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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Profanity in Writing (Page 1)

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Author Topic: Profanity in Writing
Miriel
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There's a lengthy and interesting discussion in the Fragments and Feedback going on right now about profanity in writing. I thought I'd open up a topic over here so we could discuss it without anyone feeling like they, or their writing, was being attacked.

Word-choice is, of course, an important part of writing. Do you include profanity in your stories? When do you think this is/isn't acceptable? What about highly crass expressions/descriptions that aren't profanity?


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franc li
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For some reason this thread title reminded me of the awkward moment at my brother's birthday party when my mom announced that the next present was "the video equivalent of the family jewels".

It turned out to be the pre-digitally enhanced Star Wars Trilogy.

Sorry to get sidetracked. We had a discussion about this at our last writer's workshop, where someone was trying to represent the effect of getting chewed out by a pupil's father during her first year teaching. Just saying it had happened and the effect on her was about as much as she could manage.

Sometimes showing the effect of something is greater than showing the actual details. But it's a free country. I think profanity/ vulgarity is just like exclamation points and multiple layers of adverbs. Sometimes they are warranted, but if you have one every paragraph I personally would probably not read your story.

[This message has been edited by franc li (edited October 24, 2005).]


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Robyn_Hood
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I think a pre-digitally enhanced "Star Wars" trilogy would be more like the crown jewels I wish I could find a copy that didn't have the "enhancements".

As for the topic at hand:

Profanity and swearing were not things that I was overtly exposed to much while I was growing up (except what is heard at school which seemed a lot tamer 15 years ago than these days). While I use more colourful language as a grown-up than I did as a kid, I tend to keep most of my writing (and reading) pretty clean. Force of habit perhaps.

That said, if someone can justify having profanity or "off-colour" comments in their writing (i.e. for characterization, milieu, or some sort of plat forwarding reason), then I probably won't have a problem with it.


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JmariC
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I feel that profanity can have it's place and should be used sparingly. Character development or for scene dependant emotional expression, sure.

I think it's funny that some people will be offended more by modern swear words than by made up ones that have the same meaning.

Personaly, I think a word is a series of sounds and the only importance it has is what power the individual gives it.


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pantros
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Profanity has a place in writing. Depending on the Genre it can alter the flavor of the piece slightly or greatly.

In science fiction, it makes it more gritty, giving it a down to earth feeling. If that's what the author wants, all is good.

In Fantasy, it seems out of place.

Some of the most immersive SCI_FI and or FANTASY will create its own profane terms and their use will make it clear to us what they are meaning.

In erotica, you can steer clear of profanity or you can embrace it. Some of the most crass words in the profane lexicon really don't seem so crass when used properly. Of course, the whole piece is probably already so blazen that they just don't stand out.


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wbriggs
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I try to avoid it -- but sometimes, I just can't.
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Survivor
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Ah, F---!
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EricJamesStone
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For some previous threads on this topic, see:

http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/000782.html
http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/001189.html
http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002109.html

My position: Profanity is rarely necessary. Very few people will miss it if it's not included, and none will be offended by its absence. Meanwhile, many people will notice if it's included, and some will be offended by its presence. So why include it unless it is absolutely necessary (which it almost never is)?


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ChrisOwens
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Miriel,

Your brave. I've learned never to bring the subject up here, lest I be lambasted.


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Christine
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Lambasted is a good word. I think we should make sure to include it in all of our writing.

I would actually lambaste Miriel for bringing this up (again), but I think Survivor pretty much took the words out of my mouth.


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Monolith
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I have to agree with Jmari on this. If the character is/was involved in the military or grew up in that sort of environment, then I would probably overlook it. I grew up a military brat and then I joined up myself. I know almost every curse word out there.

Now when it comes to writing, ONLY if I have a valid reason to use profanity I will. Using colorful language will have certain effects on the reader.

"Does this writer use this all the time or is this just the way his/her character talks?" That sort of reaction is what I usually have when I read someone I haven't before. The usual answer is it's just the characterization.

