In every writing workshop I conduct, the topic of using swear words in teen fiction is a huge issue of debate, with people as polarized over the subject as the American legislature on the Affordable Healthcare Act. And I have to say, I’ve found both sides (on the swear word debate) to have valid reasons for believing the way they do.
On the pro side, I’ve found that teens in my workshops shrug their shoulders and often tell me that they use bad language all the time. “Why not use it in writing? It reflects reality,” they say. And I see so many aspiring writers who appear to do just that–have their characters use bad language in an effort to make them seem real. Cool. Edgy.
Then, on the other side of the debate, are those (often parents) who say, “Why expose my kids to this? They get enough of it every day.” Still others say it’s lazy writing, that curse words are used when the writer wants to sound tough but can’t think of any other way to achieve it.
I like to take a step back from the argument. I mean, I’m breaking up fights between toddlers on a daily basis; by noon each day, I’ve usually done a year’s worth of refereeing. I don’t like to take sides when I don’t have to. I’m a “let’s look at the situation” type of gal. So where do I weigh in on this issue?
After writing twelve novels (and counting) and having both used language and shied away from it in the past, I’ve learned this: your character and target audience will make the difference. For example, in the Teen Mobster Series, my target age range is eleven and up. Of course, it is the Mafia, which isn’t known for it’s, uh, gentlemanly behavior. But I found a way around it, telling my audience that men are “cursing” in the story without writing the actual words. Realistic, but still appropriate for the age range.
But in other books, especially more mature teen books (14+) that deal with contemporary issues (sexuality and bullying, for example–follow my Twitter handle to learn more about upcoming releases), sometimes a character displays his or her personality through the use of a curse word, or a character’s reaction to cursing tells the audience more about him or her. I try to use swearing sparingly, but with discretion, always wanting a novel that deals with critical issues to feel authentic to the readers it’s meant to touch.
So the decision is yours. Just remember what Ernest Hemingway said:
“…Try and write straight English; never using slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time.”