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?