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Swear Words in YA Fiction

At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in YA fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading a book that has swearing or action or other content that makes them uncomfortable, that they can’t handle, or that they don’t want to handle, most readers will skip that part or put the book down. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swearing is necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary that’s supposed to stand in for swearing. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too.

If, though, as mentioned above, the swear word is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — swearing, violence, drugs, drinking, sex — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.


Come on. I had to.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!

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  1. Brian Robertson’s avatar

    I have just published a book, Diggers Story (a biography) about a Prisoner of War on the Siam to Burma Railway in World War Two. There is sweating in it of course. I have now been asked by the publisher to adapt the book making it shorter and suitable for 10 to 14 year olds. I am inclined to leave the cursing in the text because it is used in the dialogue of the prisoners and that was exactly as they spoke at the time. I would appreciate any comment.

  2. Melanie Jones’s avatar

    I’m getting ready to start my first YA book (everything else I write is very much geared towards grown ups, but I have an idea for a funny teen book I want to do), so I was reading up on this subject to see other people’s views. I will absolutely be including whatever swearing I think works in my book, that’s part of the point of it – I want to do something genuinely representative of real teens, and also, people who have read anything else I’ve done would be kind of weirded out if I was suddenly all “oh, fiddle-dee-dee! That will require a tetanus shot!”, but I wasn’t sure just how much the use of bad language in my book is going to piss people off. You can’t divide by the number of fucks I give whether it pisses people off, I just wanted to gauge opinion, and it seems like more people than I thought are perfectly comfortable with in-context swearing in teen dialogue. This is nice.

  3. verd12w’s avatar

    Teens swear. Children swear. And nothing has pissed me off more than the typical parenting technique of coddling the child and hiding all things deemed as adult. The whole point of parenting is primary socialization, and the point of education is secondary socialization. The goal is to take a child and make an adult, not to preserve the child. Profanity will always exist and will always be used no matter what they desire. So they are just raising children to cuss just as much as anyone else, but feel bad about it. Sort of like the guilt cycle in religion regarding sexuality. Someone needs to break this cycle of pointless exercise in coddling or it will just continue forever pointlessly until humans are extinct.

    I think the concept of conscious choice applies to the needless words and phrases that you wrote about too. They change the way the writing feels and can be positive if used sparingly and carefully to emphasize points. I have noted my tendency to use “just” a little needlessly.

  4. Stormy’s avatar

    Thank you! I was so confused on if I should actually put “damn” “crap” “hell” in the YA novel I’m writing, with those words coming from a bad boy (yes, he finds Jesus, but not in the beginning!) It is what makes his character come alive. I just wasn’t sure if it’d be accepted. At this point, I don’t care. I’ll write what I wanna write and go from there. 🙂 You’re awesome!

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