Friday, 3 August 2012

Shit Happens: Swearing in YA

One of my crit partners recently commented that the main character in my manuscript “swears like a sailor”, and it got me thinking. I don’t have a problem with swearing – in fact, I enjoy a good creative swear. But I hadn’t set out for the swearing to be a stand-out feature of the novel, and the fact that my CP pointed it out led me to believe that it was. But was this a bad thing? Teens swear – I remember doing so, regularly and with gusto. Would it offend people when they read my manuscript? Was it inappropriate for teens to read? Or would it put off editors? I had no clue.

So I posed these questions to a number of kind folks who are a part of the YA world: Should there be swearing in YA novels? How much is too much? Writers, readers, adults, teens, and even my awesome agent weighed in.

Here’s what they said…

“I think swearing in YA poses the same problem that other "edgy" issues have--adults know that it happens, but they don't want to risk being the one to expose us to this. Trust me, you won't be. On an average day in school, we'll hear rumors that are edgier than almost anything in your book. Our friends swear. Our teachers swear. Our textbooks are graffitied with countless obscenities. At the same time, I have a problem with excessive swearing. Sure, in real life, you can't go more than ten minutes without hearing something that should be bleeped out. But anything explicit in your novel should be in there for a reason. Don't throw in a bunch of four letter words and assume that this will bring your character to life as a teenager. It won't. Mild swearing in the right situations is okay. But swearing excessively doesn't gain you respect anymore. We don't like people in real life who aren't capable of a single G-rated conversation, so why should we care about them in writing?”
Amy Zhang, 16-year-old author represented by Emily Keyes with the L. Perkins Agency
“When it’s swearing for the sake of it, it’s annoying. But when it’s a natural conversation it’s alright, it’s easy to identify with.”
Amy N, 16-year-old YA reader
"In my novel there’s a gruesome scene involving bodily functions. The phrase ‘do their business’ was entirely too casual when ‘shit’ not only cut out a few words but added to the gruesome nature of the scene, of which, served to demonstrate the gruesome nature of my character’s predicament. It had plot value.

I think it’s acceptable to use a small amount of bad language – the occasional shit, bastard and arse. Young adults swear just as much if not more than adults, right? I would never use the F or C word though. Those are my personal limits.

I think if there’s a genuine reason, (for plot, emotion, or character) then some bad language is acceptable."
Ruth Ellen Parlour, YA author of EARTH ANGEL

For me, I think it mostly comes down to voice. I wasn’t concentrating on the swearing when writing my main character – I was just focusing on his voice. And dude likes to swear. But will readers like him..? Hmm.
“It annoys me because in Year 7 (age 11-12) you never got to read recommended books because they had swearing in.”
Megan, 14-year-old YA reader
“There's no doubt about it, teenagers swear in their daily lives, some quite profusely. However, novels are a representation of real life, not real life itself. Teenagers often want to read about characters whom they can look up to. Characters that swear continuously provide poor role-models for teenagers.

In literature, the writer has time to carefully craft the words and to consider what their characters will say. Therefore, they don't need to rely heavily on swearing to articulate a point.

In my opinion, if swearing is used, it should be in suitably dramatic moments, where the character is not thinking about what they are saying and instead give a knee jerk reaction to a situation. Has something horrifying happened to the character? Are they in extreme pain or distress? Are they terrified? Used in these circumstances, carefully placed swearing can show a character's reaction to a situation and add to the drama and tension of a scene.”
Clare Davidson, YA author of TRINITY
Well then...does it make a difference if it's a YA or adult novel? I asked a friend who writes both.
"When I first started out writing one of my Women’s Fiction stories, I shared an opening chapter with a group online and got a comment that said, “I really loved this!  But I normally don’t read anything with this sort of profanity, so I would have to stop reading.  But other than that it was great!” 

This was a moment of EEK for me.  My first thought was, “Oh god, my mom was right…”  No one in my house swears at all, so my predilection for the mighty “F” word as an adult has garnered a few disappointed head shakes.  My second thought was, “Wait a minute, people fucking swear, damn it!!”

Now, in Women’s Fiction, I have a wider range of profanity usage.  Ever since that comment I try to be very mindful of the appropriateness and not just swearing for swearing’s sake.  When I started my YA novel, I made a very specific point early on to NOT swear.  Thinking of impressionable youth and my potential to corrupt them, I set out to write a clever, but clean story.

As I wrote, dialogue specifically, I realized that the words sounded oddly forced at times.  Because when someone is trying to kill you, “Oh, golly gee darn it!” is not going to cut it.  And the reality is that people swear.  Teenagers curse.  A lot.  With a brilliant and unappreciated fluency.   
What I learned while writing my YA is that yes, you should be on guard.  Don’t drop F-bombs for the sake of shock and perceived appeal.  But don’t stray away from realistic story-telling for the sake of purity.  Because sometimes, shit happens.  And we are going to fucking write about it.
Summer Heacock, writer of YA and Women’s Fiction 
I also asked my amazing agent for her view.

“As an agent, I'm not put off by a lot of swearing in a manuscript. Most authors, when told that the profanity in their books will make it harder to sell, are willing to dial it down if I suggest it. I'm reminded of the great Chris Crutcher's story about his first book, Running Loose: his editor suggested that while Greenwillow Books was willing to publish his manuscript regardless of the language he used, there were a couple of words in it that would make it a tough sell to the (quite significant) school and library markets in the U.S.  "During that editing time," he later wrote, "when one of my mother's friends asked her how I was doing, my mom told her she hadn't heard from me for two weeks, that she thought I was holed up at my typewriter unfucking my book." I trot this story out whenever I tell authors to be prepared for an editor to suggest they do some unfucking of their own.”
Molly Ker Hawn, (my amazing) Agent with The Bent Agency
“If you don’t want swearing, read Twilight!!”
William, 15-year-old YA reader

And I think William pretty much nailed it for me there. If teens choose not to read something that has swearing in it, THAT’S FINE. Teens can choose to read what they like, not just YA novels with or without swearing, even – OMG – adult novels! The choice is theirs to read books with swearing or not, as long as we don’t go all crazy with the censoring.

