I was reading this thread, but it didn't quite the answer a question I had about creative writing and whether profanity should be used or not, in a way that is best for creative storytelling.

Here's what I mean:

James swore under his breath, his hands rummaging through the suitcase - where was the USB drive?

Here, the reader is allowed to imagine what the character might be saying. For the last twenty chapters, you've made your own image of 'James', and you might think he'd say things differently to how someone else might.


"Shit!" James cursed, his hands rummaging through the suitcase - where was the USB drive?

Here, I've used the actual curse. Sure, there might be a bit of shock value (and we could scale up the profanity if we need to), but the reader is being told exactly what type of profanity James is using.

I know that books and movies are fundamentally different, but movies having been using the Precision F-Strike for years, to deliver impact just to escape an unfavorable rating. Books don't have ratings, but some might argue about 'target audience'.

For the sake of this argument, let's say that the target audience doesn't mind a bit of swearing (they're not children), but they're not oil-rig workers either.

So, my main questions is: Is it better to use actual swearing, or use 'creative' methods like above?

As a side note, should profanity in conversation be included?

"I've had enough of your bullshit," Andrew snarled, throwing down his badge onto the desk.

5 Answers 5


Again not the answer you're looking for, but it depends!

Don't put in swear words for the sake of it, but when they add strength to a piece of dialogue then go ahead.

So when a man kills a man in front of another man is it better for that other man to say "What was that for?" or "What the fuck was that for?" Note the increased impression of anger here? I could have said "What was that for?" John shouted, but the John shouted takes the reader out of the moment. It's a classic Show Don't Tell situation.

As with any media it's easy to fill our writing with swearing, and it's hard to know when to leave it out. In your example; James swore under his breath, you do a great job of expressing the way in which he swore, which is more important in that scene. By this I mean that if you'd said "Shit," James swore under his breath, it would have been unnecessarily clunky and would have damaged the flow of the writing.

The only external force (so not what you think fits the situation best) that you should worry about is your target audience. There are degrees of severity for swear words, and audiences who appreciate different degrees. If you're writing adult fiction (by which I mean Peter F Hamilton, Robin Hobb, China Mieville; not E L James) then any degree that is appropriate to the moment is fine, but if you're writing for kids or even teens you need to consider that degree of swear severity very carefully.

  • Thanks for your answer, it's really hard choosing a 'right' answer, but I think I'll go with yours as you sort of mirrored my thoughts (I was really looking for someone to confirm my thinking) As LoremIpsum stated, the swearing (or lack thereof) is the point of the sentence, so the context is justified only in one situation, and goes a long way to explaining why some movies and books are littered with swearing that seems out of place and offensive, while others can pull it off expertly. Thanks! Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 22:04
  • You're very welcome @Singular1ty, and you're absolutely right, so much of it is a question of whether a writer is using curses becuase they're right for the moment, ot just to shock
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 8:13

Part of it depends on your character. Is he one to toss around profanity like a kid playing catch? Or is this unusual for him? Do you want the "shock value" of using the actual word? Personally I prefer writing (and reading) the more creative phrasings authors use to cover up the profanity

She swore, using words no proper young lady should know and that even a construction worker wouldn't be caught dead saying.

If you can do it well, it adds a little humor. It also shows that the character is really stressed/scared/pissed off for them to do something so out of character. If profanity is more part of their vocabulary, it would be weird to use this technique so you might as well use the actual word.

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    IMO “words ... even a construction worker wouldn't be caught dead saying” adds implausibility rather than humor or character. It may challenge the reader to think of what that hypothetical construction worker wouldn't be caught dead saying – which I imagine are words like heck, darn, fooie – and give a completely wrong effect. Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 3:10
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    @jwpat7 No, I disagree. The very fact that I can't imagine a swear word which a construction worker wouldn't say makes it pretty funny to me. It's also clearly hyperbole. Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 10:22
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    Do you really need to imagine the exact words that someone said for the scene to be effective? If I read, "As Bob was the only member of our group who spoke French, he asked the stranger for directions", I don't sit there and try to guess what the exact words were the Bob and the stranger exchanged. I get the idea and move on.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 13:37
  • Thanks for your answer! I got a chuckle out of the construction worker thing, and I understand the point you're making. Author like J.K.Rowling never dropped a single swear in her books, despite many references to Harry Potter 'swearing', even though her books were getting increasingly darker and made for an older audience. Thanks for your answer! Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 22:05
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    @Singular1ty Well, Molly Weasley does tell Bellatrix "Get away from my daughter, you bitch!" in the Battle of Hogwarts, but she had really good reason. Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 0:31

I think you need to consider the context. Is the swearing important or decorative?

