Rated PG For Language

If you’ve been reading my blog for any decent amount of time, you might remember a post I wrote awhile back about including profanity in fiction. It leaned heavily on throwing out that effenheimer (is that how you even spell that word’s bleep version?) in character conversation. This post is looking at the opposite… the highly deliberate, over-conscious effort to avoid profanity in writing.

Maybe I should tell you where I’m coming from with this.

I recently checked out two books from the library that turned out to be inspirational fiction. (That’s publishing code for Christian. I don’t know why. Maybe it can and does technically include other religions, but as of yet I haven’t seen a novel that carries a religious or spiritual backdrop that was non-Christian in nature, and if you are someone who does know or has seen this, I welcome the correction.) I wouldn’t normally choose that genre, but the back of the book summaries gave no indication that they were inspirational (though had I noticed the publisher for one of them, it would have been obvious).

The first one had a woman befriending a young boy who had a dog with a questionable name. When the dog was first introduced, the protagonist mused that it sounded somewhat like “DownMutt” and she felt uncomfortable with the name and asked if she could just call the dog, “Mutt”. Now obviously, the name was probably “DamnMutt” and I thought the “sounded like” part was merely the protagonist guessing she heard wrong. However, as the story went on, it was clear that the dog’s name truly was “DamnMutt”. Each and every time, though, it was actually spelled “DownMutt”, if the name was fully written at all.

I arrived quickly to the conclusion that the editor/publisher edited out the profanity. The problem, though, was that the context wasn’t edited. Every time a character carried a startled or surprised reaction to this young boy having a dog named “DownMutt”, it didn’t make sense. Because, um, there’s nothing startling to that new, modified name, is there? Really? What I wonder is who made this edit? And when did the edit get made? ie: if an editor passes along her notes to me about this change, then I’m going to realize that it affects more than just the single name change. Wasn’t it obvious that this original name was intentional? Or maybe it wasn’t even the original editor, but the final copyeditor. There’s still time at that stage (pretty sure there is) to make the correction.

For what it’s worth, for the least amount of editing, I might have gone with something like “DumbMutt”… we can still think that’s a sad name, right?

The second book had zero profanity or even allusion to it. In fact, the complete absence of it might have gone completely unnoticed by me except for one time. The protagonist, a new mother and recently widowed, and at this point in the story, feeling ill, woke to her daughter’s crying in the middle of the night. When she stood to go get her, she banged her shin into the coffee table. What kind of profanity-free words might you use for her exclamation at this point?

Yes, I’m going to give you some wait time (I’m a teacher, you know). Don’t be scrolling too quickly right now to find out the “answer”.

….

….

….

….

Here were my thoughts: “Shoot, shoot, shoot!” Or, to quote my husband’s favorite clean curse, “Sugar!” Or how about simply, “Ow, ow, ow!” Clarity, simplicity, repetition for added emphasis of frustration. Or maybe even this: She released a few choice words not fit for her newborn daughter.

This was the line in the book: “Oh, words, words, words!”

What is that? I mean… who would ever say that?

Christian fiction publishers will not publish profanity, and I don’t take any issue with that. My characters use profanity, but then, that’s who they are. If authors have characters that don’t, then they shouldn’t. It’s all about context and authenticity. There shouldn’t be profanity just for profanity’s sake. But this bad editing of it confuses me.

I did a little research, and here are a couple of things I found:

First – In the AbsoluteWrite forum I found one conversation that included a participant giving the difference between cussing, cursing, and swearing. Cussing is really just a slang word for cursing, but I believe his point was connotative – cussing might be that “rats!” kind of expression. Cursing held the true definition (invoking a supernatural force to cause harm – “damn you to hell”, for example), and swearing aligned itself with using “God” or “Lord” in secular-style profanity. It is my impression that none, even the “cussing” is ever acceptable. That being the case, I would even wager that my replacement line above (She released a few choice words…) would not make the cut for an editor.

Second – choosing an appropriate exclamation might prove a more difficult task than I thought. One Christian author/blogger mentioned that he felt “near”-curse words offended him. Crap. Dang. Heck. Geez. (I would never have guessed “geez” would be offensive to anyone. In other news, I don’t think I could ever publish with a Christian publisher, for a whole lot more reasons than just this, but I digress.)

Third – I enjoyed reading some responses in forum discussions and blogs for how to deal with this issue. Body language is one great way to follow both the alternative to profanity in dialogue and the mantra of show-don’t-tell. Others, of course, simply said write stories with characters that would never even think to use profanity. I think some would argue that this implies no stories in dark places or with rough histories or situations. I’m not so sure. I think strong writing has power over this question of language.

Some of you are thinking, “who cares? I don’t write Christian fiction, nor do I read it” and I get that, except if you look at the third set of observations, it’s kind of useful advice for those who just aren’t sure about authentically incorporating rough language, or simply don’t want to, religious backdrop or not. Also, maybe you are thinking of your readers … who is your audience? Who do you want your audience to be? Will they be okay with your characters’ language choices?

I could come up with some more examples on how to handle the specific examples from above, but I am curious about your thoughts. (Also, by the way, I had started out on this idea of how ridiculous the editing is for these books – and it still, totally is ridiculous, but then ended up getting more philosophical – so if you comment, feel free to do so in either vein.) How would you edit the language choices from these 2 books I read?

(How about this for editing? Would this pass the test for avoiding what the original song was?)

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3 Responses to Rated PG For Language

  1. Very interesting post, Janet! I’ve never read any inspirational books either, though I have to say I think “Geez” is likely offensive because it can be considered an abbreviation of Jesus when used in that manner (a guess).

    I’ll admit I’ve read few books where curse words did not break the spell for me. In my experience, most of the time (and it’s not a lot of times), curse words in a book feel gratuitous. But that may be because I don’t use them in daily life so they don’t really fit in my read vocabulary any more than my spoken vocabulary.

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      I believe you’re right about the “geez”, I guess it has always seemed so innocent to me – especially with the “g” spelling. However, it’s good to know. It was kind of enlightening to see how/why even the common “substitutes” were iffy.

      I agree how curse words can definitely come across as gratuitous. I’m not altogether sure I’m successful at evading that problem in my own writing, but I can tell you that it is very character-based for me. In my current WIP, I don’t think I’ve yet used a single cuss or curse (although swearing, by the Christian definition shared in my post, does exist). It’s just not in my characters’ overall nature.

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  2. Pingback: Saturday Summation – 28 March 2015 | It'll All Work Out

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