Profanity & Writing

This blog post is brought to you by the confluence of two things: personal experience and and an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ms. Le Guin’s latest (?) book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, contains an essay titled, “Would You Please Fucking Stop?” In it, she observes “I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking. And shit is what they say when they’re fucked … The imagination involved is staggering.”

What once was a shock word has become a noise to mean intensity. But should it? Or, rather, should it so easily? The word, as she points out, “has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.”

Why do I bring this up?

This week I was hunting online to find possible markets for a story I’d written. One specified that they adhered to a strict PG-13 criteria when choosing what to publish, so submitted work should contain no religion-based profanity, certainly no f-bombs, and maybe not even any shits, damns, or hells.

I knew of at least a couple fucks in my story, so I searched them out. Turned out there were more than a few; enough so I began to wonder how frequently profanity invades what I write (or how I speak) without my even realizing it. The answer? More than I’d like, and more than I’m proud of.

It was a gaming-changing moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I think profanity has its place, but it shouldn’t be overdone. I hadn’t thought I’d overdone it, but I found myself wondering whether my story would suffer if I removed not only the fucks, but the shits, damns, hells, and whatnot … or would it be improved?

Know what I discovered?

The lack of profanity hurt the story not one whit. The characters still were who they were, did what they were meant to do, and lost not an ounce of color or personality in the process.

Was I being lazy in using profanity? Maybe. Going forward, I intend to exert a touch more vigilance when it comes to writing and editing, to make my use of those words–as with all words–thoughtful rather than haphazard.

The work–and I–will be better for it.