard issue for me. On the one hand, I'm writing to teenagers, and I want my writing to have a positive impact. On the other hand, I'm writing to teenagers, and they can spot a fake a mile away. Orson Scott Card solves this by coining potty-mouth euphemisms. Frankly I don't want to litter my story with a lot of references to bowel movements. I end up saying, 'She cursed' a lot.

    Nice points, Sheena.

  4. I'm with Melanie on this one. My characters swear and curse but never say a peep inside of the quotation marks. It's way more just the way I was raised/my own comfort level, though.
    I don't put down books I'm reading because of swearing unless it's just ridiculously over the top - like the authors can't think of any good dialogue and so instead they decide to be gritty and 'real.' That always seems to be a cop out to me, ya know?
    Great post about the power of words. :) And smileys.

  5. I've noticed the same thing that Sarah noticed. When I read...say a story about someone being shot, and they mention blood splattering or something, I don't really notice it, but when I watch a movie and someone gets shot and blood splatters, it hits me super hard. Guess it goes to show how visual things translate stronger on a visual medium, and literary things translate strongly on a literary medium.

  6. Crap, I misspelled smileys. :)

    I'm with you Sarah and Sheena. Reading swear words is so much more jarring than hearing them. I hardly notice swearing in TV and movies.

  7. When I read your post MaryAnn, I thought you said "You can never overuse similes"...It made me think...

    Can you overuse similes the way you can overuse smileys?

    I know you can overuse ellipsis... not that anyone I know does that...

    True story, when I'm not sure if I should use a comma or a colon, I use an ellipsis.

    Free grammar tip for anyone reading.
    Oh crap, they're contagious!

  8. In that case, I misspelled similies. :)

    Either way my secrit is out that I'm not a very goud speller. :)

    Awesome grammar tip, and yes the smileys are contagious. :)


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