How Much Should You Cuss in YA?

I’ve wanted to take on this subject for a long time, but I vacillated about the risk of creating controversy. But then Mark Alpert of The Kill Zone wrote What the %#$@? in which he talked honestly about cutting out the curse words for his young adult novel and how that affected his writing.

So I’m tackling the subject today.

Teenage girl holding book

Here’s my own truth. I allow myself to cuss in first drafts. If I truly believe a teen character would say s**t, I type s**t in that first draft. I turn off the editor and put on the page whatever seems to work for the scene.

But my final goal is to limit cussing as much as possible. Why? Do I think teens must have squeaky-clean books? That they should be placed in a bubble?

No, I don’t. However, there are some good reasons to limit the curse words on the page.

Setting a higher standard. People learn language when they read. Reading has vastly improved my vocabulary, and a lot of that learning happened in those formative teenage years.

Plenty of teenagers are near-experts in the use of the F-word, but maybe by reading other ways to express themselves, they’ll expand their language options. Hey, I’d love for my kids to learn to insult more like Shakespeare:

“‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck!” – 1 Henry IV

“The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.” – Coriolanus

“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats.” – King Lear

Thank goodness he didn’t simply use the same curse words over and over. And if the Bard can set that standard, I want to aim for it too.

Extraneous cussing can offend readers I want. I don’t know anyone who won’t read a book just because it’s cuss-word free, but I know plenty who won’t pick up a book with a lot of cussing in it. I want everyone I can possibly have as a reader to pick up my book. Of course, my subject matter and style won’t appeal to some, but if it’s merely some cuss words I can easily eliminate, I figure that’s worth doing.

I won’t shortchange the story, and some stories are simply made for older audiences, but I still watch my words to keep my story as accessible as I can.

Going deeper and getting more creative with words. Cuss words can be shortcuts, like when we know a character is angry because he utters “dammit.” Mark Alpert talked about having to go deeper to find ways to express emotion on the page without resorting to cuss words.

I recently went through this process of trying to figure out what a character would call this total jerk. In my first draft, she called him the apt a**hole. But that was easy. I dug deeper to what she really wanted to say and found a story-themed phrase that worked way better (waste of flesh). When I pushed myself for that more creative epithet, I reveled in the final product. It was right for her and for the scene, and it was more original.

It’s fiction, not real life. The reason I most hear from writers for the inclusion of many curse words is realism. I totally get that. Sure enough, if you’ve got a gang member selling drugs on the street, he’s isn’t going to say, “Jeepers, the cops are here!” So sometimes a cuss word is exactly what’s needed.

But this is fiction, not real life. If I wrote real life dialogue between teenagers, I’d also use the word like a billion times. “He was like, ‘Hey, Babe,’ and I was like, ‘No way,’ and then we like went to her house and she was totally like ‘Why didn’t you get with him?'”

Or we’d include a bunch of ums and uhs. But we don’t. Because those are unnecessary words. Instead, we streamline words and dialogue to keep things realistic yet well-paced. So I think about that standard when I consider using cuss words. Do I need this word? Or is it more of a “like” or “um” choice?

I want my family to be able to read what I write. On a personal level, I want my parents, my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, and my someday grandkids to all be able to read what I write — and me not feel any need to blush or apologize. As a devout Christian, I try to keep my own language clean and positive, so I want to model that life principle on the page as well. Such unspoken accountability to my family keeps me within the standards I’ve set for my own life.

So yeah, to some extent this is a personal choice. But I also believe it’s a good professional choice to limit cussing in YA when you can.

ROW80 Update

And now for my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days. Has my progress evoked a stream of cuss words in my head or some yahoos instead?

1. Read 12 books. I finished Sketchy Behavior by Erynn Mangum and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Done! 12 of 12 read this round.

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Still editing and will be for a while, but I’m supremely happy to have found an excellent critique partner nearby. I rewrote a chapter based on her comments and love the result. I also did some important replotting and started rewriting another chapter. Yahoo for this one.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. Still waiting on comments from a couple of advance readers. One plus of self-publishing is I can move my personal deadlines back if I need that time to polish the story to where I want it. Nothing this week.

4. Publish and promote two short storiesMy Sister’s Demon is done. Still waiting on story #2. Half done!

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. Checked in on the Wednesday updates from several bloggers. Some fabulous progress! Downright inspirational. Done.

So what do you think about cussing in young adult? Or any other genres? And how was your week?

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18 thoughts on “How Much Should You Cuss in YA?

  1. I’m with you on this one. Few things put me off a novel like gratuitous swearing. I don’t mind it if it’s appropriate to the character and the situation, and I’ve written characters who’ve cussed, but it should be the exception. Aside from the reasons you mention here, too much swearing also blunts its effect. It’s much more powerful if a character who never swears lets one slip in a particularly tense or upsetting moment than if it just forms part of their regular vocabulary. But even then, as you point out, one should see if there isn’t a more effective way to bring that feeling across.

    1. I’m with you on this, too. And I love the Shakespeare quotes. I wrote a YA that was never published and the teens insulted each other in Latin (since they were in Latin class together). I also think it depends on the character like the guy on the street selling drugs and saying “Jeepers the cops are here.” LOL! I have some characters who cuss, and I wouldn’t recognize them if they didn’t.

