You know the feeling. You pick up a book – maybe because of its rave reviews, maybe because it’s been recommended to you by someone, maybe because the premise entranced you – and BOOM… you see a word. One that deserves a PG-13 or even an R rating. Whyyyyyyy? you think. Then comes the terrible choice – read the book and try to sift through the language, or put it down and wonder about it for the rest of your life?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and have had a few different conversations with people about it. (I’m still not sure about where I stand, though, so you won’t find any definite do-this-don’t-do-that rules here.)
As readers, we have a choice about what books we read and how much language (and Offensive Content in general) we let in our minds. However, as writers, we have a completely different choice. What kind of language is appropriate to put in our books?
For some, this is a black-and-white area. “No language whatsoever!” you say. For others, it’s a little less clear.
For example, I know certain words are banned in some households that are used nearly every sentence in other households. In my opinion, this is one of the hardest parts about writing. I’ve tried not to use language in my books, but I’ve recently been branching out a little. (Don’t worry, not too much. ; ) ) And, because I’ve been branching out, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
I think, first of all, the kind of language you allow depends on your audience. If you’re writing for a middle-grade audience, your usage of four-letter words should probably be kept to about zero. (This excludes words like book and pray, of course.) If you’re writing for adults, however, you could probably get by with a few, especially if you want it to seem realistic. (Because people use inappropriate words all the time, regardless of whether it’s wrong or not.)
Second, you need to think about what it’ll add to the book. If you’re gonna use a swear word, first think about the context and what character might possibly say The Word. Is this a life-and-death situation? Has the character stubbed their toe? Obviously, if the character is a conservative, tie-wearing, church-going Christian homeschooled seven-year-old, chances are they won’t say anything worse than words like “stupid” and “darn.” (There are, as always, exceptions.) If you’ve got a slightly rougher character, maybe a sailor or someone who’s done jail time, you’d probably need to throw a few words in there.
In the past, I’ve always used the old faithful “he/she swore” instead of saying what the word is. That way, the word is left up to the mind of the reader.
Here’s my question, though: What about language in published books? How much is too much? Should you read those with a pen and mark through the language? I’ve done this a few times, most famously in my circles with The Book Thief. I got three requests – IN ONE DAY – for my censored copy of The Book Thief. But I almost regret it. It feels wrong to mark up a book. And it seems to add to the characters (my constant struggle while writing). An important sentence loses its meaning because there’s a word marked out. Maybe that’s just me; I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t come to a conclusion on this yet. (Personally, I’d rather read a book with language in it than watch a movie with language in it. My eyes can skim over the words, but when you hear it, the inflections get stuck in your mind. But I digress.)
I know this depends on the individual, but I’m curious about responses. For writers, what’s your opinion on language in your novels? For readers, how much is too much before you toss the book in the trash or return it? (Keep the comments clean, please. Asterisks are amazing.)