Cussing in Creative Writing

Fairly recently, Tom Hanks dropped the F-bomb on Good Morning America and the bad word police shit their pants in response. It’s irritating that I’m from a country that has organizations devoted to monitoring television for profanity. But since I’m a writer who grew up in a culture where swearing is the eighth deadly sin, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what place it has in poetry and fiction.

In middle school I read through Michael Crichton novels like they were candy. There was violence and swearing, but nothing that was too over the top. However, I remember getting Rising Sun from the library and opening it up to see the two lead characters dropping the F-word all over the place. It was so bad that my mom read a random page and decided that it was too much for my young, impressionable mind. A few years later I read some books by the Christian author, Frank Peretti. They were all fine, I suppose, but what always stuck out to me was how toned down they were. Here were novels that had demons–the literal soldiers in Satan’s army–flying around causing all sorts of ruckus, but never once said a foul or terrible thing. (Speaking of foul and terrible things, if you’re bored and want to read a Christian horror novel with violence but not a single swear word, check out House by Peretti and Dekker. The horror part is that it’s so bad, you’ll not be able to forget it.)

Anyway, as a young writer I was confronted with whether or not to use swear words. Of course, I chose to use them, but only for the sake of capturing reality. People swear. There’s no sense in ignoring it. However, some authors decide that swearing will be their gimmick and proceed to pepper their writing with it as if their story were unseasoned chicken. This is a mistake that a lot of beginning writers make (including me). They’ll write a story in first person and think that to capture the character they need to make it sound a certain way. But because the repetition of any word is annoying, this simple gimmick hurts much more than it helps.

While I love the vulgarity of Bukowski, I can’t put swearing into my own poetry. The best reason I can think of is that swearing sounds crass. Strangely, this bothers me. I’d like to think of myself as a writer who doesn’t confine himself within a set of arbitrary rules, yet not matter how many times I attempt to break this rule, I just can’t do it. I fear this limits me, but at the same time I like to think that it’s an added challenge for me to convey an emotion with using the easiest and basest of language.

I’d love it if swearing wasn’t taboo. Or at the very least it should be considered on par with jay walking. If someone says “darn” in place of “damn” it still means the same thing. A child hearing it isn’t going to disintegrate into a pool of flesh soup. It’s ridiculous that I live in a country where you can say “ass” but not “ass hole” on television, yet one of the best selling books of this year was Fifty Shades of Grey. And it’s use of “ass hole” is far different than anything you’re not allowed to hear on television.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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One thought on “Cussing in Creative Writing

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  1. For me, there are two golden rules with swearing: honesty and context. I would call them 1a and 1b because they are somewhat reliant on each other. As you said, people cuss. Sometimes, a ‘minor” swear word, or even a regular word, can be terribly offensive, while a word we might consider vile could be the sincerest expression of a soul. The aesthetics of the word are peripheral in that light.

    For example, I have a friend who uses the F-word they way other people use ‘like’. You almost don’t notice it, whence context comes into play. If I was writing her as a character, I would use the F-word in the context that she uses it, but not as much as she does for the simple fact that it would be distractingly redundant.

    I don’t have any compunction about using curse words in my writing. I actually love it, vulgar or otherwise. It definitely lends its own flavor to language. Even when it is offensive, I have no problem with it, particularly when offense is intended. I call that effective writing. We play the role of God when we write, to become–to create–voices, characters, and perspectives that may or may not be our own. Writing is about throwing a yoke over our imagination, desires, dreams, and fears, in an effort to drive them toward a desired end. I don’t think any path leading to that end should be barred from us.

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