What the Bleep? Swearing and Censorship in YA

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I try not to swear. In public my self censor is carefully turned on, and I’m fairly good about not dropping any wayward f-bombs. In private I catch myself cursing sometimes, if I give myself a spectacular papercut, or end up dropping my book in the bath, or something catastrophic like that.

But what about in fiction? Should we censor ourselves while we’re writing books for teens?

I write stories on wattpad, and most of them are read by teens. Occasionally I’ll have someone say something like “it’s such a shame you have vulgar words in here. I can’t let my child read this”. For the record, there are no f-bombs in my wattpad stories. The vulgar words they’re talking about are actually pretty tame, and they’re used sparingly.  My answer to these people is always the same: I’m sorry you feel that way, but as a writer, I strive to be as realistic as possible in regards to the situation and characters.

When I write about blood-thirsty steampunk pirates, I don’t make them say “oh fudgesicles!” when something goes wrong. That’s ridiculous. It’s going to pull the reader right out of the story and make them shake their head in disgust. When I write about a tough girl who has lived on the street all her life, I’m not going to make her turn into Shirley Temple all of a sudden and shout ‘Oh fooey!” when the bad guys are chasing her.

Oh golly!

Oh golly!

On a different note, lets talk about teens for a second here. I knew all the “bad” words by the time I was in grade one. Scott Smith leaned over and whispered the f-word in my ear during math class, and it went around the classroom like a game of telephone. Later, in my late teens, while listening to two of my guy friends talk, I counted up all the f-bombs in the conversation and lost interest when I hit one hundred.

Here’s a shocker: Teens swear.

Not all teens. Some of them don’t. Some of them don’t like to hear it either, and will politely ask you to check yourself. But that’s usual. The fact is that real teens swear, they talk about sex. They drink. I know parents don’t like to hear this, god knows, my mother hated it when I slipped up and swore in front of her, she gave me a verbal lashing that rang in my ears for days afterwords. But the fact is, writers are aiming for realistic characters, realistic teens of all kinds. So maybe my protagonist doesn’t swear, but her love interest, an angry kid from a bad home sure does. Maybe it creates conflict between the two of them. That’s real life.

And we strive so hard to stay true to real life, to create real characters that teens can relate to, that substituting ridiculous made up words or making them not say anything at all, is doing ourselves a disservice. And it’s insulting to teens. Because teens know a fake when they see it, you’re not fooling anyone. They know when you’re sugarcoating or skirting around an issue. They have no patience for something that coddles them, for something that compromises and substitutes ridiculous words or scenarios when something else would have happened in real life.

As a writer, your art should imitate life if you want to create relatable, realistic characters. And that includes the not so pleasant stuff. It includes talk about sex, it includes bad decisions and dirty talk and drinking. It includes bullying and sometimes sexual assault or rape. It includes swearing. Should you handle it carefully and seriously? Yes. Should you exclude it altogether. I say no.

What do you think? Should YA have swearing in it for the sake of realism? Should it take on serious, sometimes forbidden topics?

Writers and readers, don’t forget to tune in this Sunday for the Word Nerds live chat on the “Two V’s”. We’ll be discussing vulgarity and violence in YA, and if it should be included, how much is too much, ect.

If you’re not sure who the Word Nerds are, we’re a vlogging group of six YA writers. We’ll be chatting live each Sunday about a new writing topic here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/YAWordNerds?feature=watch

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14 responses to “What the Bleep? Swearing and Censorship in YA

  1. One of the beautiful things about the YA genre is the breadth it has. Yes, a lot of characters are more realistic if they swear. On the other hand, plenty of books have no swearing, and the absence isn’t noticeable at all (especially if the book isn’t contemporary fiction). I think it just comes down to what works for a particular book and author.

    The tricky part is matching readers with books they’re comfortable with. I had a friend ask for recommendations for his sister. Any swearing or sex made her uncomfortable, and that made it hard for her to find books. So even though I’m not pro-censorship, I wish there were a way to let a reader know what was in the book.

    • Very true. I enjoy books both with and without swearing, as long as I think the author has done a good job with making the characters realistic teens.

      Maybe she can spend some time on goodreads? I imagine there’s probably “clean” lists on there that people have already compiled.

  2. On one hand, I totally see what you are saying. But, I’m a teenager, and I don’t swear. None of my friends do either. Granted we don’t say “Oh golly” but “oh crap” isn’t out of the question. I think it works fine in an exclamation of surprise or pain. But when it comes to insults, sometimes I think we can get more creative than “I hate you” or “F***** you.” They are overused, and to me, don’t hold as much weight because people say them so much. It would seem less flippiant to call someone a “disgusting cad” or something equally creative. But that’s just my opinion. Usually, I won’t disregard a book just because it has swear words in it, even though it isn’t my preference.