"James swore under his breath" is not the important part of that scene; the important part is that he can't find the USB stick. But Anthony snarling, "I've had enough of your bullshit" actually is the point of that line of dialogue, so using the profanity makes sense.

This could go either way with the description of the young lady who makes construction workers blush. If the book is meant for a more delicate (read: younger) audience, then we don't need to hear the actual obscenities; the reader knows she's angry enough to act out of character, and we move on. If the book is for grownups, then drop the colorful metaphor and just have her spew a string of swear words. If the character has been written correctly, it will be sufficiently shocking.

  • Thanks for the answer! To some extent, I was thinking along the lines here. The construction worker thing adds color and humor, and might elicit a chuckle - I guess the genre is depending on whether it makes an effect. You're definitely right about the point of the sentence. Thanks again! Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 22:02
  • I would argue that "James swore under his breath" is important. It communicates urgency/importance and the stress felt by the character ("under his breath" also hints about the character's relationship with his environment). It is even possible that the swearing is more significant, e.g., if the missing USB drive was the straw that broke the camel's back, and "under his breath" might hint at a person who suppresses public expression of anger and is close to exploding.
    – user5232
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 23:37
  • @PaulA.Clayton I take some of your points, but you could write it as James muttered, "Shit," under his breath and it would have the same importance. The USB stick is what he's swearing about, unlike in Anthony Russo's answer, where the character's blurted obscenity is the point of that sentence. Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 0:30

In my current story, a character just came into a room and saw our protagonist standing among a room full of dead bodies. In utter shock and fear (as he had no expectation of this) he proclaimed "What the fuck did you do?"

I don't think without the included profanity, the scene works. He hardly is a character to throw around profanity in regular conversation, but he isn't a priest either and if something shocks him, there is every likely it will come forth.



I'll repeat the main point I tried to make in the thread you referenced: Regardless of how you think this character would actually speak in real life, and regardless of your own opinions about profanity, there are many people who find profanity distasteful or offensive, and who will not read a book if the quantity or intensity of profanity passes a certain point. Personally, I don't use profanity and I don't like to hear it. If someone uses profanity in a conversation with me, I don't faint or scold them or anything, but I don't like it. I am not going to pay for a book and go out of my way to read a book that I find unpleasant. If a book is otherwise good I'll skim over a few obscenities, but I've had plenty of books that I've thrown away because I just got tired of the vulgarity.

On the flip side, I have never heard someone say that he would not read a book because it didn't contain enough profanity.

So I think that from a marketing perspective, there is little to gain and much to lose by using profanity.

As you say in your question, in many cases you can avoid using specific vulgar words by saying "Fred swore loudly" or some such. In other cases you can just leave out the swear words. Instead of writing "This is f---in terrible, he cried" just write "This is terrible, he cried." Does it really lose that much? If it's not clear to the reader that a character is angry or upset without including swear words in the dialog, there are problems with your writing.

I've said this in other context and someone will always say, "Hey, what are you upset about? They're just words." But the whole reason why you're using these particular words is because they shock and offend people. You can't on the one hand say that you need to use these particular words because of the effectiveness of their shock value, and then turn around and say that you just can't understand why some silly people are shocked by them.

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    "If it's not clear to the reader that a character is angry or upset without including swear words in the dialog, there are problems with your writing." The swear words may or may not be for shock; they definitely indicate intensity. Sometimes you cannot indicate the depth of a character's feelings any other way than to show the extremity to which s/he is forced. It does not, by definition, mean "there are problems with [the] writing." As a reader you are of course free not to read books with profanity, but profanity doesn't make the book "broken." Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 15:00
  • I agree with your issue with books that use too much profanity - I have similar issues with movies, and often refuse to watch movies if they're rated to have strong language simply because I don't like sitting through a near-constant string of swearing that's out of context (a recent example being the first ten minutes of Argo, despite the rest of the movie having nary a swear word in sight) But on the flip side, Die Hard works with swearing, because John McLane is having a really shitty Christmas. o_O Thanks for your answer! Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 22:00

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