Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Oh, The Profanity!

Last week I read a novel I’d checked out of the local public library. (It was very good, thank you, a thriller by Greg Iles. I’ve just discovered him.) As I read I noticed with more than a little disquiet that a previous library patron had taken it upon themselves to scratch out all the profanity with blue ink.

This upset me on several levels. First, I don’t write in any or my books, unless I’ve bought it specifically as a “study” book. In those cases, I have another, pristine copy. Books are valuable, to be treasured, not defaced. Second, this particular book did not belong to the person with the pen. They were defacing someone else’s property. Third, is the issue of censorship. I mean who are they to decide that I (or anyone else) should not be exposed to profanity?

It is the censorship issue that I’m most concerned with today. Obviously (because of this censorship incident) that profanity bothers a certain slice of the reading public. What does that mean for us as writers of fiction? Do we use profanity in our work? Do we make an effort to “clean” up our work to avoid the controversy?

There are a few lines of reasoning at play here. Perhaps the most important (I know it is in my case anyway) is Mother’s voice in the back of our head saying “it’s a sign of low class,” or “a limited vocabulary.” Though I have been known to use a bit of profanity in my speech, it is infrequent and mostly when I lose my temper. Let’s face it, when you’re really mad, nothing is more satisfying than a torrent of profanity.

And, to a certain extent, Mom was right. The standard image of the upper class in English-speaking society does not include the public use of profanity. One does not expect to hear a lot of cussing at, say, a Metropolitan Opera gala. “Polite” society does not talk that way. Not in our imagination, anyway. Now, switch to a poverty-stricken urban crack house and we’d be surprised if f-bombs weren’t dropping all over the place.

And that’s where it applies to our writing. Characterization. Writing a realistic scene involving an upper class gathering where profanity is constantly used would not ring true, but using such language in a scene at a crack house would add a touch of realism to the scene. Even if all the addicts involved are fallen Harvard literature professors, readers would expect a certain amount of gutter talk. As the saying goes, it goes with the territory.

Any reader who objects to the use of profanity in such circumstances has no business reading that kind of material. They really don’t want to know about it.

One of my personal pet peeves is when a fiction work (it most often happens in American network television, but novels and motion pictures are not immune) that tries to be realistic, yet has some under-educated gangster type speaking like a nun. It just doesn’t ring true. I am a pretty solid middle class guy and I have few friends that speak like a nun. Come on.

Another use for profanity is probably one of the most popular (especially for children in front of their parents and the counter-cultural types) is for shock value. In my newest novel, Deception Island, I use the f-word once. That is when the bad guys kill her dog and she’s hurt and very, very angry. It’s the only time in the entire book she uses such language. As such, I thought it a good way to express the depths of her fury. Precisely because it wasn’t her usual diction.

Just as in writing about sex, often with profanity less is more.

Above all, we writers need to write the story. Profanity should be like any other aspect of the story: it needs to add to the package. The story needs to be better with the profanity in it, than it is without it. If that isn’t true it should be edited out. That decision rest with the writer and the writer alone. She needs to take the advice of beta readers and editors, but ultimately the story is hers. It needs to be her decision.

That being said, the decision should never be made solely because the author is afraid of offending someone. You are always going to offend someone. If it isn’t your use of profanity, it will be your choice of subject matter, or your underlying political view. Nothing kills creativity like trying to please everyone. That is a surefire way to take the soul out of whatever you are writing.

And to all the readers out there. On behalf of writers and authors everywhere, I am sorry if something you are reading offends you. I can honestly say that was not our sole purpose. So we do apologize.

But please, if you are offended, do us all a favor. Close the offending book and walk away. Return it to the library, or give it to someone who might appreciate it. Please do not cross out the offending passages. Do not rip pages out of the volume. This is a book. It is the result of many hours of hard work and many sleepless nights.

Just move on to something you do like.

Just have some respect.


2 thoughts on “Oh, The Profanity!

  1. I agree with this post. Even though we may come across books that we don’t like, if it is not our property, we should leave the book alone. The best that can be done is to close the book and return it to where it was found. Too bad the person who vandalize the book was not caught. They should have been made to pay for the book and keep it.


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