Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Swearing in Books

Let’s play a game. I want you to think about milk. Think about its color, its texture, how it feels as it slides down your throat and spreads through your stomach. Think of everything about milk – the cow it comes from, the carton it sits in, warm milk, cold milk, and whatever else you can think of.

Now set a timer for 30 seconds. I want you to say the word “milk” as quickly as you can for the entire 30 seconds.

Did you do it?

Come on, if you don’t do it, it will kind of kill this post.

When you say a word that many times, you start to focus on the sound of the word more than the meaning of the word. Eventually, the word has little meaning at all. Scientists call this process “defusing.”

Therapists use this technique on patients by asking them to pick a word that causes them pain, like “bullying,” or “abuse.” When they say the word over and over, it loses its potency and doesn’t cause them the same degree of pain. (Resource: Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life, by Steven C. Hayes.)

Artistically, the whole point of swearing is to cause a jolt. The jolt can be used to get someone’s attention, express intense emotion, or make a joke stand out. The more you use a jolt, the less “jolting” it becomes.

Before I see movies, I like to go to a website called KidsInMind.com. It rates the movie’s levels of violence, sexuality, profanity, etc. Reading it prevents me from having to walk out on a movie I already paid ten bucks for. I thought "Funny People" would be good and looked it up. I found out it said the F-word a whopping 151 times.

That’s a *tad* excessive. There is no word in the English language that should be said 151 times in the course of two hours (except maybe “the”).

I decided not to see that movie, but if I had, I doubt the swearing would have bothered me.  I would have defused the meaning.

Personally, I think swearing is kind of cheap. It’s a way to add emphasis when your ability to write doesn’t make the language colorful enough on its own.

I feel the same way about italics. I hate italics more than anything because everyone uses them all the time and they always think it makes the words better when it doesn’t do anything but confuse me and everyone else.

But if you do decide to use swearing (or italics), you can use it artistically to your advantage... if you can use it in moderation.

Post of the day: Kristen Lamb on what the first 20 pages tells an agent.


  1. Hey, this is a great post. And I totally agree about the use of profanity, be it in writing, film, or conversation. There are precious few, if any, situations where profanity is actually necessary. And almost any use of profanity brings down the quality of the writing, if you ask me. There are so many other ways to express what you mean...and most of them make you sound much more intelligent.

  2. Good fucking post!

    Too much swearing yanks me right out of the story.

  3. LOVE the post. I've been arguing this forever, but you did it so much better than I could.

    Though I've been talking with a pastor friend of mine and realizing that my definition of "swearing" and his are very different. I use "Oh my God" without thinking twice. It offends him.

    I feel the same way about sex, too. I like a good steamy scene as much as the next lady, but unless it has a point, I don't want to read about it.

    You rock.

  4. I agree with the swearing. Some people, and therefore some characters, are just the sort of people who swear a lot. It's up to the writer to make sure you use it sparingly so that it doesn't lose impact. Like pepper!

  5. A big thank you to everyone except Dan. Dan, shame on you.

  6. Some opportunities are just too good to pass up.

  7. This post reminds me of the word "like." I think people who overuse this word don't even register it anymore as contributing content to their sentences. It's just a filler.

    Another pet peeve of mine is writing the thoughts of your character (in italics!) every other paragraph. Unless your characters are communicating telepathically, it really slows down the pace and, if it needs to be there, does not need to be written in italics!

    Don't know if you've seen this other angry baby picture: http://www.sw-fans.net/imagegallery/data/502/get-to-the-choppa.jpg It's one of my favorite XD

  8. Emery: I KNOW. I also hate "um" and "you know what I mean?" Luckily, people speak like that and don't write like that.

    Love the picture. Thanks for sharing!


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