Language! Language! A Guide to Profanity in Literature

What’s appropriate when it comes to using “inappropriate” language in your writing? It’s a question that has divided readers, defined writers, and given librarians more than a headache or two.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a societal swing toward the normalization of expletives in our culture. (Just think of what used to get bleeped out on the radio 15 years ago vs. what’s played today.) It’s no longer taboo to have swearing in most types of writing, though the frequency and the type (e.g. “hell” vs. an f-bomb) can vary greatly depending on the audience and the subject matter.

When writers ask, “Can I include a swear word in my novel?” the answer, usually, is yes. Below, I’ve put together a quick guide for different age groups using movie age ratings (G, PG, PG-13, etc.) to give you a guideline for go-to language. And at the end of the post, you can read up on what other folks think about cursing in literature.

Picture Books

  • Rule of thumb: G
  • My two cents: Keep it G rated. Period. If your picture book is intended for children (see the exception below), you’re writing for kids ages 0 – 8. Most parents and grandparents don’t want to introduce cursing to kids at that age, and I honestly can’t think of a single picture book that would be improved with a dash of swear-word salt. So skip the seasoning and keep on writing.
  • The exceptionGo the F*** to Sleep. It’s technically a picture book, but it’s definitely not for kids. If you haven’t already, listen to Samuel L. Jackson read it here. (You’re welcome.)

Middle Grade

  • Rule of thumb: PG, sometimes PG – 13
  • My two cents: Kids are exposed to all kinds of language in late elementary school and middle school, but middle grade writing remains relatively curse free. While the occasional swear word isn’t out of place, you’re still writing for a younger audience, and oftentimes even younger kids will be reading up. If using a swear word is important to the plot or a character, use it. Otherwise, I’d stick to more PG turns of phrase. (Also, keep in mind the parents and teachers who may be reading your story aloud. They probably don’t want to have to dodge too much profanity.)

Young Adult

  • Rule of thumb: PG-13
  • My two cents: Teens swear…sometimes more than adults do. Creating an authentic teen voice often involves swearing, and plenty of amazing stories would earn an R rating at the movies. At the same time, great novels can be written with “clean” language for this age group. In the end, it comes down to the writer’s preference and the characters’ voices. I wouldn’t recommend writing a YA novel the way you would an HBO script, but don’t feel like you have to censor yourself either. (And then get a real teen reader to tell you if you’re doing it right or wrong.)

Adult

  • Rule of thumb: anything goes
  • My two cents: It’s the wild, wild west out there. I never recommend using swear words like they’re a one-size fits all adjective—that’s just lazy writing—but you get to create your own rules for your own work.
  • The exception: If you’re writing academic nonfiction, I’d keep the sailor talk off the page. Unless, of course, you’re directly quoting an individual or source with colorful language. Otherwise, it just feels out of place.

The best ways to know if you’re on the right track with your language are A.) to read a LOT of books in your genre, and B.) to get beta readers from your intended audience to test your manuscript out. There may not be hard and fast rules when it comes to using expletives, but your readers will always help you stay on the right path.

Read On…

“How to Use Profanity And Other Raw Talk In Your Fiction”: Writer’s Digest

“Books in America are full of swear words: the more recent, the more profane”: LA Times

“Is It Okay to Curse in Middle Grade Books?”: From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

“Profanity in Teen Novels: Characters Who Curse Are Often the Most Desirable”: Time

“YA Books Rife with Profanity, Study Finds”: School Library Journal

8 thoughts on “Language! Language! A Guide to Profanity in Literature

  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting post, Jillian! I usually try to stay away from books that have major swearing in them, but I also hate it when everyone is peachy perfect and no one ever gets upset, or yells, or anything. It’s almost just as irritating to read a “perfect” character as it is to read one that swears occasionally. And while I don’t like how there’s so much profanity in books nowadays(and other things…), I think that it is okay to put some in. While I’ll never drop the f-bomb in one of my novels, I also won’t make my characters swear with “By the butterflies and rainbows!”
    As for reading… I am okay with reading some swearing, but I don’t like reading books where the frequency of swear words is higher than that of a normal conversation.
    Again, great post!
    ~Sarah

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Josie Beth says:

    I’m a teen writer/reader, and I prefer for books I read not to have any cursing in them. Rebelliouswriting.com is a website other teens with the same belief created, hoping to change the norm. To me, saying “she cursed” is realistic enough — I typically write something like “He screams swears. He never swore, at least in front of me, before he went to prison.” That tells me what he’s doing and showing character without the actual language. However, I know most teens don’t have any censorship and don’t care, so it doesn’t matter too much to the industry. Interesting post all the same. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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