What do YOU think about swearing in YA novels? Where do you draw the line?


  1. I like the point Clare made about role models.

    1. I agree, although I'm always a bit wary about trying to peg my characters as role models. It's good to offer something for teens to admire or enjoy about a character, but I don't want to tell anyone - kids, teens, other - how to live their lives. Springboarding off William's wonderfully succinct appraisal, I get a bit vexed when people criticise the Twilight novels because the characters aren't better role models. Why should they be? A flawless character who always does the right thing isn't going to be very interesting.

      But then thinking about what Molly said - if there's too much swearing, you may run into problems when it comes to schools wanting to pick up your book. They ARE interested in taking on books which are a positive influence, have good role models etc. So again, a tough call!

  2. I use swearing when it seems right for the character, but in my writing, as in life, I always hear the voice of my father. He only spoke these words to me once, but it stuck. "Profanity is the last resort of the ignorant when they have nothing of value to say."
    No, Dad wasn't a religious man at all, but he was a man who liked to be very clear when he spoke.
    Loved this post, quite thought provoking. (Alright, I confess, I can cuss like a trooper. Just listen when I'm caught in traffic. Bloody hell.)

    1. LOL, great image! And your father sounds a lot like my mother ;)

  3. Nice post - worth the (admittedly small) wait. Another interesting question (though with no concrete answer) is - where's the line with MG swearing? The younger the audience, the more I think people in general become uncomfortable with 'exposing' readers to swear words. A picture book with swearing would never be considered acceptable (if it wasn't a joke), though some YA. Where do the two meet? Hmm.

    1. Yes, definitely an interesting question! And as soon as I started imagining a MG (or younger) book peppered with F-bombs (even minimally and with bombs of a lesser yield) I felt a bit squirmy about it. My 3yo niece was watching a cartoon recently which quite obviously substituted the F word with 'Fizzing' - 'No fizzing way am I doing that!' etc. Even that, knowing its implied meaning, felt a bit weird. Especially hearing my niece yelling it through the house afterward. But maybe it comes down to the reader being old/mature enough to make a call about what is acceptable to THEM? I dunno. As you say, I don't know if there are concrete answers to this one.

  4. My chick-lit works have very little swearing in them. I think it's because I don't swear in my real life so to say I feel a little out of my realm to write them would be an understatement. I'm not opposed to the occasional hell or damn but I almost always refrain from dropping bigger expletives. That's not to say I've never used them in my writing. I have, but I limit those to scene and emotion appropriate moments.

    My step dad once joked that everyone swears, everyone but me. It makes me laugh. I'm not religious or a squeaky clean goody-goody. I just never felt comfortable with the idea of swearing.

    As your interviewees seem to mention, I prefer reading books that use hardcore profanity sparingly.

    1. Thanks for commenting, and I love that you have such a clear view on it! From my own reading experience, I'd say it's more noticeable when swearing is overused (in any genre) than when it's absent. And I would imagine it's unlikely that writers who don't write swearing into their books are going to be seriously criticised for it. You could well have taken the safer path!

  5. I love William's comment and he's absolutely right! Every reader will choose what they want to read.

    I'm a teacher and a few of our class readers do have mild swearing in, always for effect. It always elicits a giggle from the kids whenever the swearing crops up, especially if it's me reading that section out loud. I know they all swear like troopers out of the classroom, not sure why they find swearing so funny in books!

    1. Hahaha, absolutely - William is the boss of cutting to the chase.

  6. Unfucking my book...LMAO LMAO LMAO. Will use the phrase profusely!

  7. The fact that your agent referenced Chris Crutcher has be loving the hell out of her. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes was my favorite book as a Tween.

    I love all the opinions above. And the Twilight one made me literally fistpump in agreement. Touche.

    1. Yes, Molly is the boss of amazing comments (and most things generally). Thanks for adding your part to the discussion! <3

  8. I'm on what I hope is my last edit before I start querying for my YA Fantasy. Two of my three main characters are teen boys, so yes, I used swear words. I have it on good authority (my 17 y/o daughter and her countless friends) that I added enough (no F bombs and absolutley not the C word) to make the dialog believable. That's the goal of the author, to make our characters believable, relatable and someone that the YA reader can conect with, right? Without swearing, you may be able to make that work for what, 10% of the YA readers out there? I wanted my book to feel real, I'm told I've done a DAMN good job. I sure hope the YA readership at large thinks so when I get that far (notice I said 'when', I like positive thinking).

    Thanks for the post, I'll visit your blog again sometime.

  9. Thanks Kelley, and best of luck to you with the querying!

  10. This may be silly but if I wrote a YA I think I'd stick to the Supernatural (the TV show) swears. Like "holy shit," "son of a bitch," "Jesus Christ," "damn it" and "what the hell." It's not that I have anything against "fuck" but as people have said it can still be an alienating word and if they make a movie they'd probably want to take it out to get the PG-13 rating. It's just more practical, won't isolate as many people who don't like the hard-hitting swears. And, damn it, it's good enough for Sam and Dean so it's good enough for me. ;)

    Definitely won't stop me from reading it though, as you know, I adore Mason and all his crudery <3

  11. Ooh, I like the idea of using the Winchesters as a swear-gauge!


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