by Kristen Hall-Geisler
Last year I wrote and independently published a book, my first to see the light of day and sit on bookshelves real and virtual. It is called Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self, a title I workshopped. My marketing maven and I sent it to a dozen or more female friends of various ages, professions, and sensibilities, along with a few alternative titles and subtitles.
I was amazed to get feedback from these women, about half of whom objected to the word damn. They thought it was cheap and that I shouldn’t stoop to such language. Those ladies are going to be mighty disappointed when they get to the text, I thought. Because if damn was already causing them to clutch their pearls, then the slightly saltier language inside the book was going to cause conniptions.
But I did give their feedback some consideration. Did I need to use swear words to get across my point that women should feel just as confident as men when they go out to buy a car? Well, yeah, I kind of did need those words. They were galvanizing words, words meant to invest women who don’t often swear with a sense of boldness and women who swear all the damn time with a sense of familiarity.
I think a lot of writers struggle with swearing in their work. What if your fragile Catholic mother reads your book? What if your straight-laced boss at your day job picks up a copy? What if readers pick it up and put it right back down? What if people find out you know what those dirty words mean and that you use them all the time?
Plenty of the writers reading this are saying to yourselves, “Who gives a rat’s ass? If readers don’t like my language, they can buy another book.” I couldn’t agree more. You confident folks may move along to the rest of the newsletter to find out when the next Mini Sledgehammer will be held.
But if you’re a little shaky on the swearing issue, here are four things to consider:
- Who are you as a person? A bit of you will always come through on the page in any case, so if you swear like a sailor on the daily, you might as well go for it when you write. If you sprinkle some mild oaths throughout your day, do likewise when you write. It’ll feel more authentic, especially in nonfiction or memoir.
- Who are you as a writer? Maybe your writing persona is different from your real life. Maybe you even have a pen name. Maybe, like Beyoncé, you have a name for the darker side of your personality—the one that uses curse words. (Beyoncé’s alter ego is Sasha Fierce, for those of you who live under rocks.) Or maybe you write cozy mysteries with zero blue language but spend your days swearing at the help. You and your authorial persona do not have to be identical.
- Who is your character? Especially in fiction, you have to make the characters believable. The guys who work on the docks are going to swear. The nuns who visit them on Sundays will not. (And sometimes you’ll want to surprise your readers by presenting characters who speak as no one expects.)
- Who is your reader? The readers of Take the Wheel tend to be on the younger side, and they’re pretty savvy. They need to trust me as the author, and one way to gain that trust is to be authentic. The women who did not like damn being in the subtitle were all older than me by at least a decade. They were not my target audience. The women who liked the sauciness of the title were in my demographic. And they agreed with me. Problem solved.
You’ve likely noticed by now that there are not f-bombs dropping like rain in this essay. That’s because in this instance, I as a writer am representing Indigo (see the second bullet point). Also, my readers come from a wide slice of the writerly population, each of you writing in your own genre with your own sensibility. Some are rougher than mine, and some are gentler. So taking the fourth bullet into consideration, I’m trying to cut a path right down the middle while staying true to my own work. I mean, I did publish a book with damn right on the front cover.
Collaborative Editor Kristen Hall-Geisler spent four years working her way up the editorial ladder as a proofreader, copy editor, and managing editor of Sports Car Market magazine, then struck out on her own as a freelance editor and automotive journalist. She has edited a wide variety of books, including self-help, memoir, YA, spiritual, and fantasy novels of the sword-and-sorcery variety. Her automotive articles have been published in the New York Times, Details, Oregon Business, and on web sites such as HowStuffWorks.com and VroomGirls.com. She is also the author of Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self, which came out in 2013.