The Writers’ Workshop has its shopfront on the web, so every now and then we go burrowing into the data that tells us where our clients come from, how they found us, and what keywords brought them here.
Mostly, the analysis tells us stuff we already know. Every now and then, it throws up a surprise. Such as: The 133rd most common search term which brings users to our site is “Words to use instead of fuck”.
And perhaps I’m not the right person to address that question. My most recently completed novel (out soon at a bookstore near you in Britain and America) contains 139,000 words, of which no fewer than 71 are “fuck” or its variants. Which suggests that the first lesson of this short post is a simple one: it’s OK to use the word “fuck”. Mine is a crime novel. Its heroine is gritty and direct in her speech. For me and my story, not to use the word “fuck” would be to betray both character and story.
At the same time, if my story were something quite else – a light romance set around a pensioners’ knitting circle – excessive use of foul language would be quite inappropriate. Here, it would be less a question of what word to use instead of “fuck” and more a question of why you want extreme language in the novel anyway. And if you do want strong language, then you can use anything from the rudest words in the English language to things as mild as “bother it”. It all depends on context.
Having said that, you also do need to bear in mind that swearwords sounds fiercer on the page than they do in life. Soldiers use swearwords very freely indeed. (One possibly apocryphal tale from WW2 has a Scots driver analyse his broken car with the fine sentence, “the focking focker’s focking focked.”) But to use them on the page as freely as soldiers do in real life – that’s probably excessive. You are imitating the effect of reality, not reproducing it. For the same reason, repetition grates on the ear, so even if you want a scene full of strong expletives, it’s probably worth tossing in some variety, or at least making sure that any repetition looks chosen, not inadvertent.
But in the end, there is only one rule here. Be true to your characters and to your story. If you do that, the language that you use will be appropriate. And your publishers won’t bat an eyelid. I have NEVER had a publisher question my use of swearwords. Nor any reader. If they don’t want a book that contains foul language, then they shouldn’t pick up a gritty contemporary crime novel with a heroine who did not go to the right sort of finishing school.
Oh, and one last thing. It’s a cliche among the sort of people who don’t like bad language that the use of expletives arises from a lack of imagination. Well, perhaps, in some contexts. But in others, even an expletive can be a writerly word: surprising, deft, well-chosen. Here’s a tiny snippet from my third Fiona Griffiths novel. And it’s naughty, but I like it:
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.