The fuckety index: how much bad language is allowed in your novel?

Just for fun, I recently measured how often I used the word “Fuck” and its derivatives in my most recent novel. I also asked a bunch of other crime writers to see how potty-mouthed they were . . . and in so doing got some fairly interesting data that should, with luck, give you a good general steer of whether your novel is either too sweary or (equally possible) not sweary enough.

Before we get to the data, though, a short how-to and a reflection on why it might matter how much or how little you use bad language.

How to calculate your fuckety score
In order to find out how many times you’ve used the word “fuck” and its many daughters, simply do a find/replace, with the word “fuck” in both boxes. See the picture below to show you what I mean. (If you use  different version of Word, or use some other word processing program altogether, you’ll see something a bit different, but the same general principle will apply.)

When you hit the “replace all” button, you’ll get a little box popping up, telling you how many replacements were made. And, of course, because you’ve replaced one thing by itself, you don’t need to do anything to reverse your action.


HOW TO CHECK YOUR LANGUAGE

fuckety-score


 

When you’ve got your fuck-count – 87 mentions in my case – divide by the length of your manuscript in number of thousand words. So my MS weighs in at 121,000 (which is short for me, before you ask: I don’t do haiku). My Fuckety Score (FS, for short) is therefore:

FS = 87 / 121 = 0.719

So much for how to do your calculation. Next up – why does it even matter?

Swearing in fiction: when to do it
Swearing in itself doesn’t matter. All that matters is your story and your characters. If some obscenity is right for those things, then it’s right to use it. For example:

  • War fiction (even, quite possibly, historical war fiction) is probably not going to come over as very realistic, unless there’s some bad language. That doesn’t mean your characters should swear as much as real soldiers in actual combat: your job, always, is to create the semblance of reality; your adherence to actual reality is much less important.
  • For the same kind of reason, contemporary grit-lit, all sink estates and drug dealers, will sound wrong if characters don’t swear fairly copiously. A boozy, relaxed contemporary love story won’t probably have copious swearing, but it too is unlikely to want to avoid it completely.

But more broadly, swearing is exciting because it’s taboo-breaking: the amygdala in the brain actually responds differently to swearwords than it does to any other type of language. In effect, obscenity gives the writer a very specific colour that nothing else quite does. Now perhaps your canvas doesn’t need that colour – Jugular Crimson, let’s call it – but if it does, or might, there’s no real substitute.

And because swearing is taboo-breaking, it also introduces an edge of force, of toughness that otherwise only violence, or the threat of violence, quite can.

My own crime novels, for example, do feel quite dark. That is: they speak of a world where violence is possible and where its consequences actually matter. (No Colonel White bumped off with a candlestick, and no one quite caring about his death, except that it creates a jolly good mystery.) But although my novels carry that edge of force, of possible violence, they aren’t actually especially violent at all. There’s not a lot of on-screen violence. Very few gun-fights, punch-ups, car chases and the rest. But my violence, when it comes, is, I hope, well chosen . . . and a spatter of bad language in the book maintains a sense of edge, of pressure. If you want to know what you mean, I suggest you conduct your further research right here.

Mind your dashed manners: when not to swear
If you’re writing for children, then bad language is just not OK. When it comes to writing for Young Adults, swearing really is OK, so long as the themes of your novel demand it and you’re writing for the somewhat more mature YA audience (that is, one likely to be making its own book selections.) US audiences too tend to be more prudish than British ones: many is the time I’ve been reproved by American readers for my use of the ‘f-bomb’. I’ve never yet had a British reader complain.

On more general fiction, you just need to feel your way for yourself. If you’re writing Jane Austen era romance, you might wish to avoid obscenity . . . on the other hand, the probability is that past ages swore much more than we do, and a writer like Antonia Hodgson deals with the Georgian period in a very different way from Jane Austen.

But it’s your call.

So much for the do’s and don’t. Here’s how to interpret your own Fuckety Score.

