We’re all adults here, right? Last year, Robert Lane Green of The Economist implored the The New York Times to “grow up” already. He was referencing its notoriously puritanical swearing policy, which often replaces swears with euphemisms and comically straight-laced words like “expletive,”epithet,” and “vulgarity.”
While the Times had actually just updated its policies in 2013, many observers, including Lane Green, felt it wasn’t enough. Witness the Tumblr called Fit to Print, which still continually tracks “expletive avoidance” by the Times. Here’s just one listing I found on July 7 about actor Dennis Leary:
“In 1993, he even had a hit song [with an unprintable title] about being a terrible man.”
The song’s name? “Asshole.”
Many journalists today insist such delicacy leaves readers confused and uninformed. As Lane Greene wrote, “A serious piece of journalism needn’t dwell on vulgar words, but making the reader sit and puzzle out ‘what is an anti-gay slur that contains a synonym for rooster’ has the unintentional effect of highlighting the word.”
There’s also a case to be made that such publications are diving headlong into irrelevance. In 2014, in a piece Lane Green referenced in his article, Jesse Sheidlower said in an op-ed for the Times, “At a time when readers can simply go online to find the details from more nimble upstarts willing to be frank, the mainstream media need to accurately report language that is central to their stories.”
So amidst all the debates, what are the practical takeaways for writers? Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. After all, profanity is constantly changing: Words that may have been considered offensive 10 years ago may be perfectly acceptable today, and vice versa. What might be offensive to one person is considered G-rated coffee lineup chatter by another. Factor in client preferences and the varying sensibilities of your online followers, and things can get murky.
Yet no matter what your situation, you can break this subject down quite a bit. So if you’re still wondering whether or not you should write “fuck” in that article you’re working on, here are four things to consider first.
1. Is the swearing in a direct quote?
We can talk about your own potty mouth later. But first, let’s cover off a classic scenario. Let’s say your interview subject just swore. Do you quote her verbatim?
If you’re used to the freedom of blogs and online zines, you might be gobsmacked that this is even an issue. But understand that quoting profanity is a pretty recent practice in mainstream journalism. As a 2014 Time magazine piece said about political reporting: “Until recently, vulgar outbursts were often cleaned up before they were reported to the public.”
The thing to know is that, for reasons mentioned previously, the overall journalistic shift is towards inclusion of profane quotes. Last year The American Journalism Review listed The New York Times and the Associated Press among many traditional organizations updating their policies.
In the article, AP standards editor Tom Kent was quoted as saying, “The AP has evolved. A decade or two ago, we tried very hard to avoid using the word ‘hell’ if we didn’t have to. I think we’ve moved beyond that now. And five years from now, lord knows what we’ll be saying.”
Despite these shifts, journalists are generally advised to remain “tasteful” and “non-gratuitous” in their reporting by these more traditional publications.
2. Is this particularly sensitive language?
Some swearing is simple. You stub your toe, you swear, you feel (a bit) better. But there are other, more sinister words. Words that have been used, historically, to shame, abuse, and marginalize others. When you are quoting sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs, it’s advisable to include as much context as possible and proceed with heightened sensitivity. It can be difficult to report difficult words. Yet doing so sensitively, rather than by omission or censorship, is generally the better route.
Here’s an example. Imagine you’re covering a press conference on university campus safety and a police spokesperson tosses out the word “slut” while musing about how female students should dress for a night out. Do you remove it from coverage to avoid further offense? Or is it instructive? Well, I’ve actually given you a real-life case: A Toronto police officer used the word in a talk on campus rape and was quoted verbatim. Ultimately, the controversy spawned the global SlutWalk movement, which is meant to protest unfair treatment of women and rape culture.
In her Times op-ed, Sheidlower encouraged journalists not to shy away from these tricky but potentially valuable discussions: “When language can play such a hot-button role in our society, what we need is more reporting, not less.”
3. What are my client’s style guidelines?
Writing is a business, and the reality is that we writers also need to tailor our finished products to clients’ requirements. Some clients may specify guidelines for your direct quotes and/or your language in personal essays. Always be sure to check your client’s style guidelines, and be aware that they can vary wildly.
For example, The Economist lists these guidelines under “Swear words”:
Avoid them, unless they convey something genuinely helpful or interesting to the reader (eg, you are quoting someone). Usually, they will annoy rather than shock. But if you do use them, spell them out in full, without asterisks.
Avoid using profanity in the headline or dek of a post, unless you're referencing a direct quote or official name. In those cases, use an asterisk in place of a letter (e.g., “f*ck," “sh*t").
By contrast, Tracy Grant, a senior editor at The Washington Post, told the AJR:
… we think people don't expect to see/read/hear profanity when they come to The Washington Post. We're very comfortable with our position that profanity should be used rarely and only when materially important to the broader journalistic mission.
Generally, you’ll have more freedom writing for online publications. Traditional print newspapers and consumer magazines, on the other hand, as well as specific niche markets (family publications, for example) may require you to be more buttoned up.
While not as restrictive about actual words, online sites do spell out all important guidelines for appropriate content, excluding, as Slate does, content that “degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other classification.”
We’ve talked a lot about quoting other people’s words. But what about your personal voice? What about when you want to say “fuck”?
In terms of your voice in personal essays or other nonfiction writing, swearing comes with a whole other set of guidelines. For starters, you generally don’t want to overdo it with the swearing. Compared with the well-placed expletive, a constant “hey-Mom-look-at-me” mode of swearing often has a dulling effect on readers.
And do give these words some literary respect. In her must-read New York magazine piece, “Ode to a Four-Letter Word,” Katherine Schulz encourages writers to rethink four-letter words. They’re not the domain of “fundamentally uncreative and indolent” writers. Sometimes, fuck is the best word.
Schulz also explores the peculiarly complex relationship Americans have with profanity: “a seesaw of schoolmarmish horror and schoolyardish glee,” she calls it. And for the writer, she lays out the risks you face in this confusing atmosphere.
From Schulz, I’ve come to appreciate the fine edge. Profanity dangles before us both the chance for powerful connection with readers—a loyal audience that enjoys when you write passionately and let your crazy out. How great is that? But the flip side of that is risking appearing unprofessional in some markets, and even turning off some percentage of readers.
After publishing a non-fiction book, Schulz wrote that she received hundreds of negative reviews daily on Amazon aimed directly at her apparent potty mouth: “It can be hard to predict whether a writer who curses will wind up exalted or excoriated. I know, because I wound up on the wrong side myself.”
In developing your voice, it’s important to consider many things: a publication’s readership and style guidelines, your own style, your personal history, and, ultimately, what feels right for you.
Is it wrong to try and adapt your voice to connect with a particular group or market? Not at all. The important thing is not to force it. As with humor, when you try too hard with the swear words, it’s just awkward for your readers. So with your personal writing, be as objective as you can. And if in doubt, leave it out.