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.
- 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 exception: Go 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.