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I recently submitted some work to a well known magazine but just as I finished the final edit, I noticed something that gave me pause for thought. Contained within the lines of my finished article were a few naughty words. I was faced with an ethical and potentially commercially relevant conundrum.

Would these small little words, words that I use everyday, cause offence to the editor? Furthermore would they cause offence to the readers of the magazine?

For fuck’s sake I thought to myself as I held my head in despair, what is the right thing to do.

For arguments sake let’s look at the above sentence, I have used an expletive to express my real dilemma. I have not put it there to be controversial or cause offence. It is there because it reflects the reality of how I sometimes express myself and it is there because it makes a forceful statement as to the depth of my feelings.

Yes I could have used other words, and sometimes another word would be appropriate. However despite these valid artistic protestations, can swearing still cause offence even when the author is completely justified in swearing? And if the author is aware that offence may be caused should they compromise their artistic creation and change their writing?

I have read many advice columns and blogs stating categorically that in novels or poetry submissions you should avoid swearing completely. This to me seems incomplete advice, because if you have created a character that swears, and this swearing is integral to that character’s very being than surely swearing is justified. Furthermore some of the great authors include expletives within their work.

I think the best advice would be to judge the market you are pitching to, I don’t think bad language, like sex or violence, should be used gratuitously, but it can certainly have a place, depending on who you are aiming your work at.

On this occasion I took out the offending words, because whilst I felt they were justified within the context of the piece, I also recognised that they could be misconstrued as offensive and I definitely don’t want to offend anyone for the sake of causing offence.

I defend my right to challenge and experiment and have full freedom of speech but offence for offence’s sake seems somehow unkind. As always context is everything.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear your views on swearing. Let me know in the comments section below, please feel free to not keep it clean.

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15 thoughts on “Is there art in causing offence? (Should we *ucking swear?)

  1. This is such a good topic! I’m so glad I followed the link to it from Twitter. 🙂

    I’m deeply offended when people call women the B word, gay men the F word, or black people the N word due to their ugly, violent, hateful histories. Those words don’t have any redeeming qualities to me (other than being historically accurate if your protagonist lives in a time and place when that kind of verbal abuse is socially acceptable).

    I’m not at all offended by a character or author who says words like shit or fuck to vent some of their anger at an inanimate object or frustrating situation. Sometimes words like that help you feel a little better. More importantly, you’re not trying to make yourself feel better at the expense of someone who wouldn’t dare defend themselves.

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  2. Hi John,

    This is such a good point and one of the main reasons I don’t watch Hollywood films any more.

    Too much swearing takes the fun out of a good story.

    I’m an author too and even though I do use bad language occasionally, I take care to limit myself and only use these types of words where absolutely necessary.

    My point? Yes, it’s OK to swear but don’t take the piss 😉

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  3. I agree with lkwatts. The only movie good enough to put up with the cursing, in my opinion, is Good Will Hunting. The young men, being uneducated construction workers, looking for a good time in the bars at night are completely in character with their words.

    My dad used to say “If you can’t talk without cussing, you don’t have a good grasp of the English language.” I struggled with “language” in my first novel until I realized that Georgia men in a bar after a long day of labor can and do use bad language, just like the characters in the movie.
    I don’t worry about offending my audience. I don’t use profanity much myself, but the more young people I spend time with, the more I hear.

    I feel like I used profanity sparingly and only in the context of character development. They have to be believable. After all, how many murders or pot dealers do you know that don’t throw out a cuss word now and then?

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    • Thanks for stopping by to read the post. You offer some really interesting insights into character development. I think that swearing has the power to really force home a character’s personality or it can be a great tool in challenging reader’s on a certain subject. But you are quite right it has to be used sparingly other wise its impact is wasted. Good Will Hunting is a good example of where it works, there are others where the swearing is so frequent I find it jarring and then it removes me from the film, which can never be a good thing…

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  4. Good point – As an avid reader I don’t mind the occasional f bomb but to many and I stop reading that book. So many other words to choose from , is it there for the shock factor or just because another word could not be found? Same with films , to much and I switch off or over – but I do have a choice – to read or not, to watch or not. ( Facebook friends are also deleted if they swear to much as I don’t want to see it on my feed ) I don’t want to become desensitized to bad language as it really is not part of my everyday life.
    Sometimes I feel that people express themselves through bad language as they don’t have a concept of other expressive words.

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    • Thanks Nicky for reading and for taking the time to comment. You make an interesting point about choice, that’s really important I think. Everyone has the freedom not to watch or read, the same way the author or filmmaker has the right to make the film they want to. Thanks again. John

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  5. I agree with you that effective swearing depends on context and frequency. But, do you ever feel like you use swearing as a barometer to help determine how well you would get along with the person you are talking to?

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    • Thanks for your comments and for stopping by. That’s an intriguing question.. If I am in a relationship and that relationship develops to a place where I am comfortable swearing in front of them and they are happy for me to swear, I definitely feel a strengthening of my bond with that person. Also I wouldn’t dream of swearing every other word (not that I do anyway) with a person I barely knew. Again it comes back to context, I suppose?

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  6. A college English teacher reviewed one of my books recently and said he was disappointed that I didn’t use any foul language where it would have been appropriate. He said that he found at least a hundred places where I could have dropped the F-bomb. I told him that I found an equal number of places where I didn’t feel justified to do the same.

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  7. Pingback: Swearing as a fashion accessory is getting really old… | Notepad on Life

  8. If I’m going to submit a story to a magazine or book publisher, I read some other things they’ve published and see if they contain swear words. Otherwise, I just have my characters talk realistically, and if that involves cussing, then so be it. But I like to use those words sparingly, because I think it’s more effective that way.

    I encountered an odd situation when I read a book written by a friend of mine. It was basically a travel book, in which he drove along the entire border between Virginia and West Virginia, meeting all kinds of interesting people and and beautiful locals. It’s the kind of book anyone of any age can enjoy. Somewhere in the middle of the book is a quote from some scientist, talking about coal mining, that includes the word “fuck.” I asked him, why did you put that in there? He answered, “Because that’s what the guy said.” I suggested that he change it to a different word, simply because it wasn’t important to the story, and there was a whole demographic of readers (like my mother) who might love the book and recommend it to their friends if but for that one word. My friend didn’t agree with me and left it they way it was. I would have taken it out. It seems like an ambush. It was like (and keep in mind I’m exaggerating here to make a point):

    “The little country church was nestled in a valley, surrounded by autumn leaves. Not far away, New River sparkled in the sun. I bet the fucking fish were biting. The parson’s wife had baked an apple pie…”

    So, to me, I have no problem with curse words. Words are just words – they don’t hurt anyone. But it depends on who you want to read it.

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    • Thanks, great comments and illustrated really well. I think you are right, it just depends on the situation. I’m definitely for using them but in moderation so they retain their effectiveness.
      Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

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  9. I agree with all who say you have to look at your market. But if that is not an issue, then my thoughts are closest to yours in your post. I use profanity when it applies to the situation. It makes sense. I have this issue with trying to be creative and not sound the same all the time. I also have an issue with there being so much profanity that it rises above the text and distracts me from it.

    I used to say that some videos and novels were using more profanity than I hear around me on a daily basis, but that is no longer true. It is everywhere.

    As for trying not to offend, well that is impossible. Barring putting profanity in a religious publication or a church bulletin, you’ll never please everyone anyway.

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