On Writing : The F word... Should you use it in your book? by D.E. White

The F word... Should you use it in your book?

I was flicking through reviews (the one stars obviously because, you know... you do lol), and noticed that a lot of the one stars are readers being offended by my characters swearing. Interestingly, readers in the US are more offended, and more likely to add authors shouldn't use swear words. Hmmm... The thing is, I write gritty crime novels, and as a rule my characters do not live in the kind of worlds where they would say "Oh goodness me, or oh gosh." I mean, I don't say things like that myself... I'm not sure why this is even a thing? Sanitised crime or sanitised real life? I agree a book shouldn't be peppered with swear words just for shock value, but the F word does get used a lot in daily life and for a genuine and authentic character dialogue it is going to come up. I wonder if these people who are shocked by swear words in books are also shocked by swear words in film and TV? Which led me to thinking... I'm watching Silent Witness at the moment, and I'm not sure I've heard a swear word yet.

Ty Strange

Good question, D.E. White. There's probably a nuanced answer in there some where. Swear words in general are prevalent and acceptable in film and TV (rarely network TV in the US, though). On the other hand, I don't often see many novels with swear words. Perhaps there's a visceral difference in hearing a swear word versus reading one. Or, there's a qualitative difference between swear words, Fork-bombs being more offensive than Shirt-bombs. And you can't rule out regional puritanical viewpoints. And, lastly, what does your audience expect from you?

My personal take is that if it characterizes the character and/or genre then it's acceptable no matter the medium. I use the Fork-bomb only once in one of my novels, and its use portrays the character's angst.

David E. Gates

I swear in my books all the time (Even my mother said she didn't see why I had to). It's language. If you're offended by particular words, how are you going to cope with scenarios - such as graphic, gore-laden horror - which are in some of my books. Sometimes it's reflective of situations.

Dustin Richardson

I've wondered this too D.E. White. My manuscript is aimed for an adult audience and covers some mature themes. One my main characters is not the happiest person in the world and I allow him to curse when need be. Without that language I don't think he'd be as authentic or even as interesting. It plays for both reality, drama, and sometimes comedy. I agree swearing shouldn't be used for shock value either. Same for violence. But I think it can benefit more authentic dialogue for certain characters and scenes. Sounds like your writing certainly would allow swearing. If that's how your character would speak, I'd trust in that voice.

Morgan Aitken

Sounds like the kind of shit right-wingnut born agains spew. Then again, spewing is what they do. And face it, the righteous elite bible thumpers aren't a major market share (although, they are certainly the loudest!). And USA you say? The people that roll back human rights 50 years without blinking? Where you can't say 'gay', let alone fuck, shit, or poodle-balling? A place that proclaims their trust in an imaginary sky friend right on their money? The country that elected Trump... Don't read reviews. They tend to come from mouths looking for a platform.

Personally, I find your fucks somewhat subdued. It's realism that counts to real readers. Dove is handler... Crikey, let's see her gain trust with gosh, golly, and dash it all!

Ashley Renee Smith

D.E. White, I completely agree with you. Language should feel authentic to the world and the characters. In my opinion, that includes swearing as well as slang. However, this is my grandmother and I's most debated subject. She goes out of her way to only watch network dramas that don't use what in her mind is "gratuitous cursing". She avoids most all cable and streaming series because the language is bothersome to her. She's literally described it as being like fingernails on chalkboards to her. I've pointed out to her many times that stories and characters should be reflective of reality and that whether she likes it or not, people curse in everyday speech. It's a relatable and grounded part of life that helps viewers (or readers) connect to the character and know who they are by the way that they speak. This will likely be the thing we argue about until the end of time. Lol!

D.E. White

We've been having this convo in an author group over on Facebook too and it really is interesting. The main points I have taken are, if you are writing a gritty crime drama authentic dialogue is a must so swearing from some characters should be expected. If I watch a crime drama on TV and the characters demand it, I expect to hear some curses. In fact, I hardly register them as curses because if the acting is amazing and the plot is tense, I am so lost in their struggles it is part of the authentic background noise. The same with a book, I think. Just to add, I don't use swear words in my lighter cozy mysteries at all. Different audience, different characters at work. Also different settings and time periods? So many factors.

D.E. White

But Ashley Renee Smith I apologise to your grandmother in advance - my mum won't read my darker books at all! ;-)

Lori Wilde

I think it's important to be true to the characters. Readers who don't like swear words will migrate to other authors. Nothing wrong with that. They aren't your target audience.

Terrence Sellers

I think characters that would believably swear is fine. But if the character hasn't been established as the type of person to do so and then suddenly swears on page 250, and it seems out of character, then I'd say no. But I'd say that for anything. Like the same could be said if the character kept drinking beer throughout the novel and then walks into a bar in the final chapter and orders cranberry juice. The problem is inconsistent character writing, not swearing.

John Michael German


As an individual who does not cuss, I grasp as to the readers reviews - though shouldn't equate to a one-star rating. If someone intentionally reads and/or embraces a creativity with such elements - leave no review and/or leave a review around the language, though mention such.

Thankful for your roads.

God Bless,

John German

Karlyle Tomms

D.E. White, if you are getting in trouble for swear words, I'm in big trouble. My novel, The Calling Dream, which was just released as a second edition is in the Christian section of Barns and Noble. However, Christians who might read it are in for a big surprise. I do not hesitate on using swear words or graphic descriptions of both sex and violence. I finally decided that I have to just write and stop being afraid of offending people. I think my use of language is what keeps certain characters real in their profile. I'm not endorsing hate speech or anything like that, in fact, quite the opposite. So, backlash over swear words and descriptions of sex and violence in a Christian novel? We'll see. My concern is that Christian readers might avoid it entirely when they see that the figure on the cross on the book cover is a partially nude woman, and non-Christians might avoid it entirely because they think it is just a Christian novel and they don't look closely enough to recognize that the figure on the cross is a nude woman. The novel is actually about a very troubled televangelist who is struggling with his own compulsions to seduce women and is trying to keep his second life a secret from his wife, the church, and his following. However, it is also much more than that.

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