language in books: to censor or not to censor?

IMG_1088[1]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.)

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21 thoughts on “language in books: to censor or not to censor?

  1. Pingback: year in review: 2015 | inklings press

  2. Hmmm…this is a really interesting post, Eowyn. Although I feel like kind of everything has already said by the other commentors, I kind of wanted to add my two cents….

    For me, personally, I can skip over mild curse words in books but when they start to use words like sh– or such I reevaluate the book. I recently read a book (that was labeled as a children’s book!) that used the s-word a couple times, and went on to use other language and descriptions of things that should NOT be in a “juvenile fiction” book. I ended up not finishing the book because I was so disgusted (and when I skimmed the ending I found it very disappointing plot-wise). I think as Christian writers it’s important to be “different” from the rest of writers out there and not fill our books with things we’d be uncomfortable hearing in real life. Now, if someone used the d-word or h**l to characterize some of their characters, I’d be fine with that but anything beyond that would make me a little doubtful as to its necessity…it might be the moment to use the good old “he swore”. 😉

    Other than language, the misuse and blasphemy of God’s name is a immediate turn off for me. Even if it’s simply using the Lord’s name a little to casually.

    Sorry for my long comment! Hope you don’t mind. 🙂

    • Yeah, same here. I hate putting books down, but I will if I feel like it’s not worth it. Whaaaaattttt. That’s terrible! Yes. I completely agree with you.

      Ugh, yes. Obscenities are one thing – profanities are a completely different topic. No matter how much I see it in books, it always bugs me.

      Don’t apologize!!! I love long comments. Everybody keeps posting long comments and apologizing and I’m just like, ‘No, keep them coming!!” 😀

  3. Well…..we actually have an “edited” copy of The Book Thief in my room right now that my sister borrowed from a friend so she could read it. I actually read it earlier uncensored, but would have MUCH preferred the language blocked out. (The same with Unbroken, although I didn’t find that one as bad because even though technically the actual words were worse, there didn’t seem to be as *much* language in it as a whole) Most of the time, I find foul language not only offensive, but really jarring. Some words are definitely worse than others, of course, and it’s such a tricky issue, but I do have some thoughts about it.

    As a tumblr user, I’ve found that bad language gets used a lot, even among Christian users, which was shocking to me at first. I couldn’t understand how Christians, while not normally the *writers* of it originally, could reblog this stuff! (Now I’m a little more savvy in my tumblr usage and know how to avoid bad language, haha)

    When I *do* come across bad language on there and want to repost something, I use asterisks, rather than delete the word in its entirety because I feel like it acknowledges that the original author had something in there that I took out. As an author and writer, the idea of “censorship” is a little off-putting, but I feel that when you mark/whiteout a word it still lets you know that something *was* there, so you know it’s not as the original author’s intent…then again, someone might find markings distracting too. And even then I still have a VERY difficult time marking up books. 😛

    So I guess I’m okay with –and even an encourager of- censorship as long as you *know* it’s being censored and it’s your choice for it to be so…kind of like choosing to watch a movie on clearplay? Speaking of that, I heard there’s an app somewhere that’s like clearplay only its for ebooks. I’m not a big ebook person, but it might be a good way to read some books I’ve been avoiding because of language issues.

    As a writer, I avoid using bad language. I don’t really want to put anyone in a position where they’re torn about reading my books because they like them but don’t like the content. Main rule of thumb for me is just to stick with language *I* would use. If I have a character who swears, I’m just going to write “he swore” and leave it at that 😉

    whoops…this ended up being much longer than I meant it to be…

    • NICE! I think it’s better with the language marked out, but still. I prefer the original. (And I totally agree with you about Unbroken – the language wasn’t as bad, and it was more real than TBT.) And you’re right – language is definitely used for its shock value a lot. (Like in The Hunger Games – there’s no language in the book, but there’s some in the movie, which is just like, “Whaaaa???”)

      YES. I’m not on Tumblr, but I’ve noticed that a lot with the Tumblr blogs I stalk and the excerpts that get posted on Pinterest. I know people have different convictions, but… seriously? Can’t people respect others’ convictions?