    • Absolutely, and if an author were to write a book about you and your friends and make one of you swear in it, he wouldn’t be staying true to your characters. The reader would realize it was unrealistic.

      The same way as taking a street tough, angry teen raised in a bad home who listens to a lot of heavy metal or rap, and make him say “crap” might not ring true either.

      Oh I’d love to make my villain say “disgusting cad” 😀 hehe. It just depends what type of villain.

  3. I think it’s becoming a norm that teens, even adults curse/swear when they’re in a bad mood or simply because they’re feeling like doing it, and I agree that sometimes, to make the characters more realistic, some not-so-pleasant scenes are necessary. Some times, those scenes even make the story stronger or cause more impact on the readers, thus make them think deeper, so it might not be that bad overall. A popular example, I think, is Looking For Alaska by John Green. Personally, I feel a bit uncomfortable when it comes to the sex scene (or whatever you call it), but knowing why he wrote it in the book, fussing over it doesn’t make much sense (he even made a video talking about this). Sometimes, writers write the not-so-pleasant scenes or stories because they want people to face it instead of pretending the problems didn’t exist, like Wintergirls Laurie Halse Anderson. Maybe it’s the main idea that matters, so those swear words are never my biggest concern. (but sure, writers should definitely handle them seriously and carefully!)

  4. In public, on my blog, and in front of my grandmother or my kids, my censor is on high. I very, very rarely swear in those four situations.

    In private? Yeah…I swear… however, to me, they are just words, and only have power when power is given to them.

    YA Censoring? Depends. If it’s not necessary to swear, don’t do it. But don’t write about an evil, demented villain saying “I’m going to enjoy ending your flippysmippen’ life”. Many YA novels deal with death and/or bodily harm, and the very possible risk of either. I’d rather have my kids read a bunch of f-bombs than read about a bunch of teenagers possibly losing their lives, to be honest, lol.

  5. I write stories on wattpad too. They’re mainly based around teenagers (not always though) because that’s what I know best. I wrote the first chapter of my newest story and published it rated it as G (general), but now I’ve written the second chapter I’ve noticed that I included a rather obvious f-bomb. And by rather obvious I mean one of my characters said this when thinking her friend was in distress: “GET THE F*** OFF MY HOMEGIRL!”. I understand the the f-word in there might not be necessary, but I cannot picture this character saying it any other way! So I decided maybe I should change the rating… but I have one problem; should bleeping swearwords affect which rating you should choose? Because of that factor, I am stuck between PG and PG-13. My story isn’t that inappropriate for kids – It’s about art! But I know there’s a difference between directing the word at another character in a hateful way and simply saying the word. The majority of my characters will probably never swear! But the ones that might will probably do it very rarely. You’re probably thinking: “There isn’t much difference between a PG and a PG-13 though, but you could play it safe and say PG-13”. But Wattpad classes PG-13 as something along these lines:

    PG-13 – Includes mature stories that may include occasional scenes of a lightly sexual or violent nature. There might be mention of drug use or abuse and other mature themes that could be inappropriate for younger readers. Characters use more mature language and swearing. Sexual scenes are described with some details. Stories rated PG-13 may also contain some graphic descriptions of violence and injury and reveal darker and more mature motives behind characters’ actions than is appropriate for younger readers.

    And that doesn’t reflect my story! But the thing is, neither does this:

    PG – A story rated PG might not be appropriate for young children. Romantic situations may be described with some details, though anything explicit is left to the reader’s imagination. There may be more violent and scary scenes than would be found in a G story. Wounds and injuries may be described with some graphic explanations. Generally, the story will include some mature themes, characters and actions. Descriptions of drug use, if included, are vague. Occasionally, characters may use light swear words in frustration but not very often.

    Because I wouldn’t call their swearing “light”!

    Anyone got any help? If so, I’m very grateful Xxxx

  6. I think it depends. Teens swear like sailors. I know I did. I think if you have a character and swearing just happens to be part of their regular vocabulary then I don’t see the problem. Similarly if a character is not known to swear but swears at a point of climax, then it can elicit a warranted shock, which can actually be a good thing. Like for example every Potter fan can excitedly quote Molly when she faces Bellatrix. It’s memorable because she has never sworn, but in context it’s sort of like a battle cry and everyone cheers her on. Ron himself is partial to saying “bloody hell” but it comes off as organic because it’s just part of the vernacular and it is rather quaint, imo.

    Just go with what suits your character voice the most. I think a talented writer being bogged down by “parental approval” can stifle creativity and lead to wasted potential.

    Sometimes going against those Mrs Lovejoys of the world can help create a wonderful piece of art for all to enjoy.

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