When is Swearing in Books Acceptable?

Bella Osborne

Bella Osborne

When it comes to swearing in books I think it’s fair to say that most of us who write will have found ourselves swearing at our books but is it right to use swearing IN the book?

I think this is an interesting dilemma when we live in a society where swear words are frequently used by pretty much all members of society. It is no longer a shock to hear someone swear. There is no longer a Mary Whitehouse or equivalent to protest bitterly about such things (for anyone that ticks the first two age boxes on surveys you may need to Google Mary Whitehouse). Swear words are scattered liberally in films and television which normalises them further. However, I still agonise over it in my writing.

I am not a very sweary person but when a particular set of circumstances convene I too will utter something my grandmother would not have approved of.

I know of an author who received a letter from a reader complaining about the swearing in one of her books and how it was unnecessary and unacceptable. It made the author look at their writing differently and they responded by cutting out swearing considerably in future books.

I used the ‘find’ function for swear words in my first novel and found initially twelve instances of strong swearing and was quite shocked. However, this isn’t me swearing this is the characters and right there is the nub of the discussion (sorry did it take a while to get there?) You see it’s not about how I am as a person or the people that hopefully will one day read my books, it’s about the characters depicted within the pages.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and developing my characters. They play out scenes for me in my head, which is jolly good of them because then I write it down and voila I have written a book (oh how I wish it was that simple). The characters are complete individuals; they look different, they each tackle the situations I put them in differently, and they speak differently. (It’s all right I do know that they are not real people… no I do, I don’t really talk to them and ask them questions).

If you’ve ever seen Crimewatch you will know that, however well reconstructed the events are, it does lack realism when the aggressive armed robber is pointing a large gun at the cashier’s nose and shouting but there are no expletives. It’s just not quite right. It’s not what we expect in that context. In a book, where we are limited to the written word and have no sound effects, you need to muster all the realism you can dredge up to bring characters and scenes to life.

My second novel has a completely different cast and they are all different again and thankfully this crowd are a lot less sweary but I don’t think that is by design; that is simply the people they are.

I have since gone through my first novel and reduced the incidents of swearing but there are still a few in there because that is what those characters would say, that is how they would react and although it may make a couple of people cringe, I’m afraid you need to take that up with my characters rather than me. I can pass on any messages when I next speak to them if you’d like me to.


Bella has just finished her first novel, Acting on Impulse, which earned her a runner-up place for the New Talent Award at the 2013 Festival of Romance. Every fortnight, Bella will be sharing her experiences and advice as a new author. She also has her own blog which you can visit by clicking here.

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Bella Osborne
Bella’s first novel, It Started at Sunset Cottage was released by Harper Impulse. She was a runner-up for the New Talent Award at the 2013 Festival of Romance and a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

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