Monday, August 30, 2010

Weighing my words I: (Anne the prude)

In the Guardian last Sunday, editor Stephen Pritchard explained the newspaper's policy on offensive words. His view is that respect for the reader should be maintained, except when a word is "absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article." As an example, he cites a recent piece on Ricky Gervais, where he felt it was necessary to use Gervais' full quotes to show "what a nasty piece of work someone can be."

Pritchard's reasoning doesn't strike me as a prime example of journalistic integrity, but I believe everyone who deals in words needs to have a personal rubric for weighing those words.

Lately the Blueboards have been discussing using the word "sucks" in a middle-grade (9-12) novel. I weighed in and said I probably wouldn't use it. Most others seem to disagree with me. I'm afraid I'm coming across rather prudish (which would surprise anyone who's read my writing!). However, my reasoning for avoiding "sucks" is because for being a vulgar word (at least to those over 40) it's not a powerful word. In my experience, "sucks" is a casual, whiny word that kids may say multiple times (dozens of times) a day. Because of that, I can think of numerous words I could use in its place that would express the same tone. However, when a 12-year-old is really angry, I can only think of a few words they might use (and jumping Jehoshaphat isn't one of them). If I'm going to get branded a vulgar writer, I'd rather do so for a moment that really matters, when a child is truly upset.

But that's how I weigh the word; others have to make their own judgments.

There are other words I'm careful about because they're considered offensive to specific groups of people. One of my previous students was from an area considered "ghetto" and was courageous enough in my classroom to call students on using the word "ghetto" to describe something poorly constructed or cheap. Many of my affluent students had never considered that by using the word "ghetto" they could be describing someone's home situation.

Now that many of you are thinking what a prude I must be... I should say that I use "sucks" and "ghetto" and many other offensive words in Project Sparkle (though granted, I am writing for teenagers, not middle-schoolers). While I weigh these words very carefully, and don't use them casually, I know kids do say them. When one of my male characters violently attacks a female character, he'll call her something offensive. When my female character is angry at herself and hurt, she may call herself offensive names, too.

I approach the language in my novel the same way I approach violence and sex in my writing. I try to do so respectfully, honestly, and with integrity towards my personal beliefs.

What types of words do you weigh carefully? Do you still use them?

Wednesday I'll blog about all the swearing in my novel in Weighing my words II: Anne the obscene. Hope you'll come back!


  1. I'll use any word true to character, and, like you said, it has to have a punch behind it. (Sucks doesn't anymore, but there are many ways kids talk that you can't get around.) That said, I have a REAL hard time using racial slurs ... in fact I won't use the "n" word. Just can't. Right now, though, I'm working on a novel that deals with Mexican immigrants and cringe when people use words that refer to them as "wetbacks" and the like. That said, I use them when the character needs to use them. It has to work with the character, though, and the situation. I have some characters who NEVER use vulgarity. But I have others that make me blush.

  2. I used the words "sucks" in my debut novel. or maybe it's in my second. Either way, it's in one of them. And I use it because the character is an average 12yr old and that's how 12yr olds talk. It's not just about the punch, but also about relating to your readers on their level. Of course you don't want to go overboard and be offensive though. Sometimes I listen to my 12yr old and the way he talks to his friends and it helps me to create that realistic dialogue for my books. "Sucks" just happens to be one of those words.

  3. Yes, Heidi and Rose, you're both absolutely right that character comes first. Of course, if a character would say something, I'm probably going to use it in order to be true to them.

    Heidi--oh, interesting about "wetbacks" *shudder* But a book needs to be able to tackle certain topics and we need to be honest to those topics. I originally used the n word in my book, but even as I did, I knew I would take it out later (and I did). It just wasn't essential to the character, so I could get away with avoiding it.

  4. Anne, your story on the kid calling the others on the term "ghetto" is great. I'm glad he had the nerve to do it. It's the same with the term "trailer trash" or any type of "trailer" joke. I remember going with my sister's wedding dress fitting and listening to the seamstress' son (sitting in the shop foyer with me) talk about how excited he was about his new home (a trailer) and then seconds later hearing someone on television spout off about "redneck trailer trash" and watching the shame just creep over that 10 year old boy's face. Oh it was gut-wrenching.

  5. Thanks, Bridgette. I was so proud of him for speaking up. What a sad story about the little boy! In the end, I that's how we as people learn best: to encounter someone who has a different reality from our own. It's a complete shame that that person on TV couldn't see their effect on that child.


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