Characters · dialogue · Edgy · Profanity · Reflection

There’s Something About Cusswords…


Oh shoot! Darn it! Bummer. Cheese and crackers. We’ve heard all the substitutes for cussing in life and on the written page. But no matter how you look at it, cussing is a proverbial part of real life, and all too often it is used in excess within the youth culture.

Huh?

That’s right — how many times have you stood in line behind a gang of teens talking about f-ing thing and sh@t that? More words are dropped in five minutes than in my entire bad day (depends on the day). However, when it comes to writing for young adults, less cussing means more… as in more readers, more parents that allow your readers to read your books, and more profit for your publisher.

On Twitter’s #kidlitchat, our conversations often go in different directions and strange offshoots. Tonight’s topic was about grammar. It ended up on the heavy about cussing in young adult novels. Editors and writers weighed-in on how a few f-bombs can blacklist your story, rip it off the shelves of your library and darn it to no-man’s land. Some writers stated that it’s a big turn-off when there’s too much cussing. Others felt compelled to cuss right there in the chat.

One of my writer friends, Jason, noted, “It’s a writing challenge to say something smarter than the generic 4-letter word reaction.” Indeed, he is correct. A well-thought-out quip, combined with action, speaks more than any cussword in terms of positioning your character. Is he/she bad? Do they need cigarettes and bad words as props? Better to show your characters being bad than giving them the easy way out.

Is there a happy medium when it comes to bad words in YA? How many cusswords is too many? I don’t particularly like gratuitous cussing. When a bad word is placed well, it has impact. Placed too often, it impacts the reader and makes him want to close the book.

Now, I’ve used bad language in the stories I write. I believe they can be cut to the bare minimum, leaving the actions of my characters to do the real talking. However, I’ll leave that to the editors. In the meantime, I’m taking a hard look at my current WIP to see where cussing doesn’t make sense… and that just might pertain to the entire story.

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10 thoughts on “There’s Something About Cusswords…

  1. Great Post, Julie! I think leaving some of it to work out w/whatever editor you are working with is a good idea. Ideally, you and your editor will work together to put out the strongest, best book imaginable.

    I’ve read edgy YA novels that are filled w/cuss words and other that are not. I think it’s true that you may limit readership w/too many cuss words, or, maybe you’ll just attract a different type of reader. Shift the demographics a bit. Lose a few, gain a few.

    My current WIP has almost no cuss words, but my book on submission…it’s peppered w/them, even after an edit before I queried it to access how many there were. It’s set in a school for the down and out, and for certain characters, cuss words are part of their vocab. My agent didn’t edit out any of the strong language from my book. My book is not as heavy on the cuss words as many of the books on my reading list, but the f-word is in the first chapter.

    I think the important thing is to not use the swearing as a crutch, only use it when it’s the best way to be authentic. I think less is usually more w/swear words, slang, dialect…etc.

    1. Thanks, Paul! Your post got me thinking about the story I have on sub. My agent didn’t cut any of the language, and it does lend itself to the character that says most of it (a rough boy going through chemo for leukemia). Most of the people i’ve known in bad situations (health, family, drugs, alcohol, etc.) cussed. Some more than others. As a crutch, though, cussing is never good.

      – Julie

  2. If it fits the characters or genre, then it makes the writing authentic. I’ve read books where one character doesn’t curse at all, while the other one does. Also, in light-hearted genres I don’t see curse words as much, while other genres (edgy, darker) will use them more.

    1. Very keen observation… kind of like seasonings in different types of food. A little edgy? How about some chili powder? Lighter food? A dash of salt. I must admit that sometimes I start with a hefty sodium load and my inner editing doctor tells me to cut back! Authenticity rules here, particularly with YA. The readers know what they are reading, and if it isn’t right, they’ll put down the book.

      – Julie

  3. A lot depends on the tone of the story.

    IMO, you can’t write about a thug world and use, what I call, soft words. Chances are, the kind of parents that would weed out the curse-word-heavy works are the same that wouldn’t allow their child to read my dark-themed YAs in the first place.

    I agree, impacting a sentence, especially a dialogue sentence, is more of a challenge without the cussing but, for me, *not* cussing can also ruin a character.

    Let’s say you have a cop from the D, murder capital of the world…and he stubs his toe. “Gosh darnit!”

    From that dialogue alone I think…extreme religious Dudley-Do-Right. Is that a fair assessment? Maybe not. But in writing, I feel as though you almost have to be stereo-typical in some things to be believable.

    Most people, when they think of a badass cop stubbing his toe, would expect to hear “Muther F**K!” or “Dammit!” at the very, very least.

    Another example. My new erotic release. A new editor tried to take out a swear word and replace it with language that didn’t fit the character.

    Think about a hot woman, the male’s internal thoughts were: “Aw, f**k, I can’t wait to…” (I’ll spare you the sentence.)

    She wanted to replace it with: (and this is no lie!) “Oh, dear. I can’t wait to…”

    Oh dear? My character’s mancard was in danger of getting revoked!

    LOL. I dunno. I don’t think it’s appropriate to swear in YAs to the point it defines your voice but honestly, teens swear. Pretending they don’t detracts from authenticity.

    Great topic, Julie!
    Thanks for allowing me to respond.

    1. Thank you for your comment! You had me at “Oh, dear.” LOL! Different genres call for different everything, from the language to the way characters dress. With my edgy YA stories, there is some cussing but nothing you wouldn’t find in a high school today. Bad words must be merited in what I create. If I was writing a happy-go-lucky YA story, I would definitely use less of everything you might find in my edgy stories.

      LOL – your editor must have been having one of those days. 🙂

      – Julie

  4. An interesting blog. It’s been my experience that, if the story is told in the right way, what’s left off of the page is rarely noticed. If you keep a reader involved, they tend to think about what they’re experiencing or what the character is experiencing. As for a younger reading audience, it’s never a bad idea to show them a better way.

    1. Hi Jason! Positioning the characters is of utmost importance… to guarantee reader involvement. As I noted below, different genres call for different things. Older teen books are different than the MG/YA genre, in that they explore more adult themes. Whether this involves bad language or other stuff depends on the story and the character of the characters (say that three times! LOL!). I agree that the younger the audience, the more important it is to show them a better way. Positives benefit everyone.

      – Julie

  5. But do you not think given the ubiquity of profanity that having teens in stories who don’t swear is a little odd? Having said that I do admire some of the tv screen writers who provide compelling shows set in situations where cussing must be an everday occurence and yet they never resort to it.

    1. I agree with you… teens in fiction, without swearing, is like peanut butter without the jelly. You can have it, but it’s not quite right.

      Funny thing about the screen writers, and those shows in general – no cussing, but lots of interesting sex (gee, am I thinking of that particular Gossip Girl episode?). I don’t usually watch those shows, however, I was a big fan of the original 90210 and Melrose Place “back in the day.” LOL!

      – Julie

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