The useful effects of profanity in writing
“He crossed the street to catch the cab. When he got in, he looked at the driver through the rearview mirror. It was fucking Johnny.”
“He crossed the fucking street to catch the fucking cab. When he got in, he looked at the fucking driver through the fucking rearview mirror. It was fucking Johnny.”
Whether or not you agree with the reoccurring word choice in those descriptions, there’s one thing I’m willing to bet on. I got your attention. Now, I’ll try not to lose it.
Which description sounded better?
The truth is, a well-placed f-bomb could actually stir specific reactions in readers. Chances are that you read at least one of those descriptions with a raised eyebrow. Just the response I was yearning for.
But as great as a sprinkle of profanity could be for disrupting the casual flow of writing, for raising eyebrows and separating my thoughts from other articles in this paper, an overload can destroy the credibility of what’s written.
That second paragraph sounded like “The Situation” was explaining last night’s street fight.
Some of the criticism I’ve received for my articles regards my ruthlessness of word choice.
One of my favourite quotes from Stephan King’s memoir, On Writing, is this (paraphrased): “It’s always better to say ‘she took a crap!’ than ‘she released excretion!”
Often, people tend to write in the most ‘intellectualized’ fashion possible.
This stems from an insecurity in our own ideas. We try to flower up our sentences with Microsoft synonyms to make the ideas sound more complex, to sound like there’s more to our ideas than there actually are.
That’s probably the biggest rookie mistake out there for every first-year and chances are, many of you reading have heard one of your professors tell you the same.
Now, I’m obviously not saying you should litter your academic essays with foul language. Context will always be relevant and there are certainly times were profanity should be strictly avoided.
I’m just saying that if you want to be convincing, if you want to sell your ideas, you need to seem real. Being inauthentic is the most common mistake in any writer.
Good writing doesn’t exclusively derive from your vocabulary, sentence flow and paragraph structure. It doesn’t even come from the brilliance of your thoughts.
Sure, all those skills come into play, but there’s an overarching objective that makes none of it really matter if it can’t be accomplished. Good writing is simply the ability to articulate your thoughts in a way that could be easily understood. If nobody understands what you’re getting at, you failed.
A good writer can make the most complex ideas appear simple on the page. A great writer can make their ideas simple, while simultaneously signifying their emotional state.
To do this, writers need to jump out of their intellectually jarring professionalism. They need to be real with every chosen word, not only thinking how it sounds, but considering what it says and what it does to the overall message.
Sometimes, I curse to make my paragraphs more real, but I try to do it minimally. This does a few things for me. Sometimes it breaks the tension with a level of comedic relief and sometimes it intensifies it by demonstrating the feelings I have that drive each sentence forward.
The mystical force of profanity can pierce perception and direct focus, but it can also demolish all sense in your writing. So only use it if it stays true to your style.
The best writers are the ones that can make readers feel like they are being talked to, not by some omniscient voice robotically spewing information onto the page, but a person. A person with something to say and a reason to fucking say it.