The Fuckety Hierarchy: where do you sit?
Having compared notes with a variety of other crime / thriller authors – all of whom you might expect to be at the generally swearier end of the spectrum – I’d say that the banding looks something like the following:

Superfucker
If your FS is greater than 2.00, then you are remarkably potty-mouthed. If your MS is a war-drama with soldiers talking in a lifelike way, or a notably grit-lit story (all sink estates and drug dealing), then you probably ought to be up close to this kind of level. I know one author whose FS score was six-point-something. I mean, kudos to him, that’s a lot. I’d probably regard that as an upper limit though.

Prince of Fucks
Anything above 1.00 and below 2.00 means that you’re using plenty of bad language, but there are a lot of other authors in your general vicinity. Your novel is sweary, but not excessive.

Fucking Mediocrity
If, like me, your score is greater than 0.50 but less than 1.00, your novel isn’t particularly noteworthy on the bad language score. You certainly don’t need to be writing crime / thrillers to achieve a score of this type. You might, for example, be writing easy, sweary, boozy, informal chick-lit and achieve a score to the upper end of this range. If so, nothing to worry about. Your book will have a kind of edge, but it won’t stand out as excessive.

Fucking waster
If you have a score somewhere between 0.01 and 0.5, well, you haven’t completely given up on the idea of obscenity, but you’ve hardly put your back into it, have you?

The big fucking zero
If you have no swearwords at all – not one, zip, nothing at all – then you are either writing for children . . . or your social circle could usefully be broadened . . . or you’re covering something up. Indeed, if your fuckety score came out at 0.000, and you’re writing for older teens or adults, then I bet you have bodies buried under your patio, that your mouth pours forth a torrent of obscenity when you’re on your own.

But tell us more
What kind of book are you writing? What is your fuckety score? How does swearing or its absence affect the tone of your novel?

 

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  • Love it, love it. My score is 0.27. I always knew I was a fucking waster. (Except in conversation …)

    At York* I used the opening of Love, Nina where she talks about the family she’s staying with using lots of ‘f’s and c’s’. I love Nina Stibbe because she uses all the words. Do we get extra weighting for some of the more potentially offensive words?!

    One thing: a teacher-writer friend of mine called Bobbie Louise Hawkins (who can swear spectacularly) always says that swear words have an explosive effect on a page. If you drop the f-bomb, it creates a certain energy that can overshadow things nearby and subtract something in the writing, whatever the genre and however unshockable the reader. I find myself using that idea as a guiding principle sometimes.

    * you were missed 🙁

  • I agree with what you say. I have no problem reading swearing and often dialogue would be unrealistic without it. I do find though that it bothers me where it is. Use it only when it will add punch to the dialogue, and not just sprinkle it about and think it sounds gritty and “hard”. I think it’s important to keep it for authenticity, but to limit it so that its shock value is greater. Too much and it is tiresome to read and really adds nothing to the story.

  • Great article, Harry! I’m currently writing a crime mystery novel and did a search. Only 12 fucks. *sighs* I think my fuck-o-meter is a bit low.

    I have to agree with you about American audiences vs. British. The Brits do like their potty-mouths. 😀 I actually started reading a book where the description stated no swearing or sexuality in the book, so I abandoned the book quite early on. As good old Samuel Johnson wrote, “…fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.”

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Harry

    Yep, that explosive effect is definitely there, and I often use it as a comically unanticipated detonation at the end of something mild. So something like this for example:

    I have a brief interview with the duty solicitor. She seems like a nice woman – Barbara, mumsy, keen to help. I tell her to fuck off.
    Then sit without speaking for ten minutes.
    Then we’re done.

    There just isn’t another way to achieve that exact effect – and although the word itself is notionally a hard an angry on, in a context like that it becomes hard/comic instead of hard/angry.
    Oh, and York? Next year, I’m coming twice.

  • A great post – interesting as well as amusing. I’m going to check my score right now. 🙂

  • Allan McDonough

    Great article. The first thing I shall do tomorrow is calculate my score. My novel, Pieces of Eight, is not quite finished yet at about 80000 words, but I have a feeling there’s a lot more fucks than 87. If is a crime novel and it’s pretty grim at times. I just hope I don’t come back with a 5 or something.

  • Allan McDonough

    Well I did my check. I’m currently a superfucker with a score of 2.08. This is a crime novel where the main character is being taunted by a sadistic killer, and it’s set in Liverpool. I actually thought it would be higher. Phew!