Thursday, July 14, 2011

Swearing in YA: How much is too much?

I am a swearer. Is that a word? No reason it shouldn't be. The point is, I swear. A lot of this has to do with my day job, where I have become conditioned to language my mother doesn't approve of. Yes, f-words drop out of my mouth with wild abandon. 

I have some limits, though. I don't approve of the c-word, although, as I once told a colleague: "I don't consider my day complete unless I've been called a c*nt at least once." Also, I come from a nation of swearers. It's not exactly a proud cultural tradition, but it's a cultural tradition nonetheless. 

Anyway, I'd like to throw out this question: How much swearing is appropriate in a YA novel? 

So far I'm averaging an f-word per page, and I'm worried it might be too much. It's first person though, and my protagonist isn't the sort of guy to censor his own thoughts. And I think his voice, despite the profanities, is actually quite compelling. 

Here's the background: The protagonist is male, 17, an angry little bunny, and is in a military-type job. I think in this case the profanity is almost mandatory. More than that, I think it's genuine. When's the last time you heard a 17 year old say "gosh"? 

On the flip side, of course, when's the last time you heard a 17 year old effing and blinding and actually took notice of what he had to say behind the swearing? 

Gah. It makes my head hurt. And it makes my mother want to wash my mouth out. 

On a lighter note, I am guest posting on Friday at the awesome Wicked & Tricksy. I'd love it if you could head over and say hello! 


  1. I've only seen one YA book handle profanity well, Cracked Up To Be. It kept the profanity on that fine line between gratuitous and realistic.

    I think for your character you might want to try taking out the cussing to see if the power is gone from the dialog or scene. It shouldn't be there just because military = cussing.

    I remember a recruit (this was from a documentary on Marines) being nicknamed the Preacher because the guy would never cuss. The rest of the guys in his unit stopped using profanity as much because they realized dropping every cuss word in a row takes away some of the power in those words. Just food for thought.

  2. What the hell is your day job?? lol

    I also have this problem. Sometimes I tell peeps I have tourrets but thats only for fun.
    My MC really curses a lot in my wip. A LOT. Raised in a carnival...with carnies. It's a realistic teen voice. So you go, girl.

  3. I used to work as a deputy sheriff in a jail. The f word is verb, noun, and adjective for me. I would imagine it is the same for those in the military.

    My futuristic novel (adult) is about people in the military, and though I'm certain they cuss like crazy in real life, I thought my audience (mostly women) would probably not appreciate a lot of foul language from my two main characters, so they rarely swear. I left most of the effing to secondary characters whose likability isn't as crucial.

    This was my long way of saying consider your audience. If they wouldn't be thrown by it, then use it.

  4. I don't shun swearing. I just can't get myself to do it because I'm afraid I'll slip into the bad habit.

    Of course when a character requires a swear word, I can't argue with that. It's part of characterization. However, I do think that like all things in writing, it has to have a reason. If characterization is a reason, that's good. But is the swear word there just because? Swearing is a great way to characterize someone, but there is always such thing as too much of a good thing. ;)

  5. There's like a sliding scale of how many of which swear words you can put in something. Certain words aren't deemed that bad anymore, F-bombs though still seem high on the shock-incurring list. You can get away with one (maybe two?) in something that isn't attended for older audience.

    There are definitely times that using swear word is the best for the moment, but I also think it's a good idea to see if you can still get the character and his words across strongly without over-use of swearing. Or you can write it however you want and take the issue up with your agent/editor, if it comes to that...

  6. This is where the Look Inside feature at Amazon, and Google Books, too, really helps.

    For instance, I just brought up Hannah Moskowitz’s INVINCIBLE SUMMER, and there’s 18 f-s, 25 f-ings, and 2 f-eds. And then there’s 39 s-s.

    LOOKING FOR ALASKA has about half that: 9, 8, 2, and 36.

    But HUNGER GAMES? Nothing.

    So it really depends, and maybe even more on the author than the audience.

    My rule of thumb is to cut half and change another half to frigging or fricking. And if you can make up slang, too, like “he’s a fegged bastard,” that works even better.

    But first draft? Swear away and don't f-ing worry about it.

  7. Hi Steph! My MC is definitely a swearer, but I will certainly do as you suggest and take the profanities out to see if the scenes are still strong. Also, he does have friends who are less angry-sweary, and their influence will become stronger further in, so that should moderate his language somewhat!

  8. LOL, Marsha! I love the idea of a character raised by carnies. I should also mention that my MC grew up in a mining community. Not a lot of polite conversation going on there...

    I'm a police dispatcher. "Get those f*ckin coppers here now you c*nt" is how it usually goes. Strangely, being called a c*nt doesn't really make me work faster.

  9. LG, the f-word is just so wonderfully versatile...

    I'm worried about throwing the audience, even though that seems like a long bow to draw at this point. Gotta finish it first, right? I'll probably keep going as I am, and worry some more about this in the second draft!

  10. Madeline, it's habit-forming, alright! I will strive for balance!

  11. Cacy, good points. Because even the swearing sounds natural, it is probably going to cause issues when it comes to sending off sample chapters...if it comes to that, LOL.

  12. MC, I didn't know you could do that. How awesome is that? Okay, I'm not feeling so bad about the swear words now, and I will cull them for the second draft. In the meantime I will swear like a sailor!

  13. I would say using the f-bomb each page is too much. I've seen cussing in YA, but it was mostly in times of severe duress. Maybe that's how you can measure it? I think "damn" is accepted often...dunno about the f-bomb though.

  14. Thanks Alleged. I will definitely keep this in mind during editing and try and modify it somewhat.

  15. I agree w/Alleged that one per page *might be* a bit much. I remember watching the moving Good Will Hunting and I was distracted by all the swear words. There were SO MANY that it drew attention instead of putting me in the story. At least, that's what I remember from the time.

    Interesting comment above from Maine Character about the number of curse words in those books!

  16. Thanks, TL. I was worried it might be distracting for some. As someone who swears a lot, I tend not to notice profanities that much in conversation or in writing. Guess I'll need to work of other ways of showing emphasis!

  17. I believe as long as the swear word doesn't lose its power, use it. That being said, I'm also a fan of the Precision F Strike.

    I'm so helpful, aren't I?

  18. Thanks Miss Cole. I think the difficultly is my MC - while I'm also a fan of the precision F-strike, I've yet to meet a 17 year old boy who doesn't just scatter them out like confetti.

  19. Haha, "angry little bunny". That makes me think of this guy:

    I would agree with the general tempo of this comment thread. Once a page can be distracting, but, like any word, as long as your f-bombs have a purpose then you should be fine. I've seen some authors who don't use swears (or don't use them a lot) have angry little bunny characters that have done pretty well. John Green and Veronica Roth are the only one I can come up with off the top of my head at the moment, but I know there are others.

    Good luck!

  20. Brit, that is too cute!

    Taking everyone's comments into account, I think I'll just finish the thing in the tone it's in, and then worry about it in the first edits.

  21. I don't mean to advertise myself, but I wrote a post on my blog exactly on this topic. You might want to check it out.



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