But in closing, my stance is this: It has it's usefullness. If done right, the character can be great, if not handled right, it makes the author seem less credible. (IMO)

Just my opinions.

Thanks for letting me sorta rant around here.

-Monolith-


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EricJamesStone
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quote:
Personaly, I think a word is a series of sounds and the only importance it has is what power the individual gives it.

Therefore, the important thing to keep in mind is not what power a series of sounds has for you as the author, but rather what power that series of sounds has for the reader.

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JmariC
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Exactly! :-D
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SWAnderson
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Shaekspeare had cursing in his writing.

I don't like really vulgar writing. I mean, if you're writing a fantasy I guess using the "D" word or the "B" word would fit the time period. Maybe making up a curse word for a science fiction would be fine. "Frell" and "frack" come to mind.


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BuffySquirrel
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I'm with Swimming Bird on this one. I'm not interested in courting so-called readers who are afraid of words.
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Robyn_Hood
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What about putting it in to try and court readers?

Would you add profanity to a piece to make it appear "more gritty" to try and add "credability" among certain readers?

Consider a work such as "Full Metal Jacket" (I can only reference the movie because I haven't read the book), it is supposed to give a realistic look into wartime and the military and it is quite vulgar (apparently the book is worse and far more graphic).

Can you have a realistic look at things that are vulgar and profane (such as war, the mafia, violent street life) without using vulgar and profane words? Are works about such things less credible if they glaze over the language?


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pantros
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While any military influenced people can swear with expertise, none equal the naval enlisted.

If you write something involving a naval petty officer and don't make me cringe with your obscenity, you didn't do it right. And, as a sometimes writer of hard core fantasy erotica, it takes a lot to make me cringe.

But when I was in the USAF at a joint command in europe during the kosovo war, man, those navy folks....its like a whole other language that they speak completely naturally.


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JmariC
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Just because...

Of course one way to get around the cursing that is natural to some people/characters, is to present the scene from the POV of someone who doesn't use that language. They wouldn't dare repeat those words even in their own heads. :-)


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franc li
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[quote}I'm with Swimming Bird on this one.[/quote]
You made me scan the thread to see where swimming bird had actually posted. <_<

I'm going to use "Swimming Bird" from now on.

I have to say I'm rather puzzled by the Firefly usage "Gorram". I mean, if there were any other instances of d->r in their speech, that would be one thing. "Rutting" sort of makes sense. Reminds me of this family values review of Serenity that took issue with the phrases "I'm a leaf in the wind" and "She's starting to damage my calm" but failed to remark on the phrase "my swinging cod." I mean, they apparentlly thought it really was the fish. Or maybe they didn't mind since it was somewhat Shakespearean.


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nimnix
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Most of the time, made-up words like "frack" bug me, only because when I'm hearing the actors actually say them, it doesn't flow, it sounds almost over-emphasized. Reading them tends to have that effect on me as well, pulls me out of the story and draws attention to the writing and effort. Maybe a few writers do it well, but I've seen too many times with writers who don't, making it look more like a "clever me" trick.

I have no problem reading actual profanity, but it should make sense in context.


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BuffySquirrel
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quote:
What about putting it in to try and court readers?

Would you add profanity to a piece to make it appear "more gritty" to try and add "credability" among certain readers?


Not for the benefit of 'certain readers', whoever they may be , no. To achieve a level of realism that I'm comfortable with, yes.

First and foremost I have to try to ensure that my characters are true to who they are meant to be.


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Christine
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I want to sell books.

Hmmm...that looks a little cynnical. I've been feeling cynnical lately, though, so I'm just going to go with it.


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BuffySquirrel
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Sure, but whose books? Yours, or censored versions written to appease a consensus of the various prejudices you've run across on this board (and/or others)?
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hoptoad
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Like everything else, does it have legs enough to propel a story.

I don't object to it in dialogue, but in regular body text I soon get tired of it. Funnily enough the people who don't object to profanity in writing tend to be less at ease with racial slurs, yet they fall into the same general category, 'meretricious but popular'.

Is that a point, or am I drawing a long bow?

