Writing Advice #39: Cursing

Two weeks ago, Sarah D. posted in the comments:

I have a unrelated question. Cussing in YA. I struggle with this so much. In my normal life I never cuss. That’s just me. In my book I find myself wanting to cuss all the time. My problem is how do I show emotion–like anger–without cussing. When are good places to use it…when aren’t? I basically would just love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Well, shit.

Heh. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

I find it interesting that in your personal life, you never curse, but when you sit down to write, you want to let loose with the expletives! I say go for it. Look, if you think that it makes sense for a kid to say “fuck” or “asshole” at a point in time, do it.

If you feel uncomfortable, though, having “those words” in a book with your name on it, then I advise you to work around them. If you don’t really want them in your book, they’re going to come across as insincere, as something you threw into the book in some vain pursuit of “edge” (whatever the hell that is). No one is going to judge you for NOT dropping the f-bomb in your book! Above all, you have to be comfortable with what you write — you’re the primary audience, after all.

The flipside of this is: Kids curse. They do it all the time. It’s just a fact of life. That doesn’t mean that you HAVE to curse in your book, but don’t for a minute think, “I can’t use THIS WORD — kids are going to read this book!” Believe me; they’ve seen, heard, and said it all already.

Curse words are like any other words. You use them when they work and you don’t use them when they don’t. Don’t separate them out into their own category.

I love curse words. Oh, man, do I love them! They are so expressive and so powerful and so much fun. And sometimes only a “bad word” will do. As David Levithan has put it: “He lied to me” and “He fucking lied to me” are two entirely different statements, two entirely different sentiments.

But there are, of course, other ways to express emotion without resorting to curse words. Basically you just want to be sure to employ your full repertoire of verbs: seethe, rage, explode… Adjectives, too: desperate, exasperated, conflicted… These will all communicate the same thing as “I could fucking kill you!” or “I thought you loved me, but you turned out to be a lying asshole.”

Just as there’s always more than one way to write a book (or a sentence), there is always more than one way to express an extreme emotion. You don’t have to channel your inner Andrew Dice Clay. (Kids, check Wikipedia — the grown-ups know who I’m talking about.)

My thoughts on cursing in YA in general… It’s like anything else, in that it depends on the book. Look, like everyone else on the planet, I have my own internal stratification for Those Words, ranging from the tame “hell” all the way up to the big ones. (For my own amusement, I was going to actually type up the entire Ladder O’ Swearing for this post, but then I realized I really didn’t want the Google hits that would result!) In real life, I go up or down that ladder depending on the subject matter, my comfort level with the surrounding group, and — quite possibly — my level of intoxication. (And, uh, the level of intoxication of the group.)

In fiction, I go up and down the ladder purely dependent on the story itself and the characters.

In my first book, I drew the line at “shit.” I decided — for reasons I can’t remember any more — that no one would say anything worse than “shit.” Oh, there were plenty of “goddamns” and “assholes” and all that, but I didn’t haul out the f-bomb or anything more intense.

For my second book, I dropped in “fuck” almost on page one. I knew that this was a different kind of book. The kids were more mature. The subject matter was more intense. I wanted to signal that to the reader right from the get-go, and I could think of no better shorthand than by front-loading the word I’d avoided in my first book.

In my third book,
 I decided to pull back. I wanted the ideas — the meaning of heroism and patriotism — to take center stage, so I deliberately toned down the language, limiting myself to a single “fuck,” and that from a decorated war hero. I felt that it would have more punch that way, much the way Inigo Montoya’s final words to Count Rugen really get you in the gut because no one has sworn throughout The Princess Bride.

For Goth Girl Rising, I knew that Kyra would have a foul mouth, but I also knew that — for reasons that become evident by the end of the book — she wouldn’t say “fuck.” So I salted her language with “bitch” and “goddamn” and “asshole” and enough “shit” to fertilize the Mojave Desert. (My editor asked me to “cut the shit in half, please.” I think I took out a few, but not nearly half.)

So, as you can see, I took a different approach with each book. I don’t think your question/conundrum is binary at all. It’s multi-pronged. In some stories, you might want/need a kid to swear. In others, you may dodge the issue. (The easiest thing in the world is to write, “Billy swore as he hit himself on the thumb with the hammer” as opposed to “Billy yelled ‘Fucking goddamnit!’ as he hit himself on the thumb with the hammer.”)

Realize that if you employ anything stronger than “hell,” you’re automatically limiting your audience. There are communities out there that will consign your book to the dung heap of history for the crime of having someone say things you can hear on prime-time broadcast television, much less stuff on HBO. This is a risk you take. It’s not one I think about that much, to be honest with you, but it’s there.

In short, I am happy to give you a strong, unwavering, “It depends.” 🙂

Oh, but seriously, there is one other thing to consider, and that is that I firmly believe that from a readability standpoint, the following rule applies to swearing: Less is more or more is more, but some doesn’t work. In other words: People who swear usually do it often. If you’ve decided that your character will swear, go for it. If you’ve decided they don’t (or that you’re going to save a good, juicy curse for a climactic moment), then stick to that. There’s nothing more jarring in the world than reading a book in which swearing is studiously avoided, only to suddenly stumble upon a page of “fuck this” and “fuck that” followed by more pages in which no one swears.

That totally fucking sucks.

As always, please fire away in the comments below, especially if you have questions.


  1. That’s your idea of how to set the mood? By including top-level swearing? Please. You of all people, having a degree in English and all, should know that usage of profanity is a sign of a decidedly miniscule vocabulary.

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