      1. Teens insulting each other in Latin! Now there’s an idea. Makes me think of Firefly where the characters constantly swore in Mandarin 🙂

    2. You make a great point; Constant swearing does indeed squelch the effect. I still remember the one (and only) time I heard one of my parents utter a curse word growing up. It make a big impact, let me tell ya. 😉

  2. Well said. I recently read an NA book, and though it obviously isn’t in the same exact genre as yours, the customer base isn’t far in age. I was actually bored and disappointed with how much cursing there was because in this particular instance it seemed the author was out to prove something. So much of it could’ve been eliminated and not detracted from the storyline. I think your choice to go with what flows naturally, then adjust out as needed/works is a great call.

    1. I find this is true with Hollywood true. Sometimes it’s like they put it in there to make the point that they can…or something. I don’t know.

      Thanks for the real life example and your take. I agree!

  3. Yes, Bard set a high standard. And good for you Julie! Thank you for being brave enough to voice your feelings on this subject. (And I did read Mark’s post.) You know, I’m a new, but old writer. lol. What I mean is, I am older than the majority of writers I meet. I am a Christian too. So I agree with you wholeheartedly. There are other words that can be used other than those of the cursive persuasion. And I for one get tired of hearing them all the time. It is amazing how many also feel the same way and are not Christian, but share the same values. I don’t know if people have figured this out or not. But the point of using said curse words was for shock value, to grab our attention or to create a darker character. Yet, when used all the time, they can lose the purpose in which they were intended. It’s kinda overkill in the market right now, IMHO. I like your method Julie. And it sounds like it’s working out for you! Wahoo! 🙂

    1. I suspect a lot of parents also would prefer their kids to read books that don’t include unnecessary swearing, regardless of their religious persuasion. And parents are often the ones who recommend and purchase books for their teens.

      Thanks for your perspective, Karen! So glad to know you agree.

  4. Oh, I like the idea of reaching for a different , more unique way of cursing. Waste of flesh is awesome! I don’t write YA. I write mysteries for an adult audience (my protag is now in her mid forties). But I also try to limit the cussing to places where it would just be weird to not have the character cuss. Indeed I have a drug dealer/pimp in one of my books. He sure as heck isn’t gonna say “golly gee.”

    I smiled at the part where you use your family as your internal monitor. Some of the ladies from my Bible study group read my books. Keeping that in mind definitely helps me limit the cursing to bare necessity. 😀

    1. I tend to pick cleaner adult fiction as well. I don’t have a problem with some cussing or whatever, but a lot gets old pretty fast for me.

      And yes, I’d think those Bible study women would keep you honest, so to speak! 😀

  5. Totally with you, Julie, but I’d go further. I think most of what you said applies to adult fiction also. I write historical fiction for a primarily adult audience, but I severely limit the cursing. Now and then I may include a rather mild curse word IN DIALOG, but I never use f*** or s**t.

    I also don’t like – and don’t use – graphic presentations of sex. I grew up in an era in which even the movies left the details up to the viewer’s imagination, and I like that. I may at times lead my reader up to the bedroom door, but I close that door before any real sex starts.

    Like you and Kassandra, I bear in mind that I want my family and Sunday School classmates to be comfortable reading my work.

    1. Actually, I never use the f-word — not even in drafts — or any cuss word that involves deity (like G-d**n). I never quite understand how God and Jesus got drawn into cussing like that.

      I also feel similar about adult fiction, but I generally expect more foul language — that is, my reading standard is a little looser with adult than teen fiction. Good to know that you keep it pretty clean!

  6. I never really think about it. Though I tend to read fantasy where the curses are very theme appropriate and world specific. I will have to be more careful as I read. I do agree with the comments that mention that cursing at pivotal points can provide a lot of story.

    Congrats on all of the progress this round. in ROW. I’ve fallen way behind in all of my stuff and it is nice to see others approaching their goals so closely. Way to go.

    1. Actually, fantasy can get really creative about this. It can be a little fun to know someone is saying a bad word, but it doesn’t really register in our guts the same way. There was a dystopian YA, The Maze Runner, in which the kids had their own curse language, and it was an interesting and believable aspect of the story.

      Thanks, Andrew!

  7. You’re spot on, Julie! Cussing gets so repetitive as well as being a turn-off to a great many people. I hadn’t thought about equating cutting it out with cutting out other unwanted parts of realistic speech.

    We run into the same cussing question in middle-grade. The language writers are tempted to use isn’t usually as rough as YA, but there’s an additional spin: teachers are often still reading aloud as a treat, and it’s difficult for them if they have to censor as they go. They also recommend books, keep them on their classroom shelves, etc., and foul language can knock a book off their list.

    I love the idea of going deeper to find a relevant expression, and I, too, write with my family and friends in mind. And I remember laughing my head off when I read that passage in Henry IV the first time! Kudos to you for your stance and process. Now I”m off to read what Mark Alpert had to say.

    1. That’s a really good point! When schools are looking for books to read together, recommend to kids, feature in book fairs or libraries, gratuitous foul language can become an issue. Yet again, I want to be accessible to every reader I can get. I’d happily knock out some cuss words to be on a school’s “yes, parents, buy this book!” list.

      Thanks so much, Jennifer!

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