      That’s a great idea! Asterisks are amazing. 🙂 Yep – I have a hard time marking up books, too. It feels like defacing my babies. : ((((( ; )

      Exactly. YESSSSSS, ClearPlay is the bomb. 🙂 Ooh, interesting! I think I’ve heard of that. Yeah, I’m not a big ebook person, either, but that’s a really good idea. I’ll have to check it out.

      My thoughts exactly. And I know that the majority of my audience will be Christian homeschoolers, so I want to keep it as clean enough as possible for them. Because I know how hard it is to put down a book even though you REALLY want to read it but just. can’t. stand. the. language. :/

      I love long comments. 🙂

  4. I’m not in the habit of swearing, and I don’t find it attractive (or professional). That said, I have often wondered what makes a word a swear word. What makes some words in our language “bad?”

    I’ve also found that some people consider certain swear words worse than other people. I grew up allowed to let sh** slip every once in a while, but d**m was considered r rated. I’ve met people who are the complete opposite.

    Personally, I’ve never felt the need to use swear words when I write. I will read books that have them as long as they are few and appropriate. I will stop reading if they are on every other page.

    • It’s an age-old question. I think it just has to do with what people put into the meaning of the word. You can say something like “BANANA!” when you stub your toe, and that could be considered a swear. Whatever. : D

      Yep. I know exactly what you mean.

      I haven’t felt the need to use them, either, but now that I’m writing for an older audience, it comes up a little more. Like I said to someone else, for me, personally, it depends on the quantity of the swear word versus the quality of the book (without the swear words).

  5. As a writer, I do use a bit of language sometimes, as you said, when it suits the character and the situation (nothing “R-rated,” though). Many times, in writing and reading, I think some language is almost necessary for the reader to get a full idea of who the character is, especially if it’s a particularly coarse or unpleasant character. But of course, that only applies to stories written for older audiences.

    As for foul language in printed books, I can’t bring myself to write in a book, no matter how bad the language is. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt that books should be kept looking as close to new as possible. Besides, after reading Ray Bradbury’s “Coda” from the end of Fahrenheit 451, I don’t think it’s quite fair to edit another person’s book (unless of course you’re his editor 😛 ). To the reader, bad language may seem unnecessary, but for the author, a lot of thought and planning went into the writing and planning of that book. If an author puts nasty words in his character’s mouths, he likely had a reason for it. I agree, the swearing in The Book Thief may have been a little gratuitous, but in some other books, I can see the author’s reasons for writing salty dialog. I’m not 100% decided about this either, though.

    Also, I’m sorry this comment ran so long.

    • I think I’m still in the PG realm of language. (The worst thing I wrote in the novel I’m working on now was the word “suckiness.” My 12-year-old self was appalled. 🙂 ) You’re absolutely right – language sometime adds to the character! But then you’ve got the “how much is too much” problem. Tough decisions! HA! I’m glad I’m not the only one. I marked through The Book Thief and Unbroken, both so my siblings could read them, but I don’t think I’ll do it with some of my newer books (like Paper Towns or Fangirl), basically because even if I marked out the language, there are other PG-13 things in them that are a little too much for them. YES. Books should be kept in pristine condition. Duh. ; ) I’ve never read Fahrenheit 451, but it’s on my list. Exactly! (Unless the book is written by an author who uses a ton of swear words in daily conversation and, thus, thinks nothing of them.) Yep. (Although it wasn’t as bad as some books I’ve recently read… *cough*)

      Never apologize for long comments. I live for them. 🙂

      • Fahrenheit was incredibly good and Bradbury is probably one of the best authors I’ve ever read, but there is a good deal of language in that book (and in most things that Bradbury writes).