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited October 24, 2005).]


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Beth
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exactly.

I know there are people who object if you put a "damn" in a book but odds are they're not my target audience anyway.

(edited: my exactly was to Buffy.)

[This message has been edited by Beth (edited October 24, 2005).]


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hoptoad
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edited:
Phew!

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hoptoad
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quote:

Sure, but whose books? Yours, or censored versions written to appease a consensus of the various prejudices you've run across on this board (and/or others)?

Is 'censored' a synonym for 'edited'?
How would you feel about an editor saying, 'Yeah that's great but the dialogue isn't gritty enough to appeal to OUR intended market. Perhaps you could fine-tune it by adding a few well-placed profanities.'

Would you see their point?
Would you hesitate?

In other words, I can see how profanity could be considered appropriate if it is intended to portray SYMPTOMS of an off-kilter world. To give a sense that 'something's not quite right here.' That sort of thing.

However, I don't think it is appropriate if it is only there because it is the first and most obvious way the writer can think of doing it. More or less: it is not appropriate when it is used to cover up for impotent writing.

Similarly I have no objection to describing in detail someone covered in boils that are symptomatic of an underlying imbalance or illness, but the description should be done with finesse.

That's what I mean by: does it have legs enough to propel the story? If so, then I would not recommend anyone (read: my kids) to read the story until I felt they were mature enough to comprehend AND successfully understand the underlying imbalance or theme running through the story.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited October 24, 2005).]


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Survivor
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My problem is that I learned how to swear from my father.

Yes, he was loosely associated with the Navy in his day. But I honestly have no idea where he learned to blaspheme. I can only imagine that it was an advanced course for diabolical corruption, he certainly didn't learn to use language like that from any human agency.

So that does constitute a small problem. Whenever I hear humans swearing, it only sounds amusingly pathetic. You just don't know how to do it right.

It's okay for a joke, I suppose. But only if you really understand what about your attempts at profanity I'm laughing at. Otherwise I feel a tiny bit guilty about it.


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hoptoad
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Ahh Survivor, I bet YOU can't guess why we laugh at you and feel a little guilty about it...

See people, that's what i mean about good writing that doesn't have to state 'straight up what he means:

quote:

Yes, he was loosely associated with the Navy in his day


We ALL know what that means without him going into detail...

(joke)

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited October 24, 2005).]


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Pyre Dynasty
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I just wanted to add that it bugs me in made up worlds when they use profanities from our world. One recently drove me insain where they used Jesus as a curse, (Which irritates me anyways) but the story took place in a place that had never heard of Jesus.
The vulgar words of a society reflect the things that stress them the most. If they are saying 'Frack' than I wonder; what the frack is a frack and why don't you like it? the answer to which should lead to better understanding of the milue.

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BuffySquirrel
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quote:
Is 'censored' a synonym for 'edited'?

Not as I used it, no. What happened to Bird's story was censorship, not editing. Its purpose was not to improve the story but to appease those who cannot cope with certain arrangements of letters, even in fiction.

quote:
How would you feel about an editor saying, 'Yeah that's great but the dialogue isn't gritty enough to appeal to OUR intended market. Perahps you could fine-tune it by adding a few f***s and other profanities.'

Would you see their point?
Would you hesitate?


I would definitely hesitate if I thought the proposed changes would render the characters untrue to themselves as I envisaged them. If I thought the changes were in character, then I would consider incorporating them. Editing should be a two-way process, an interaction between author and editor, with the aim of making a story better, for which don't necessarily read "more marketable" (if the publisher or editor didn't think the story was already marketable, why would they buy it in the first place?).


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hoptoad
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You are right, if it strengthens and improves the story, if there are rational reasons for it, then why hesitate?

What do you mean by:

quote:

as I envisaged them

Also what do you mean by:

quote:

making a story better

Better for who?

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited October 24, 2005).]


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BuffySquirrel
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I mean (to take an extreme example) if I envisaged my characters as sweet and devout little nuns who would step aside to avoid treading on a beetle, and never raise their voices above a whisper, then having them swearing like sailors would be a tad untrue to that...

