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  • Christine Silk

How To Drop the F-Bomb

So you want to drop the F-bomb. Here’s my advice: Don't.

Okay, I take that back. Of course there are times when using swear words is appropriate, and later in this essay I’ll tell you how to do it effectively.

The problem is, I've seen swear words where they don't belong: on websites about cooking, in restaurant reviews, in fashion books, in lectures about filmmaking techniques, and in other inappropriate places—including venues where children are part of the audience.

Notice that my problem with swearing is on public forums. If you’re writing a novel, or an article for a website that is subscription-only or otherwise restricted, no problem. Readers know what they’re in for.

But before you reach for the F-bomb, whether in a public or private forum, remember that words have consequences. Below are some justifications I've heard from F-bombers on why they have an absolute, unqualified right to deploy profanity whenever they damn well feel like it.

The F-bomb shocks, it's cool, therefore it's a great tool for a writer. There's no question that the F-word is in-your-face, and impossible to ignore. Many writers don't use it for its literal connotation—unless they’re writing sexually explicit scenes. But when you want to express anger, defiance, rebellion, or contempt, an F-bomb is explosive and effective.

At least, it used to be.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, comedian Lenny Bruce (and later, George Carlin) used obscenity as a way to shock the audience and raise awareness of social issues. Writers such as D.H. Lawrence, William S. Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and Henry Miller, to name a few, were on the same quest.

These comedians and writers were hip, anti-establishment types who were out to rebel against an uptight society by flipping it the linguistic equivalent of the middle finger. In the early- to mid-20th century, their use of profanities was truly cutting-edge.

The fact that their books were banned, or that they were arrested and tried on obscenity charges (as Lenny Bruce was in 1963) generated publicity and helped to prove their point, especially in the eyes of their supporters.

Many writers identify strongly with these rebels of the past, and they want to fight the same war today. So they generously sprinkle their prose with obscenities, in defiance of some audience, some society, that may or may not exist. Then, when a tiny fraction of readers object that their word choice is inappropriate—not offensive, necessarily, just out-of-place or tone-deaf—they take it as proof that society is still priggish and intolerant.

Here's the deal. Times have changed—drastically. Swear words have been in common usage for at least two generations. They're no longer the shockers they were sixty or seventy years ago. F-bombers are no longer the avant-garde rebels they once were. The use of the F-bomb in comedy routines and literature is no longer transgressive. It's mainstream. These days the noteworthy comedians are those who don't swear.

Swearing has become so mainstream, so ubiquitous, that it has even become—dare I say it?—clichéd. And no writer wants to be accused of using clichés.

As a writer, you're fooling yourself if you think you're blazing new trails by dropping the F-bomb. You're not. Your audience has heard it all before. That means you have to find other ways to hold their attention, and not assume that profanity alone will do the trick. By over-using the F-bomb, you diffuse the power of the word itself along with your own verbal prowess.

It's just a word, like any other. No big deal. Any writer who believes this is in the wrong profession. If all words are the same, why bother to find just the right expression or phrase? Why sweat over your craft?

No F-bomber, no matter how hard-core, really believes “it's just a word.” If they did, they'd use other words in its place. But even the alliterative stand-ins ( freakin', frackin’, and fudge) are pale imitations. F—k has its own emotional weight and significance. That's why writers and speakers deploy it.

Either the F-bomb connotes something particular about you and your writing, or it doesn’t. You can’t have it both ways.

I have the right to express myself. The First Amendment reigns supreme. This is true. But if you want to be an effective writer—you know, the kind that people actually want to read—you must put the needs of your audience first, even if you think they're being too sensitive. What the audience wants is something that meets or exceeds their expectations, something that is on-pitch and that doesn't distract too much. In other words, they want what is appropriate.

“Appropriate” means that which fits the occasion and the forum. It does not mean “honest” or “dramatic” or any other virtue-signalling excuse you can come up with.

For example, certain biological words (vomit, maggot, enema, putrid) are not obscenities, and yet they don't belong at the dinner table. Why? Because these words conjure images that are unappetizing and repulsive to your dinner guests—unless your guests happen to be in the medical field.

To hell with the language police. People who have problems with my language can just f-off. And they will. Even folks like me, who are not exactly church ladies in our linguistic habits, are turned off by profanity in the wrong context.

Let me give two examples. I stopped reading a political magazine whose views I largely share because I got tired of the writers and editors dropping F-bombs and S-bombs like incontinent pigeons. I unfriended someone from Facebook because the steady stream of profanity that accompanied her dark view of the world was tedious and depressing.

