To Swear or Not to Swear

Image for postphoto: Michael Longmire for Unsplash

The swear jar: a receptacle in which to place a coin for each “penalty” of uttering a curse word or profanity.

After teaching “Writing for children and young people” in an MFA program for more than a dozen years, and this question arises with every term… here are some thoughts.

When is it — and is it — appropriate?

Every language has its group of words, usually wit a focus on whatever is taboo in the culture. And within each culture, community, and even family, there is an invisible line as to just when it might be acceptable for a young person to begin to utter these words in some public way.

And with that there is a lag-time for this acceptability to occur in written form.

Gate-keepers

One element that separates writing for children and writing for adults is the role of the Gate-keeper. Writing for children stands alone in the fact that these books are not purchased — and often not chosen — by their actual readers. This causes a lot of issues for those of us who write them. The list of gate-keepers is a long one: teachers; librarians; PTA folks… and the less obvious at first glance: the booksellers who order; the reviewers; the publishers and editors and marking people in publishing houses. And parents, of course.

And more. Those who jury awards, for instance. Even for so-called “readers’ choice” awards, often administered by schools, the long list for such awards are adjudicated by adults, and not the young readers.

So while your reader might appreciate the odd delicious and illicit word, you have to ask yourself:

Is it worth it?

Who are you hoping will read your work? Where do you want to sell your book?

Libraries, public or school? E-publishing? Eight year olds, or fifteen? From the list of gate-keepers above, can you determine how many gates between your story and the reader? Or is it a fence, wooden and with a couple of loose boards… or brick?

Is the vocabulary going to lose you readership?

Is it consistently throughout the story, or with one character… or is it a lone incident within the story, at a climactic point, and necessary to the telling?

Case in point: Sarah Ellis’s wonderful middle-grade novel, The Baby Project, is about a family with two siblings, fourteen and eleven years old. Their mother is unexpectedly pregnant, and the arrival of a baby is quite thrilling. But then the baby dies of SIDS.

There is the most poignant scene of the fourteen-year-old brother, riding his bicycle over a city bridge early in the morning, sun coming up, after spending a night in deep grief, and as he pedals, he howls. And of course, he howls the F-bomb. What other word can carry that level of emotion, and for such a character? Other editions of the book (Ellis is Canadian) changed up the word, and it did not carry in the same way. It is the only moment of its kind in the story and, as a result, resonates even more.

Be judicious with words — they carry weight. But know when your choice is the right one, and hold to it.

Alternatives

Consider being inventive. Just as each character’s sense of humor is something of a fingerprint, their urge to curse might be the same: what might be a word or two that illuminate some part of their character? You can have some potential fun with this! After all, in writing there are no throwaways. Every choice on your part builds the story and character/s. Such home-made vocabulary can go some distance in illuminating what a character is about. It might be a made-up word, or a silly phrase created by the character that replaces where some bit of profanity.

Remember my line right off the top — about how swearing is birthed from a culture’s taboos? What are your character’s personal taboos? And how does this translate to their words of choice? (Might this choice change over the course of your story?)

A lot of research has been done in recent years about how cursing alleviates pain, both physical and emotional. What words are muttered or shouted by your character at moments of injury or distress…or excitement?

Does your character speak more than one language? What is her choice for profanity? Again, this can reveal so much of the character.

Winning over readers

Young readers have great radar for authenticity. And they know when they are being patronized. Teens know when a writer is tossing out vocabulary in a bid to extract their funds; they know falseness. Gratuitousness is gratuitousness.

Reading always provides a private place for exploration and growth. That is true for young readers, and for old. As writers, we honor that.

When my son began to homeschool, we went along with our local homeschool group to the local Shakespeare festival, Bard on the Beach. I thoroughly enjoyed the productions, but the second year he said no to a couple of them. In the third year, I had to miss one and he went with friends to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… listed with a warning of “light nudity.”

After that, he attended every Bard production — even though we have yet to see another with any nudity.

Giving young people a look at the real world invites them in. A little “real” goes a long way. Keep in mind the gate-keepers. But keep in mind the “real” and looking for balance.

Young readers absorb that there is time and place to be and do, and not. As much as possible, we know if feels good to master our own choices and ways.

Learn to make calls of discernment. There is no one answer. Every story and character and situation is unique.

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