Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Can't Say That [On Television] In a Book!

I will keep this brief today because I'd like to have a conversation about something I have struggled with in my writing, and I’m wondering if you struggle with the same thing as a reader or writer.


Both internally- and externally-imposed.

I catch some heat now and then regarding certain phrases / words my characters use. Sometimes while I’m writing I’ll pause, back-up, and delete the potentially offensive phrase, knowing I could one day hear an earful over it. But usually, I put it back in, because I want my characters to be their real, raw, honest selves, warts and all. Some characters will even do the work for me, censoring what they say (but not what they think). I want them to feel real, to act and sound like people readers might know in real life.

As a young child, I was the poster kid for diarrhea of the mouth. I babbled constantly. I can’t tell you how often I was held inside at recess as punishment for chatting in class. But by the time I hit junior high, I grew quiet. I began to censor myself. A lot. I censored myself so much I think the parents of my first real boyfriend believed I was mute. In college, I rarely voluntarily spoke in class. I’m not sure if it was shyness, fear of looking like an idiot if I said the wrong thing, or the desire to offend no one. Maybe it was a combination of the three. I have also come to believe that a great deal of it was that I’d absorbed the message that ‘nice’ girls behave in demure, quiet, ladylike ways. They do not rock the boat and definitely do not drop f-bombs.

So maybe I’m making up for lost time by permitting the occasional character to verbally vomit something that perhaps is better left unsaid. And yes, some things are better left unsaid--particularly if you want to broaden your appeal and/or you’re writing in a certain genre. (I don’t see my grandmother reading Chuck Palahniuk, but he’s definitely found his audience!) There is a careful balance to strike between character likability, character integrity, and sensitivity. I’m still feeling out the rules on this.

What do you think? Do you censor yourselves in your writing? If so, how much?

Posted by Jess


  1. Jess, I've experienced that, too. There was a character who cursed a fair bit in my first book and that ticked off a few individuals. I guess Jane Austen coexisting in a story with a handful of f-bombs was too much cognitive dissonance for some people (even if Jane wasn't the one speaking them ;). LOL. So, I did find myself trying to censor my characters' speech more in later stories but, often, their dialogue didn't ring true to me when I did.

    I think our characters come to us with certain attitudes and certain voices and, in my case anyway, if I try too hard to shoehorn them into something they're not, they shut up and refuse to speak to me until I'm ready to let them be themselves. My other choice is to set them aside and write a different story...or, you know, procrastinate for half the night reading good blog posts :).

  2. Great post. I've just discovered this blog and I'm in love with every post!

    I can relate to your own censorship story. Mine is a lot like it, although I did discover how much I loved that F-bomb somewhere in my college years.

    Since I write YA, I definitely feel the pressure to keep things 'clean.' I'm pretty sure that to this day, I've never finished a book without an F-bomb. I started a few. They got boring fast. I know some teen readers, and more of their parents, might be offended. But the truth is, teenagers swear. Young adults swear. I even heard a small child who could not be over 6 years old screaming curse words at his dad inside Pizza Hut.

    The way I see it, I'm sorry if I offend anyone. I might lose a few readers. But the rest of them will be glad I let my characters have authentic voices--the ones who drop f-bombs included.

  3. Great post, Jess! No matter how hard I try NOT to, I've found myself censoring my writing. I even had a dear friend tell me--my mother's going to read this, so I went back and took another look. Sometimes it's good to take another look, but it's really tough if you start editing to please everyone. The fact is you can't please everyone and shouldn't try. Susan Elizabeth Phillips said this--and it was like a light bulb moment. If you try you'll lose authenticity. It'll be bland and won't ring true. I would imagine most writers do this at some point, but I'm working on keeping it real. I'd rather have a select group who--get it--and love it, then more who have mediocre feelings about my work. Did that make sense?

  4. Thanks for chiming in! I love hearing about your experiences with this issue.

    Marilyn, are you procrastinating? :)

    Lena & Marian, I think you're spot-on about authenticity. You do lose something when you start stifling what your characters really want to say. Sometimes I even find myself yearning for more envelope-pushing when I read other books: "C'mon! Shock me! Throw me some red meat...make me laugh out loud, show me how audacious this character can really be!"

  5. Exactly Jess! Love the--throw me some red meat!!! LOL!

  6. I think censorship is absurd! I recently heard people wanted to change the language in a book written in the late 19th century for using the word 'nigger' I wanted to puke.

    If the language fits the character and appropriate for the time period, then I think an author is doing an injustice if they don't fully create the character to their fullest ability.

  7. Jess, I have foot-in-mouth disease, too (I take after my mother), and I have to consciously remind myself to think before I speak sometimes. Although it doesn't always work. I'm relieved actually when I can let my characters say things I wouldn't have the guts to say any more. And I have gotten emails along the lines of, "I can't believe you said this in a book!" And I reply, "But I didn't say it. My character did. We are not one and the same." ;-)

  8. Such a great post and comments!

    Some people don't mind reading harsh language and others do - like Marian said, you can't please everyone and you certainly shouldn't write to please everyone.

    Your job as a writer is to weave that gritty element of their character DNA (as you would with any other detail) into their "being" on the page in a way that is authentic, compelling and adds to the overall story.

  9. I do find myself censoring myself. Of course in public we do that all time (most of us) for reasons of culture, sanity and trying not to offend.

    In writing, it's more problematic and I try not to in the early stages at all, but later, maybe. It depends. However, as others have pointed out, if you, in your writing, think that you shouldn't have a character say or do X, because there are people (readers) who dislike X, then you're caught in a loop. What about readers who like X?

    Ultimately, as a reader, I read authors for their voice, the stories they tell. Don't compromise that.

  10. My general rule is to save any censorship for the rewrite and to only let one character do any given thing. For example only one character can curse like sailor, the rest of them can't. Only once character can ramble on in large monologues. The rest of them can't. Only one character can say, "Baby," the rest of them can't.

    I had a few readers get mad about the few curse words in my first book. Huge shrug. I love cuss words. If you're not on the same team, then you know there's tons of Christian fic w/ your name on it, right?

  11. Censoring myself is a huge issue. Not so much with cursing. My books are set in NY and we curse a lot. I censor more when it comes to worrying about what people will think about me when they read that I thought certain things. But you have to try to let it flow.It's easier said than done. I try to pretend that either no one will ever read or that I am writing to one very understanding reader.

  12. Great comments, everyone! Thanks for the thoughts.

    Susan, I know all too well about foot-in-mouth disease. LOL...perhaps we could start a support group for people who need reminders to think before they speak!

  13. Censorship in any form is absurd. If someone finds something offensive they can put the book down or turn the television off. It's their choice.

    I am not easily offended and have a wicked mouth at times. I enjoy lippy characters and often think they are more authentic if they occasionally let something slip from their tongues. Word choice, whether it's internal dialogue or interaction with another character, is one the best ways to develop a character. Some are just going to swear.

    It is a bit of a trade-off though. My Mother-In-Law will immediately put down a novel if there is a single swear word. You just have to decide what your intended audience can handle.