To take a less extreme example, my protag is a nobleman who was largely raised by a mother with very strict ideas about how he should speak. He very rarely swears. When he does, it's noticed by those around him as being unusual. If he started swearing all the time, he wouldn't be true to his background, nor would his swearing have the impact I wanted.

Missed the second part of the question. By "better" I mean, in the opinion of the author, primarily, achieving its aims more effectively.

[This message has been edited by BuffySquirrel (edited October 24, 2005).]


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hoptoad
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Well, that is exactly what I meant.
Did you know there is only one language that has no endemic swear words? That is Maori.

What about a character who WAS raised by sailors?
One who was raised in circumstance where swearing was normal. Could you be true to them as envisaged and not incorporate profanity into every thought and word?

Would that help the author achieve their aims? Or should the author only go so far? Should they simulate authenticity?

Point is: everyone draws the line somewhere.

PS: SB was not censored, SB was censured.
Similar but different.
To be censured, in this context, means to receive an official correction from those in authority in regards to the infringement of a rule. It appears that SB interpreted that as censorship, assuming that the correction was motivated by a desire to remove or suppress something considered morally, politically, or otherwise objectionable.
It is a distinction that Survivor made in that thread and which I think is true.

If it is true, then SB was incorrect in their assumption and became combative as a result of a false premise and others reacted poorly to that.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited October 25, 2005).]


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rcorporon
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I think that about 6 months ago I would have said that I didn't like vulgarity or profanity in my books.

Then I read George Martin.

At first I was a little surprised at his use of words, but after I got over the shock, I really enjoyed it. I find (note the "I") that it makes his writing much more believable, and his world is more accurate than a world where the words people say is "shucks."

Ever watch those old shows from the 50s? THey are horrible! "Dang it! I lopped off my hand in the thresher! Fiddle dee dee!"

C'mon.

Ronnie


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Christine
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quote:
Sure, but whose books? Yours, or censored versions written to appease a consensus of the various prejudices you've run across on this board (and/or others)?

That's strange...I didn't think there was a consensus on this topic on this board or any other, so it would be damn hard to appease it.

Truthfully, though, I don't tend to have cussing in books because I don't tend to be able to relate to the types of characters who do cuss...making it difficult to write them.

Should I ADD profanity to appeal to people?

Will it sell books?


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pantros
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Will it sell books?

Yes, if you are writing gritty detective fiction.

Otherwise, its a little harder to say for sure one way or the other. I think that Christine hit it closest when she mentioned her ability to relate to the type of character that would freely throw about profanity. It would hamper your ability to sell books to force profanity. On the same note it would hamper your ability to omit it where it would be naturally.


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Elan
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I think people lost sight of the fact there were two separate issues being discussed (and critiqued) in the F&F forum:

1) The story
2) The procedure for posting the story to the forum

Everyone got hung up on the "f" word, as if the use of profanity within the STORY was the problem. I haven't seen ANYONE state that the "F" word, in the context of the story, was inappropriate for the characters or the scene.

The PROBLEM was the flippant "I can do what I like, so screw you and your rules" attitude when being asked (politely) to use asterisks to imply the vulgarity when posting to the F&F public forum. No one was asking the author to censor his story. They were asking him to please respect the fact that the "f" word is inappropriate in this forum.

In my opinion, the bottom line is that writers should use profanity within their story if they feel the characters and context demand it, but they should refrain from posting that profanity on this board. You can always email your manuscript, "f" word intact, to the folks who offer to critique.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited October 25, 2005).]


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BuffySquirrel
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quote:
PS: SB was not censored, SB was censured.
Similar but different.

SB's story was changed on the board to appease other people's sensitivities. That is censorship. The reason given wasn't an infringement of the rules, but the "ugliness" of the word. Meanwhile, a word with similar aggressive and violent connotations and an identical meaning was allowed to remain in the same thread, unremarked. It's in this thread, too.

