Using profanity; blog postings are 'published writing'
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: March 11, 2008
|I'm debating whether to use a profane word in a particularly traumatic scene in my book. When is it all right to use profanity? If I keep the word in, could that be a problem when I try to publish?|
Using profane words can be tricky-right up there with other provocative elements, such as sex scenes and horrific details-because they have the potential to distract rather than accomplish the emotion you're working toward. The choice to use or avoid profanity comes down this question: Is it necessary?
Profanity has a bad reputation and with good reason. In writing, as in life, profanity can seem gratuitous or, worse, a thinly veiled shock tactic. And it can offend. All of which might jolt the reader out of the unfolding action. As a result, it's important to use profanity only when it's adding something essential.
In Junot Díaz's short story "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie," the off-color language choices are in line with the character's voice, a young Dominican man living in the rough neighborhood of the Terrace, a place where "people get stabbed." The story is written as set of instructions:
Wait for your brother and mother to leave the apartment. You've already told them that you're feeling too sick to go to Union City to visit that tia who likes to squeeze your nuts. . . A local girl may have hips and a thick ass but she won't be quick about letting you touch.
The language choices stay true to the character; however, the narrative isn't riddled with profanity. Using restraint allows you to achieve the voice effectively and maintain authenticity while avoiding the likelihood of profanity's potential pitfalls. Such language can even be a departure for a character and that contrast can also be revealing.
When profanity influences characters or becomes pertinent to the unfolding action, it can be necessary. In the autobiography Black Boy, Richard Wright uses strong profanity and racial epithets to show the ways in which white characters try to intimidate and terrorize him when he attempts to learn their trade.
When used incorrectly, profanity can be a short cut to emotion and the reader is bound to remain unconvinced. If you can convey the emotion through action, gesture, or different dialogue, you can create a more effective and nuanced experience of the moment.
How an agent or publisher responds to profanity in your work will depend upon how well you've used it and their own personal sensibilities. Keep in mind audience, too. The limits will probably be more stringent on a young adult book then on one for adults.
Generally, a few profane words in a book-length manuscript aren't bound to put an agent or editor off, if the material is evocative and well written. (Although pages riddled with such language might.) If the agent or editor is invested in the book, but doesn't like the use of the profanity, they'll talk to you about revisions.
I don't understand rights in the new e-world. If you publish your writing on your own blog, is that no longer unpublished?
When you make your work available to the general public on a blog or a Web site you are publishing it. And while it's no longer eligible for the pristine title of "unpublished," it does have many of the same copyright protections that come with print publication. (See the Friends of Active Copyright Education at www.csusa.org/face for a general overview of copyright as it applies to the Internet.)
But blog posts don't always end on the web. Some blogs have gone on to make their way into print. Baghdad Burning is a book version of a blog written by an anonymous Iraqi woman calling herself Riverbend, who lived in Baghdad and offered eyewitness accounts of the realities of the war and occupation. In fact, there's even a word for books that come from blog content: blook. Not all blogs lend themselves well to books. In fact, many do not. For those that do, the process from blog to book isn't static. It takes into account what can be learned from the process of blogging and the interaction of the community that reads the blog. So, what ends up on the printed page isn't exactly the same as what appeared on the blog.
Publishing individual blog posts in print publications as essays or articles is certainly possible, but it's rare. Print publications often prefer to give their readers something new, which is why so many of them require the work to be unpublished. Target the publications that are willing to look at previously published work, and before you submit, ask yourself: Why might this publication want to reprint something already available on my blog? If you can't come up with a compelling reason for this, you might be better off pitching something new.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.