Potty Mouth: The Fuss Over Cussing in Writing

“When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember.” Gen. George S. Patton

America’s greatest tank commander knew the secret. So did Richard Nixon, another notorious potty mouth. If you want it to stick, you give it to ‘em dirty. But what if you’re writing for a wide audience? Or an audience that is not necessarily accustomed to foul language?

Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I had to deal with this question myself in the last year when I was writing my young adult novel, Rayzor. It’s a story about teenagers, and naturally I wanted the dialogue to be realistic. And in reality, teens use profanity. So for the sake of realism, my novel has a bit of profanity in it. I’m certainly not the first young adult novelist to use foul language, but I honestly do not yet know if I have struck the right balance between realism and marketability. And that’s an issue.

Agents and publishers are reticent to take on young adult material with profanity because they fear that it won’t sell. And in certain instances they would be right. But what are those instances? And how as a writer do you know when you can use foul language and when to keep it clean?

Here are some thoughts on that.

Keep it clean for preteens. The younger your audience, the cleaner your language needs to be. When it comes to including profanity in your writing, the cutoff age for your intended audience can be arbitrary. Sorry to be vague, but that’s the truth. Some young people read above their age group, and these days, kids are exposed to adult themes and adult language at a much younger age. You need to read around the genre to get a sense of what other authors are doing.

Always err on the side of clean. If you are unsure as to whether your intended audience can handle salty language, then stay away from the dirty words.

Make up your own swear words. You can be creative with profanity by making up fake swear words that sound suspiciously like real ones but are not. Your readers will get the idea. Battlestar Galactica took this idea and frakkin’ ran with it.

Don’t overuse profanity. If you want to keep your profanity under control in your writing, you have to know why people swear in the first place. It can relieve stress, succinctly communicate a specific emotion, act as a placeholder for an incomplete thought, and sometimes it just feels really friggin’ good. But guard against using too much profanity, even if it seems warranted based on these examples. Too much will turn off most readers. Be judicious and use common sense.

And write a good goddamn story.