Your reading audience will unfriend you, too, if you turn them off with the wrong language.

The Profanity Checklist

So how do you determine whether profanity is justified in your writing? Here are some pointers:

If you’re posting in a mainstream public forum, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or the comments section of an article, or sending email to a mixed audience, or messages to a chat room where minors lurk, err on the side of keeping your language clean.

If you’re writing fiction, use whatever words are most effective—including the F-bomb and other colorful words. But don’t automatically reach for the F-bomb just because you’re having writer’s block or are too lazy to find a better way. Try writing the scene or dialogue without swear words, and see whether you achieve something more clever and engaging. If you're not sure which version—profanity or no profanity—is more effective, get some feedback from trusted critics. In an early draft of my short story, “In Memory” (which appears in my book Chase the Sun), the antagonist Terence Trong used four-letter words. Since he’s the bad guy, I reasoned, swearing would be a quick and easy way to connote his bad character. I was mistaken. The swear words were distracting, and he came off as stereotypical and shallow. I was using profanity as a way to avoid getting into Terence’s head to find out what made him interesting and unique. So, I re-wrote the dialogue, took out the swear words, and ended up creating a conversation between him and his psychiatrist that was more engaging and authentic. 

Get a good thesaurus and a dictionary of slang. These reference books are a treasure trove of evocative words and phrases that can spark your imagination and help your prose soar. Read Shakespeare. He gets his characters to insult each other, make sexually suggestive comments, and express their emotions—all without resorting to profanity. He was a master at stringing together prosaic words to convey exceptional ideas. A lot of his cleverest dialogue sails over the heads of minors, while still entertaining those of us mature folks who enjoy ribald humor. Shakespeare proves that you can be clever, dark, tragic, dramatic, or insulting without resorting to four-letter words. Need some proof? Take a look at King Lear, Act II, scene ii, lines 14 -24. There, Kent verbally and viciously attacks Oswald without using a single swear word (although he uses the word “bitch” in its zoological sense).

How to Curse Elegantly

You've been through your draft ten times and only R-rated language will suffice. What are your options? You have three.

The first is the "lampshade approach" which is my term for an old technique that dates back to the 1600s. It means using asterisks or dashes to substitute for some of the letters—which is exactly what I've been doing in this essay. Think of it this way: A naked light bulb can be too glaring and too distracting. A lampshade modulates the brightness of a naked bulb and makes the light easier on the eyes. Similarly, a swear word in its full-letter glory can be too distracting. Replacing some of the letters with asterisks or dashes acts as a typographical lampshade that modulates the word’s impact. This approach lets you use profanity, but it doesn't let the profanity eclipse everything else and become a distraction. This is a good option when you want to quote someone who uses profanity, but you also want to be sensitive to your audience. Many newspapers and magazines do this.

The second is to indicate that swearing is happening without directly quoting the speaker. This is the same approach fiction writers use when they want to indicate that something intimate occurred between their characters, without presenting an X-rated scene. The writer states what happened without going into detail. In the case of swearing, a description might look like this: "He shouted a series of profanities that made half the guests at the table chuckle at his gutter-language genius. The other guests had a look of fear, as if a fist fight would start any moment." Notice that I'm not just stating that the character is swearing, I'm also describing the reactions of those around him.

The third is to spell it out. In 1948, when Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was published, his editors required him to use the word fug. Today, that looks stilted and strange. It's better to just spell out the word in fiction and biographies--no lampshade-- and have it do its work in all its shocking glory. Of course, you could make up lingo as Anthony Burgess did to great effect in The Clockwork Orange. But made-up lingo may not suit your piece.

If you use profanity in your stories, make sure it fits the style and tone of the work, and above all, make sure it fits the expectations of your readers. A good example of a pitch-perfect use of the F-word is in Mark Helprin’s short story, “Last Tea with the Armorers,” in his anthology Pacific and Other Stories.

If you're writing a journalistic piece for an edgy e-zine that regularly drops F- and S-bombs, then bomb away. But, again, don’t let the profanity turn into a cliché that makes you sound as if you ran out of other ways to say things. If you're not sure, either err on the side of excluding swear words, or take a look at a site’s writer’s guidelines to find out how far you can push the envelope. If the writer’s guidelines don’t specify, read several pieces on the website to get a feel for how they handle language (always a good idea anyway) or contact one of the editors.

In short, know your audience—including what they consider appropriate—and cater to their needs and expectations. If you can master this, you will have mastered a key ingredient of successful writing.

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