Cussing at Readers

Yeah - I don't put it in titles, but once you click 'Yes, I'd like to continue this discussion, please', fuck yeah, let's get our filthy language on.

This has actually been a thing for me for a damn long while. Writing-wise, I'm nervous about my pacing, but marketing-wise? Sharing-wise? Audience-wise? I get worried that I'll offend someone with the words I use.

My entire first chapter/post is a filter fr every reader: get through it, survive that, and you've seen pretty much the worsn of what I'm going for. But even with it, whenever I mention my story to someone, I invariably start or finish the summary with, "Oh. And by the way, there's language." And they either say, "Okay," then get back to me later about how they weren't expecting 'quite so much' or ask, "Uh, how much language?" and get quiet when I say, "A lot."

Where do you guys stand on it? Not about whether you use profanity in your stories, but how you manage your readers' expectations going in (if at all, and if not, why not).

I added a warning line about language and graphic violence on my 'about' page. I'm worried about ebook reader expectations - trigger warning in the blurb? Somehow that doesn't seem appropriate...

I have some personal best practices with everything I write, where there's certain content and situations I either completely avoid, or use very minimally and for effect. I also write a little note at the top when a chapter or story will contain violence or death or sexual content (and sometimes like, intense profanity), or weirder things that might set people off, like descriptions of medical procedures. I have a sister with a phobia for needles and surgical tools, so I'm sensitive to this sort of thing. So every chapter has a short line under the title with those warnings.

There's probably other reasons people would find the story objectionable that I wouldn't write a "warning" for. I've already been told things like "women soldiers are too unrealistic" or "the gender themes in the story turn me off." There's certain recurring comments, those included, which I don't listen to or care about. Those things come with the territory of what I'm writing and I'm willing to write off those people because to do otherwise would mean to avoid writing the story I want to write. To write the Solstice War, as I want it to be, is to lose those people. Sometimes that's unavoidable.

Yay profanity!

Seriously, though, if people are getting offended by the fact that you cuss in your writing, then maybe they shouldn't be reading your writing. I have a friend that read the first saw the C word (you know the one), and then immediately closed the page because it was too offensive. No hard feelings, we're still friends, they just weren't comfortable with the language in the story, and that's perfectly fine. They don't have to keep reading. You shouldn't have to censor yourself in order to get readers. People get offended by literally everything. I once dropped something on the ground, and when some guy picked it up for me, I said "Thank you, sir." He legit got offended because I was being polite.

Moral of the story: people get offended by everything; so go ahead, cuss in your story. Just don't be a bigot.

@Chrysalis - In your case, from what I'm understanding, you might be better off working any trigger warnings (God, I hate that term. I can't take it seriously, but it works) into the summary itself. Maybe rattle off like: In a story that explores X, Y, Z, one [character] overcomes [obstacle]. Standalone, it'd just be a really weird, overly presented warning.

@Dennis - So for those topics that you would warn someone about, you add a message in on every single chapter that has them? Am I reading that right?

@Alex - Haha! I've got no problems with swearing. And as for the big C, I've only ever had one character use it in my first draft, and he was Australian so it was practically expected. My question's more whether, knowing that people can get offended, do you do anything to sort of prime your readers for what they're going to get into?

Yeah. It's not really a big deal for me. You can look really quick at the top of any chapter and see them.

0.1 has probably the longest of them:

Most of them are just a line, and usually that is "This story segment contains violence and death."

Sometimes the line is more important, like "contains graphic violence." There's a difference there, since I use that to tag violence that's kind of more gross or shocking than someone getting shot. Sometimes there's the all important "contains sexual content" line.

Mostly it's just "contains violence and death." While that should be a given, I still do it out of habit.

My only real problem with it is that I used to do it a different way, and I've over time settled on a more compact form of the line (as well as other formatting gimmicks, like using visible black bars to separate POV segments rather than just three big font asterisks) that I'm having to slowly go through the whole story and making sure they're up to date. I've been extremely slow to standardize them.

Ohhh. Okay, I see what you're up to. Does it help your readers any?

@Tartra: That's what I'm doing. The about page is the story summary. :)

@Chrysalis - Ah - my bad! Something got lost in me reading what you wrote. :D

I've had a few people thank me for the lines, saying they weren't in the mood for something or other (there's a few chapters that deal with PTSD and depression and are tagged as such, and they're kinda heavy) and were glad to be able to make that decision before stumbling through a sex scene or a character begging for death. But I think most readers just skip over them. I've not had anyone complain about them, which is good. That tells me that for most people who've read so far, they work as intended, and are otherwise innocuous. I'd rather cover my bases there than not.

@Dennis - And I guess if they're that consistent too, standardized or not, everyone's got into the habit of checking as required or shoving them into the background.

So give that you're dealing with so many different themes and that people have actually made comments about the warnings helping them out, how do you describe your story when it's to someone brand new? Do you mention that those sorts of themes exist or leave them to read the warnings...?

I leave them for the warnings generally. After a quick run-down of the premise (big western-looking imperial nation invades a seemingly vulnerable non-western inspired nation etc) I mention that I cover some mature themes and that it's a war story about identity and ideology. I think, a lot of it, when you describe "a war story" in our time, people will make the most obvious connections quickly.

In my case, I mostly tried to preempt reactions I saw to other things, and cover my bases, as well as look out for certain phobias I'm aware of. Cursing is probably not really worth pointing out very often (in the way that violence is probably not worth pointing out in my story every single time, though I still do it). But if you've gotten some strong reactions to it, then it might be worth having in the description or somewhere visible.

