Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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I'm debating whether to use a profane word in a particularly traumatic scene in my book. When is it all right to use profanity? If I keep the word in, could that be a problem when I try to publish?

Using profane words can be tricky—right up there with other provocative elements, such as sex scenes and horrific details—because they have the potential to distract rather than accomplish the emotion you’re working toward. The choice to use or avoid profanity comes down this question: Is it necessary?

Profanity has a bad reputation and with good reason. In writing, as in life, profanity can seem gratuitous or, worse, a thinly veiled shock tactic. And it can offend. All of which might jolt the reader out of the unfolding action. As a result, it’s important to use profanity only when it’s adding something essential.

In Junot Diaz’s short story “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie,” the off-color language choices are in line with the character’s voice, a young Dominican man living in the rough neighborhood of the Terrace, a place where “people get stabbed.” The story is written as set of instructions:

Wait for your brother and mother to leave the apartment. You’ve already told them that you’re feeling too sick to go to Union City to visit that tia who likes to squeeze your nuts. . . A local girl may have hips and a thick ass but she won’t be quick about letting you touch.

The language choices stay true to the character; however, the narrative isn’t riddled with profanity. Using restraint allows you to achieve the voice effectively and maintain authenticity while avoiding the likelihood of profanity’s potential pitfalls. Such language can even be a departure for a character and that contrast can also be revealing.

When profanity influences characters or becomes pertinent to the unfolding action, it can be necessary. In the autobiography Black Boy, Richard Wright uses strong profanity and racial epithets to show the ways in which white characters try to intimidate and terrorize him when he attempts to learn their trade.

When used incorrectly, profanity can be a short cut to emotion and the reader is bound to remain unconvinced. If you can convey the emotion through action, gesture, or different dialogue, you can create a more effective and nuanced experience of the moment.

How an agent or publisher responds to profanity in your work will depend upon how well you’ve used it and their own personal sensibilities. Keep in mind audience, too. The limits will probably be more stringent on a young adult book then on one for adults.

Generally, a few profane words in a book-length manuscript aren’t bound to put an agent or editor off, if the material is evocative and well written. (Although pages riddled with such language might.) If the agent or editor is invested in the book, but doesn’t like the use of the profanity, they’ll talk to you about revisions.