PG or R language?

I don’t generally use a lot of profanity in my stories, unless it needs to be there.  Sometimes there’s none; sometimes there’s a little sprinkled in, and sometimes it’s all over the place.  And usually it’s not an issue.

I recently submitted a story to Spark: A Creative Anthology.  On the subject of profanity, its guidelines said,

“Because we’d like to reach the widest audience possible, we actually recommend that you avoid it entirely.”  

So for that particular story, just to be safe I changed “shit” to “crap” or “damn.”

Now, contrast that with “Small Town Life,” the story that’ll be out in a couple weeks in Shadow Road Quarterly.  It’s told through the POV of a seventeen-year-old boy.  I’ve spent three years teaching high school, and wow.  Those kids (especially ones similar to the MC) will say anything and everything.  And usually it’s not intentional; they just don’t pay attention and drop f-bombs all over the place in the course of normal conversation.  So that’s what my MC and his friends also do.

However, I wasn’t sure if that would fly with the editors, so I asked before submitting.

Dear editors,
I have a story that I’d like to submit to your magazine, but it contains quite a few f-bombs. Would you prefer I edit the language before submitting, or should I send it in as-is? Thanks!

Their response:

F-bomb away! Fuckin’ A.

(That means sure.)

I submitted it, adding to the cover letter,

If its adult language is an issue, I’m more than willing to tone it down.

When I received my acceptance notice, it included feedback from the editors. One of them said this:

I did think that ‘fuck’ was way overused and more creative cursing could’ve made the story more enjoyable. 

Yes, I could’ve changed it, but I think as it stands, it’s more realistic.  It’s also probably the most profanity-laden chapter in the novel, because as the MC grows up, he, like most of us (hopefully), realizes that words are powerful, and the less you use profanity, the more power it gains when you do use it.

What’s your stance on bad words?  Do you try to use them, always avoid them, or let the story’s characters and potential audience dictate your word choice?

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating post, ED! I’m very interested in this subject because in my WIP, one of my protags spent his teen years in a street gang. He swears early and often :D As the story progresses, he tones it down but it never goes away completely.

    To make the situation more interesting, the character is bilingual in English and Spanish so I’ve been researching those cuss phrases too! So far, critiquers have understood that this sort of language is necessary for this character. I’m concerned how others will view it as I show the work to more and more people.

    Swearing, maybe unfortunately, is a big part of our culture. If a story is reality-based I don’t think it’s realistic to leave it out completely, and in some cases, toning it down makes the dialog sound unnatural.

    On the other hand, I also feel that using a lot of swearing can contribute to a general dumbing-down of society, so it’s nice to read stories that don’t have any need for it.

    Really interesting issue. And congrats on your acceptance!

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