Monday, June 24, 2013

Cursing in Novels

Happy Monday everyone! I hope you all were able to see the awesome supermoon and enjoy the longest day of the year!

Today I wanted to discuss an interesting topic in writing, cursing. For most of you, this is not the edit you ever look for, but today I want to address why it’s important to be aware of this edit in particular.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that this is a subjective topic; different writers and editors will have different opinions in regards to it.

What the Editor Thinks about Cursing
Depending on the editor you talk to, you’ll get varying answers. The traditional opinion is to use none or a couple curse words at max. I believe that opinion is changing as more and more individuals self-publish since the novels they release tend to be edgier, and that includes cursing.

I actually happen to like a bit of cursing in the novels that I read. Not so much that it becomes distracting, but enough to know that these are real people that I’m reading about rather than some goofy cartoon that says doggonit instead of goddamnit (and so on). But this too is not black and white—a writer can convince me of anything if they execute it masterfully enough.

What the Reader Thinks
Funny enough, you can have gory murder scenes and raunchy sex scenes without garnering too much reader anger, but if you curse or take the Lord’s name in vain too many times, readers will deduct stars from their reviews. I’ve seen it; it makes no sense in many cases. Still, as a writer, you should be aware of this.

Why Do Readers Get Upset?
Most people curse or have cursed at some point in their lives. Cursing can be distasteful, but it’s certainly not taboo in many real world situations.

So why are readers upset?

My guess is that readers feel that the language itself is getting butchered. And many times writers can dig deeper than a curse word and come up with some truly exquisite ways of expressing themselves. (Just look at all the creative insults Shakespeare came up with instead of cursing.)

There’s also such a thing as escalating emotional conflict too quickly, and I believe this applies to curse words. Readers can feel that the text reads too unnaturally if, at the drop of a hat, a reader goes from content to dramatically unhappy, to incensed, and then back to happy. This same concept can apply to the actual language itself. If the reader feels the writer writes the book a certain way, and then wham, there’s a curse word, it’s jarring and perhaps unbelievable. Curse words stick out like a sore thumb, so the more of these you have, the less believable your writing might be.

What You Should Do
No, you don’t have to remove all of your swear words. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not against curse words in writing. A few of them strategically placed can really improve the shit out of a book.

Instead, assess your own opinion on the issue, and don’t let the thought of a few negative reviews dissuade you—I promise that those negative reviews won’t disappear, they’ll just criticize a different aspect of your novel. I would suggest going through your manuscript and thinning out the curse words wherever possible and leaving in those that enhance the text. Below I’ve also included a great alternative to curse words.

Good Replacements
It’s going to sound ridiculous, but when it comes to curse words, sometimes telling is better than showing. This is one of the few occasions where I’ll ever say that, so don’t go buck wild with the telling! The lines that always seem to work are, “S/he swore,” and “S/he cursed.” Here’s an example of the difference:

“This is fucking bullshit.” 
He swore.

This type of paraphrasing keeps the language classy while allowing the reader to know that the character cursed. 

Because this is such a subjective topic, I’m not going to give you a hard and fast rule here. However, if you want to play it safe, keep cursing to a minimum in your novel. Readers tend to dislike swearing in novels, and they will give your book a lower review—or at the very least comment on it—if it bothers them. However, I do like reading books that are edgier, and my guess is that as more authors self-publish, readers will be exposed to more curse words, and this post might appear ridiculous in a few years. Until then, consider the pros and cons of curse words in your novel based on this information, and correct as needed.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. I'm probably guilty of a few too many swears in some of my longer pieces. Under the right circumstances I can swear with the best of them, but the first time I felt a piece of writing needed a curse, it was quite hard to actually put it on the page. I thought, 'My kids might read this some day!'

  2. The one thing I was always taught in my novel writing class was that if a curse is warranted, use it -- but to be aware that every time it is used, its impact decreases.

  3. Shoot! That really makes sense! :) Good points, Laura. Unless cursing is done well, and completely in the character's character, not the author's character, I think it's distracting. Jack Reacher, in the Lee Child novels, can curse once in a while - he's a vet with an attitude. And I met Lee Child at a writer's conference (with my mom) and he's an English gent. So it's definitely Jack Reacher who is cursing, not the author.

    I can't wait to hear the voice of your characters in The Unearthly. She looks pretty sassy on the cover.