  6. Swearing in books or movies really only bothers me when it’s used excessively unnecessarily. Sometimes language, used well, can add to a line of dialogue, but when it just tossed around, or used lazily instead of having a vocabulary, or used in the place of commas, it just gets annoying and tiresome, and looses its effectiveness. But I won’t set down a great story/film even if there’s a little bit of language in it because the language doesn’t ruin the story for me. I know most people don’t feel that way but that’s their conscious. Now, as a writer, I barely use swearing because I know it puts people off…and I want people to read my stories! 😄

    • YES. And without purpose. I agree completely. I’ve gotten used to glossing over language in books, so it doesn’t bother me as much as it did even a year ago. Exactly. HA! Same, girl. Same. ; )

  7. This was really thought-provoking! I personally couldn’t finish The Book Thief, but if someone went through and marked out the words before, I’d be happy to read it. I couldn’t finish it because it seemed that I was marking out words on every page! (I’m not judging those who did finish!!)

    I don’t usually read modern books, so the worst words I run into are the d-word and maybe a few uses of words that aren’t appropriate now, but were back then. Violins of Autumn had a few bad words, but I still enjoyed it! If I owned that book, I would probably mark them out though. I guess it just depends on the quantity of it and if it’s realllllllly bad words, or just little ones. And although I don’t say them that much, words like “stupid”, “darn” and such don’t really bother me.

    And yes, I feel way more comfortable reading swear words than watching movies with them! I also like the “he swore” thing. It makes it seem realistic but not specific. That also goes for murder scenes and stuff like that! Thanks for this post! It really got me thinking!

    • The language in TBT bothered me, but I felt like the story was good enough, as a whole, to overlook it. (And it was much better with the language marked out. If you know someone who’s read it and can mark out a copy for you, I highly recommend it!) That’s the hardest part – the different levels of “appropriate-ness.” I’m re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird right now (like the rest of the bibliophiles, haha) and it’s pretty surprising all of the language that’s in it! I forgot. HA. I think you’re right, though – the quantity definitely changes stuff. And the “he swore” thing is an amazing tool. 😀 And you’re right – it all works for other inappropriate stuff, too. ; ) You’re welcome!

  8. For me personally, swearing really bugs me. Aaand I think you already know that. I don’t like it in books, movies, or real life. I’m okay if it’s a cultural difference (“stuffed” is a horrible thing to say in Scotland, and some words were normal way back when but aren’t anymore), but I’m very sensitive to it in general. Ironic, since I have relatives who have no problem saying R rated words. So no language ever in what I write. There are so many other normal and even more descriptive words that can be used. I have only finished writing middle grade books so far, but still. I can handle a little bit in reading and viewing, but only, like, I can count on one hand the number of instances in the entire story. And even that makes me wary of recommending it, I have to give disclaimers. I loved AoU, but I didn’t like the language at all. I have put at least one book down permanently because of language. And speaking of The Book Thief, has MG finished it yet? 😀

    • Yep, we’ve definitely talked about this before. 😄 I completely understand where you’re coming from. 🙂 Nope, she hasn’t, but I’ll let you know. 😉

  9. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as well. Swear words really bug me, but sometimes I wonder if, y’know, this book is really good and might be worth it, despite the swearing. But then I wonder if I’m justifying the book just because I like it. *eyes myself suspiciously*

    • Exactly. That’s a hard thing to figure out. I just bought a book that has a lot of language in it, but I really, REALLY liked it – can’t stop thinking about it, actually – so I bought it. I hate putting books down, but I’ll do it occasionally if I need to.

  10. This is an excellent question, Eowyn, and one I spent some time wrestling with several months ago. For me, personally, I’ve been using certain swear words when writing some characters to keep them realistic as you were saying. That said, there are some swear words I won’t use in my books, partly because they annoy me in real life. (Certain R-rated ones.)

    As far as reading goes, I’ve become more and more used to glossing over swearing in books, but if there’s little reason for it to be there and/or if every other page has swearing on it, I usually put the book down, unless I really, REALLY like the plot.

    As far as swearing itself goes, well, personally, I’ve always understood people using it in moments of extreme stress/strong agitation when no other words seem to fit, but I think our culture as a whole swears entirely too much. 🙂

    Good post, Eowyn! This is a tricky issue to even write a blog post about and you did a great job.

    • Yep. I understand. Same here. 🙂

      I’ve gotten more used to it, too. And I think you’re completely right about our culture. Yikes!

      Thanks so much! 🙂

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