Thursday, August 8, 2013

Where do you Draw the Line?

My readers often ask me about the use of bad language in my books. I’ve done a lot of book signings at bookstores and I talk to many readers, and the one question I hear more often than any other is, “Does it have a lot of bad language in it?”

The concern is often not so much a prudish one, but rather that it detracts rather than adds to the story. I had one man tell me that he expects a writer should be able to come up with more creative words than he can hear every day on the streets. I tend to agree, although there are times when the situation just calls for it and without it, the scene loses authenticity. For instance, I had a scene in my first book where a hardcore methamphetamine user had just lost her children in court. She wasn’t about to say, “Oh, piddle-sticks!” So she said something a little more down to earth.

I try to avoid any political or religious comments, unless they are really relevant to the story line. I have one line in one of my books where I mention a political party and for that I have received an inordinate number of comments. I was quite surprised since it’s not like it was meant to offend anyone. It merely developed the character. 

What do you think? Does it bother you when you see a lot of offensive words in a book? How much is too much? I guess the real question is how much do you do to not offend your readers?  Do you know your audience and do you try to write in a way that will keep them, or do you just write and let the chips fall?

Teresa Burrell
Author of The Advocate Series


  1. Teresa, I'm probably in the minority here, but I don't include profanity, graphic sex, or other things most people find objectionable in my books. Frankly, I suspect that and my references to God and my characters' relationship to Him (both positive and negative) may diminish the number of readers I have, but I get lots of positive comments from people who appreciate knowing, going in, that they won't find offensive material in my books.
    Am I ignoring the "real world?" I try not to. My books have dealt with identity theft, stalking, alcoholism, murder, and other not-so-pretty aspects of that world. Then again, there will be people who disagree with what I write. I go back to something I heard years ago, something especially applicable for authors: I've given up on the fantasy that I can be universally loved and respected.

    1. I agree with you, Richard. I certainly don't try to please everyone, but I do listen to my readers. And I receive no less than 2 emails or reviews a week that comment on the fact that I don't have a lot of bad language.

      I also write of many of those things that you mentioned and of child abuse. It's not an easy subject to write about and not leave the reader disgusted. I'm very careful how I deal with such a sensitive subject. However, I have the occasional reader (or non-reader) who won't buy the book because of the subject matter. You can't win them all.

  2. My characters pretty much dictate their behavior, and that includes language. Although I admit that with the manuscript I'm currently editing, after I finished the first draft I went through it and cleaned up a lot of the f-bombs.

    There's a best selling author whose books I won't read. The first one of his I tried had hundreds of f-bombs and well… I felt a little shell shocked. I asked a friend of mine, who used to be a cop in Long Beach, to read the book. I didn't tell him why. He didn't finish it because of the language… said he'd never heard that much even on the job.

  3. I try to limit swear words in my novels and only use them when they're most effective and essential to accurate dialog. Excessive profanity in books and movies wears on me. But some is necessary for realism.

  4. I totally agree with LJ's last statement! Sometimes it's necessary for authenticity, but no need to overdo it. As for the f-bomb, in a situation where people use it a lot, like the military or a work camp or a prison or whatever, I'd suggest just throwing in the occasional one - maybe a ratio of one to 10 or 1 to 20 of what the actual occurrence would be.

    A good point to bring up, Teresa!

  5. Language is dictated by both the character and the audience. And author sensibility. Language, like mystery, requires as much concealment as revelation. Profanity shocks - though it may have lost some of its shockingness; but is it effective? The garish, after the initial jolt, repulses, and to a greater extent. The best comedy doesn't need it, and the best comedians didn't use it. Those that do now (Carlin (RIP) Robin Williams) are diminished thereby.

    Especially when dealing with sensitive and delicate topics (like child abuse - proud of you for that, Teresa) do we have to be careful with word choice. The language should be used to craft the story, in all its aspects, and "bad language" diminishes that.

    Modern narrative (film, theater, print) shows too much. Some things work better when there's a bit of concealment.

    Crude language does not make a crude or crudely written story any better.

    Thanks for this important post.


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