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On Swearing In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Most writers know that written dialogue is not the same as spoken dialogue. We edit out the pauses, repetitions, clumsiness and the rest, all the while trying to achieve an individual character’s ‘voice’. But what if our character swears like a drunken wharfie? What if he or she is angry, semi-literate, stressed, low on self-control and swearing is their default response to setbacks of any sort? Can you have the character say ‘oh gosh’ or ‘shivers’ or – and this is an expression which sets my teeth on edge – ‘Holy crap’ when what they’d really say is a string of profanity?

When The Book of Love was edited I was told they were turning down the heat on the sex scenes because – and this was pre 50 Shades of Grey – the market demographic for the book would be turned off, no pun intended. I kept my mouth shut and did as I was told, as you do when you are starting out. Indeed, I went a step further and deleted all ‘F’ words. Didn’t want to offend readers’ tender ears.

Looking back, I think there really was no need to. I did not allow my heroine to utter such coarse expletives. But I felt that when two young men are angry with each other and about to trade blows NOT using expletives is just silly and false. We no longer live in the day when to call a man a ‘cowardly blackguard’ or a ‘dishonourable cur’ is considered enough of an insult.

To keep a contemporary flavour and texture, I think if the character is one who would swear, then let them swear, but keep it to an absolute minimum. Enough to get a sense of who they are, but not enough to disgust the reader. Although if you’re modelling yourself on Irvine Welsh or Chuck Palahniuk go ahead and knock yourself out.

I have a young relative who, when frustrated at the lack of police action during a late night incident, told the police to f**k off. They charged her with causing offense. The police officer declared he was offended. The judge dismissed the charges eventually and said he found it hard to believe anyone these days was offended by the use of f**k and certainly not a Sydney police officer on patrol in a notorious night spot.

The judge may have found it hard to believe, but I think many people still are offended, do not want to hear such words and do not want them scattered lavishly through the books they read. I swear, you swear, my characters swear, but when I get to the final editing stages, I find a way around using the offending words, or leave only one. But I make sure I use that last one to achieve maximum impact.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodSavage TideHalf Moon BayInheritanceThe Lavender Keeper

Writing Novels in Australia

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. marlish glorie #

    I think you’ve got to be clever with swearing. When and how to put swearing a novel takes skill, it just can’t be slapdash. And yes, surprisingly swearing in novels does turn some people off, even when the swearing is an integral part of the novel. DBC Pierre’s Man Booker Prize Winning novel Vernon God Little has for the first two thirds lots of foul language, and it works extremely well in portraying white trailer trash. There’s also David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross, choc-a-block full of fucks, again to great effect. Finally there’s Once Were Warriors by New Zealand writer Alan Duff, a powerful novel in which swearing I think is fundamental to this story. Sometimes, in trying to create a powerful, menacing novel the language needs to shout at you. Swearing, done well, is one way of achieving this.

    June 30, 2013
  2. A very timely post, Phillipa! I was discussing this issue with Margareta Osborn. Her lovely father finds alternatives to the swear words in her manuscripts 🙂

    I had one negative review from a reader who felt Shattered Sky had far too much swearing. I took it on board although I grapple with how the member of an outlawed motorcycle gang would express himself in the heat of the moment. “Golly, that’s rough,’ just wouldn’t sound right for Bevan…

    I think you make a good point that for the most part they need to be used for maximum impact. Too much of the F word and many readers will glaze over. Half the time an expletive isn’t really required at all.

    And delighted to hear the judge dismissed the charge against your relative. I would have thought a policeman on the beat would have heard everything and much more!

    June 30, 2013
  3. If you make dialogue too absolutely genuine, it can become hard to read. I don’t like lots of swearing, but I also find it irritating when an author tries too hard to get a dialect right. I am interested more in what people are saying than in exactly how they say it.
    This is a valuable post.

    June 30, 2013
  4. What first-timers can get away with would be close to zero, I suspect. But regardless of the profanity count, and whether its excessive or entirely appropriate, you have raised a big contemporary issue here – the right to give offense. There are powerful groups in our national and global cultures who feel it should be illegal to give or cause offense – usually on religious grounds, but the uptight cop who didn’t like being sworn at also illustrates the point well. In fact, a recent law passed in New York state (I hope I have this right) makes it an offense to offend an officer in the course of his or her duty. There doesn’t need to be any swearing involved. So when we write, and self censor, as I do every day, we need to find a way to push back against what I feel is a dangerous trend against free speech and the right to object to something, at the risk of offending. In my television script work, it’s tacitly acknowledged that there is a small bank of offending words and expressions that can be called upon. As long as the occasional profanity is in context, motivated and not overused, I will get editorial permission to use it. Thanks for the post, Phillipa.

    June 30, 2013
  5. Marlish Glorie, I adore Glengarrie Glen Ross. Anything David Mamet writes is a must see. The fucks scattered around that film really emphasise the testosterone levels at work, similar to the film The Departed where the swagger and swearing is extreme, but the story takes place in an all male Boston police department where no man can afford to look anything but tough and aggressive. Margin Call too, traders scattering ‘fuck me’s’ around like confetti – it works because it’s truthful.For character and ambient depth, sometimes it just has to be ‘fuck’.

    Helene, we face the issue of writing primarily for women, many of whom simply are put off by the use of swearing. But like you, I can’t have a couple of badass bikies bitching at each other like they would in a school canteen. Judicious use, is the key.

    I understand you’re point, Marj. I don’t mind a bit of dialect and slang, if it’s done well. And this is the thing about dialogue, you have to consider the reader and the character equally. Just to refer back to the screen again. When I first watched The Wire I could not understand the dialogue of the black drug dealers. I had to guess at what they meant which actually made me work harder, and by the end of the series I understood perfectly about re-upping the stash, but if they’d spoken English as the police did, the series would have lost it’s impact completely.

    Ben, self censoring is obviously necessary but as you point out, should we have to bland everything out in order to please the smallest sector of the audience/reader? Can they not self select less offensive material? What are community standards these days?

    Just an aside, in The Book of Love the editor crossed out the word ‘clitoris’. Yep, that’s an offensive word. I mean, women, owners of said organ, would not want to read that word in their book. We can have ‘fuck’ and ‘prick’ and physical violence but don’t dare refer to female pleasure zones!

    July 2, 2013
  6. One of the earliest forms of word censorship I came across in television – and bear in mind I was writing for a medical soap opera – was a ban on the word ‘placenta’. We were boggled at this but it quickly became a game.
    Tracy: where’s Tommy? Mary: at the playcentre.
    Bill: so are you on the team? Phil: Yep. They’re getting me to playcentre. Etc etc.

    July 2, 2013

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