Swearing’s an issue for Young Adult writers. Put it in and your books may not be acceptable to the gatekeepers – the publishers and librarian and parents who seek to make sure our children’s minds remain unsullied by the seamier elements of adult life (good luck with that!). Leave it out and there’s always going to be a question about the authenticity of the teen-speak you’re writing.
I’ve been through this discussion many times with many people, and I have to admit to regularly changing my mind. If a publisher asked me to remove swearing from a book I’d written, I’d probably do it, especially if they could give me a convincing commercial reason to do so. But as yet that hasn’t been a concern for me as the two YA novels I currently have out are self-published, so I get to be my own judge. So here’s how it plays out in my mind:
1 The authenticity argument
Teenagers swear. They swear a lot. It may be a way of rebelling against adult authority or a form of speaking that conforms to that of their peers at large or a smaller clique they belong to. If you want to write the way actual teens speak, you’re going to have to eff and all the rest of it.
2 The creative argument
The way teens use language – swearing included – can be enormously creative. They take words and bend their meaning, they invent new words, they use existing words for concepts that as yet have no words. With teens, language is a living thing that can change from day to day, from group to group. If you’re writing teens, wouldn’t you want to include their verbal dexterity in all its sweary glory?
3 The character argument
Even when you have generally excluded swearing from your book, sometimes it is necessary in order to distinguish a character in some way, for example, because he is more adult or threatening in some way. A shift in vocabulary can give clues to someone’s character.
4 The exclamation argument
Even if you manage to excise most of the swearing from your YA novel, there’s going to come one of those moments of shock or realisation, where a real teen is going to go, “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or something fruitier. There are no sensible alternatives to these exclamations. Really. Imagine coming across a YA character who said, “Goodness me!” or “Great Scott!” like my grandmother! You could invent some swearwords, but unless you’re inventing other vocabulary in your book, invented swearwords are going to clunk. And anyway, just because they’re invented doesn’t mean they’re not still swearwords – no one was fooled by Norman Mailer’s use of ‘fug’ in The Naked and the Dead and he didn’t intend them to be.
You are never going to write authentic teen-speak. Young people’s language changes from day to day and from region to region. The moment you set it down it’ll be out of date, and even if someone read it that very day, if they came from anywhere but the place your story was set, it’s quite possible they wouldn’t understand everything that’s being said.
And anyway, no novel dialogue is authentic. People don’t speak in sentences; they speak over each other; they say pointless things that the other person isn’t really supposed to listen to, just because verbalising is something humans do when they are together.
So whatever way you write it, it’s always going to be an artificial version of the way people speak.
I do think it’s a shame to lose the wonderful creativity of young people’s language, but again, I feel that since their language is so fluid, you can’t capture it exactly. What you need to do is to capture the flavour of that creativity and ensure that it’s contrasted with the more standard speech of the adults in your novel. By the way, If you’re looking for examples of fabulous fictional teenspeak, you can’t do better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In my opinion, it must be possible to give a character linguistic tics that suggest that he or she is older or more aggressive without having to swear.
This is tricky. The fact is most people will swear if they hit themselves with a hammer or see a shocking sight and most likely they’ll swear using a fairly standard set of words. It’s these scenarios that see some swearing creeping into my YA because I simply can’t think of an alternative, apart from writing, “He swore,” which would be OK a couple of times but not as a general rule.
5 Reading aloud
Chances are you’re going to have to read out loud from your book at some time. It can be hard to pull off a character swearing. If there’s a possibility that you might have to do it, read aloud to yourself first, to make sure you’re comfortable with it. And check the suitability of what you’re reading for your audience. I read aloud from my book How Do You say GOOSEBERRY in French? to a class of twelve-year-olds – a French class because the book is about a girl staying in France on a French exchange. There’s very little swearing in the book, but the section I carelessly read aloud contained not just the word ‘shit’ (which is scarcely swearing at all) but also the French translation of it, ‘merde’, which I doubt was in the teacher’s plan for that lesson. Oops!
Swearing is not a thing I feel particularly strongly about. Some people do it, some people don’t. I swear a fair bit when I’m speaking. I discourage my children to an extent, but rather because they need to be aware they’re doing it in order to make sure they swear only when it’s appropriate than because I think they should not swear. And by appropriate I mean, OK with friends and family, mostly, but only when you know it doesn’t bother those particular people; not OK with colleagues and anyone you don’t know very well. And if you’re a writer, those people you don’t know very well include your readers and purchasers. If there’s a chance swearing might offend them, I think it’s better to curb it unless absolutely necessary.
I’ll use swearwords where I think they’re needed, which is particularly in exclamations, but swearing is one aspect of language that I examine closely when I edit something I’ve written. Is it necessary? Is there another way to do the same thing? Is there too much of it? I do the same thing with the word ‘just’ which would appear in (just about) every sentence if I let it.
Actually it was a bit of a joy to write a non-contemporary novel (not yet out) where the two teen protagonists come from different cultures. I could blur the lines of authenticity in my teenspeak and the problem of swearing or not swearing didn’t come up.
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.
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