If the rules as quoted by Survivor were being enforced even-handedly, no fragments of fiction could be posted, as they would infringe the "knowingly false" rule. Discrimination in the application of rules is another clue that what we have here is censorship.

quote:
I didn't think there was a consensus on this topic on this board or any other, so it would be damn hard to appease it.

I should have been clearer . A consensus that the writer develops from the prejudices expressed on the board (and/or other boards).

I think I've already answered the question about adding profanity in some detail.


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Robert Nowall
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I always thought swear words should be used sparingly---in stories and in personal conversation---because they lose all force and meaning when used more frequently.

I know some guys at work---and I'm sure most of us all know somebody like them---who'll use a certain word beginning with "f" as every other word. It loses all force after a few minutes of exposure...and my mind winds up editing it out...


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Christine
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Never mind.

[This message has been edited by Christine (edited October 25, 2005).]


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Elan
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BuffySquirrel, I must disagree. You said:
quote:
SB's story was changed on the board to appease other people's sensitivities. That is censorship. The reason given wasn't an infringement of the rules, but the "ugliness" of the word.

In fact, the reason given WAS that it is an infringement of the rules. Survivor kindly posted the rules in the F&F section, from the registration document we ALL agreed to when we signed up to be members of this board. The rules read:

quote:
You agree, through your use of this service, that you will not use this BB to post any material which is knowingly false and/or defamatory, inaccurate, abusive, vulgar, hateful, harassing, obscene, profane, sexually oriented, threatening, invasive of a person's privacy, or otherwise violative of any law.

Now, come on, people! This is a stupid argument. We've been asked, politely, by the administrator to please not use the "f" word spelled out on this board. You may or may not agree with her reasons, but to turn this molehille into a mountain is immature. If you were in someone's home and they asked you not to swear, would you launch into a diatribe against censorship? I hope not! You would, in theory, say, "Gee, sorry I offended you. Didn't mean to. Of course I'll comply with your request."

We should all offer OSC, as our host, and Kathleen, as the administrator, the sheer courtesy of complying with this request without argument. We are, after all, guests here in this "virtual home."

If you want a website where you can post the "f" word to your heart's content, then make your own.


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lehollis
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I won't get into discussion about the rules of this board, as the rules are quite clear. Despite the notice that the forum is for writers age 18 and older, the rules are posted and quite clear.

Concerning swearing in fiction, my advice to writers is always to do what works best for them. However, that always comes with the warning to be aware of your readers interests. Writing an entire story of nothing but swear words may work for your, but if you plan to be pubished, you should examine how that will affect your plans.

To me, the problem comes when people become too attached to a rule or technique. Writing is always about finding out what works and what will get published. If you don't want to be published, then it's just about what works.

As far as the board goes, read the rules and either accept them or expect difficulties. Personally, I think the, "This forums is for writers age 18 and older" needs to be changed because, apparently, it is misleading people into thinking swearing is allowed here.


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Survivor
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Somebody had the beginnings of an argument by saying that the rules are vague and could be interpreted differently...except that is blown out of the water by the fact that KDW has clearly and consistently clarified what those rules mean.

Really, to get this back on topic, one of my father's favorite blasphemies to use when he wasn't feeling particularly inventive was "God is in His Holy Temple." He'd say it just once, or repeat it over and over. But the classic mode was to say it twice.

Okay, how do I write that to have the impact it had when he would say it? Anybody? Who here even understands what a complete profanity that is? He invented worse profanities that used the F-word and um, other words that are (quite appropriately) restricted here. But this is something he said a lot. One thing I notice about various family histories, very few of my family members have seen fit to record this particular phrase for posterity. So maybe the answer is that I shouldn't ever write it. After all, I'm not planning to write about my own childhood here.

But if I was, or if I wanted to have a character be that profane...do I really have any options? If the story is compelling enough and you've built up the milieu, does an uncommon profanity work? When Fiver says "Embleer Frith!", was it less impactful because he's using made up words (or, for that matter, happens to be a small rabbit)?