I always put a content disclaimer on my work (on the About or Home page, or both), which includes an idea of the level of graphic and obscene content. It states there will be swearing, because I have a love of foul-mouthed characters (there's usually one around somewhere) and I prefer not to censor it if it would naturally be there. I make no apologies for it, just try to help readers come into the story with the right expectations.

See, mine is generally explicit, so I just put a "For mature audiences only" disclaimer at the top of the home page and called it good. Then, if people complain, I can just point them to that, and if it doesn't shut them up, I'll just mark them as spam.

I'm a teacher. My job actively REQUIRES me to call out cussing (in part because that's the sort of thing that can escalate, and we don't want that). It's not the sort of thing one can turn off at home either. Not when at least once a week, I'm remarking "watch the language!" to a student - one gets in the habit. So, profanity bothers me. I even shook my head once I saw "fuck" in your remark above.

THAT SAID, there can be narrative reasons for it. A well timed swear when a character is not prone to it can jar the reader and/or add an element of seriousness to a situation. (I still probably won't put it in anything I write, but that's me.) In your case, Tartra, the character himself is partly defined by it - it exemplifies his 'devil may care' attitude. And I'm okay with that! I wouldn't want him as a student in my classroom, but it works narratively. Even your remark above was aiming for humour, so while I shook my head, I got it. (Bearing in mind I'd still call you on it if you said that to my face.)

I guess what I'm saying is, it's not so much that your story has language, it's that one of your characters has language because he kind of lacks a censor. For me, that's an important distinction. For others, maybe it doesn't matter. And as others have pointed out, different people have different triggers anyway. (I hadn't even thought about putting out warnings until now - if a person goes back in time to kill themselves, does that warrant a suicide warning? I'm actually kind of serious there.)

@mathtans - If it's any consolation, I have the language of a stern nun when I'm in public. I've actually been complimented by others who broke the dam before I did about how polite I am and how they could never imagine such words from me (and then I break my dam and it's a wave of, "Plug her! Plug her face before she keeps going!"). Most of my front or public-facing content follows that rule: for general audiences, but when you commit to reading the full thing, you'll get all the fun, foul slosh that makes it tick.

And I'm glad to hear you noting that distinction. Context means a lot, and I'm hoping I've done enough to give people that context. My worry is just that, for first-timers, the distinction might be harder to pick up and I'll be turning readers away who would've been happy to strap in if I'd taken them on a slower ride. In those cases, is it worth bracing them? Or should I assume that if they don't 'get' it right away, they won't enjoy the story long enough to stick around until they do and let them go?

And I think it's still attempted murder. That person in the future is different from who they were in the past (most likely), so technically, you're killing someone else.

Math-tans: If their goal is to kill themselves (and not like, murder a different version of themselves, or some out like that) then it might warrant a warning, i think. There's a certain psychological character to suicide that makes it a "suicide narrative," and if that's present, then it's probably better to be safe. It needn't be a long warning. Just, "this chapter deals with suicide." Most readers probably wouldn't care, but I've read a couple things in a more professional capacity where I've come to the conclusion that it's better to have it there for something serious like that, to look out for the few people who it might affect. If it's just a weird murder plot and it's written like a weird murder plot (no introspection, etc) then it should be ok I suppose.

Trigger warning are an interesting thing in and of themselves. I know at least one person who is irritated by trigger warnings and simply doesn't read stories that have them whether the events described would bother him or not.

Personally, I tend to skip over them. I don't really know why. I'd like to think it's because it's really more of a question of how the triggering event is depicted rather than the event itself.

With regards to swearing though, it's not a question of whether people swear as much as a question of whether the swearing fits the story and characters, or whether it feels like the writer is trying to prove he knows all the cuss words.

I have some characters who swear, some who don't, and many who use some words, but not others.

That said I tend not to include graphic violence, rape, sex, or abuse unless I have a reason to. Even then I'll hint at it rather than show it if I have the option.

I'm not one to shy away from cussing. Mostly because I went wild with it in college and it's become a habit. Cusswords have a certain effect on people that can be interesting to employ. After all, part of making characters different is altering how they phrase things. Frequency of contractions, cusswords, slang, verbal tics, sentence structure; all of it can make a character's speech unique.

In Gecko's case, cusswords are particularly prevalent early on in World Domination in Retrospect both because Gecko the character has no problem with them, but also because I wanted some early indicator of the tone of the work. If a simple cussword can offend you, then you might want to skip the part where Gecko shoves his hand up an enemy's rectum. Another thing that makes sense in its own way is that Gecko is canonically an immigrant to English-speaking dimensions. As someone who learned on his own, that meant picking up cussing and pop culture as some of the first things he learned.

Also, find it helps to sell the effects of the injuries if Gecko cusses. Adds some punch to the narration of having gotten injured in the recent pass, especially when the character is still healing from such effects.

@Mathtans, yes. Suicide warning. Definitely. Just to be careful. That can be a really serious trigger, much worse than cussing, and even in that way. I'm not saying don't include the part, but definitely put a trigger warning, because that's a bit different than cussing (I have a friend that had to sit out of my English class when we read Veronika Decides to Die because she has panic attacks when that comes up, because she tried to kill herself once, and was hospitalized). Even though I have that warning on the home page, there will eventually be a torture scene, and when that comes up, I still plan on putting a special warning to warn about it.

Second thing, and just a small thing, slightly irrelevant, but still: would you happen to be working on a rewrite of a novel written by a teenaged girl who can't do style at all but everything else about the book is near perfection? Bonus points if you know what I'm talking about.