I use profane words where they're appropriate to the character. My POV characters don't use them much, I find profanity works best to stereotype a non-POV character as uncouth and stupid (though it can be fun to use them as a disguise). Many of the soldiers I knew didn't use the F-word or other charged language lightly (though we were mostly high-techs). I think that stereo-typing all soldiers as being utter louts is a bit unfair. Why do you think that terms like "Fubar", "Snafu", and "Charlie Foxtrot" (along with the less evocative "Foxtrot Uniform") exist if not to demonstrate that soldiers actually prefer not to say the F-word?

By the way, "Fubar" and "Snafu" have nearly opposite meanings...at least in one important sense. Just for future reference. If you aren't sure which you're talking about, just use "Charlie Foxtrot".

I think that one is actually pretty clever. It works on so many levels. Soldiers are smart, y'all. Let's not piss on the guy who volunteers to stand in front, eh?


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nimnix
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An utter lout would use that language inappropriately, and combine it with loutish behavior. A soldier regularly cussing around other soldiers doesn't automatically make him a lout. Plenty of people change their language to fit the situation.
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JOHN
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There are some people out there who don’t find profanity...well...profane. I for example think it’s impolite and one should be conscious of their surroundings but I don’t necessarily think it’s profane.

I say this because swearing by itself can’t really be used to make a character look unintelligent or a “lout.”

If a scene takes place with two buddies in a bar having a few drinks, there very well may be some swearing there. I don’t think this makes the person come off in a bad light. Or if a character stubs there toe, or is watching football and the opposing team scores a touchdown, and a swear word pops out. I don’t think that automatically makes them appear dumb or immoral.

Now, if a character is in McDonald’s while a children’s birthday party is going on, talking to his buddy dropping the f-bomb every other word, now that would work. He comes off like a tool.

A lot of the posters I’ve noticed don’t swear, and don’t like to hear or read swear words. And that’s fine, but what also needs to be realized is a great deal of the world doesn’t share that view.

But honestly, you don’t need it, but it can be used effectively if you decide to use it.

JOHN!


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Robyn_Hood
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Do you see a difference between blaspheme, profanity, and vulgarity?

I for one can tolerate a degree of profanity and vulgarity, but I have never had the stomach for blaspheme. Offending humans is one thing, offending deities...that's another. At least for me.

[This message has been edited by Robyn_Hood (edited October 25, 2005).]


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Survivor
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I think that's the most blasphemous thing I've ever come across on the internet *

* does not necessarily indicate lack of seriousness, only recognition of humor or irony.


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Robyn_Hood
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...now I'm trying not to laugh at my own ignorance.

Where's HSO when you need him? He's supposed to be the resident offender...


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hoptoad
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BS: (BuffySquirrell):
From your first post I have gained insight and enjoyment from your comments. Even/especially on this subject.

I do not know to which 'other word' you refer in your post.

It is a mistake to categorise someone as 'biased' and 'prejudiced' simply because, in a certain situation, you think they are arguing in favour of the majority.

If that is what you thought of my posts please take another look and note: I was among the first and was, in my opinion, the most constructive responder to SBs post in question. My comments on the piece were clear and helpful.

Occasionally there are people who turn up on these boards and clearly think 'There's way too many Mormons here. What a bunch of wowsers. Let's take them to task and give them a look at the real world."

This attitude stems from assumption, bias and prejudice too, and I agree with you, that sort of thing is both disappointing and frustrating. I am not saying you have done this, I certainly hope not, I think you can see how it would be the pot calling the kettle black.

You are right that in the narrow context of a single thread and because of the reasons given for the correction of SBs piece, as you pointed out, the action appears as censorship.

Expressed in another way, however dubious, it may not have been seen like that. Is that true or am I mistaken?

Certainly I saw it as a censure, at the time, but that was because I am familiar with the rules we all agreed to in order to use these borads and to the subsequent ongoing clarifications. So I saw KDWs comments in a wider context.

Therefore, the most salient remark in my last post, is that SB became combative and was easily offended. Whether SB was justified or not, people reacted poorly to that and will continue to react poorly to similar posts whatever motivates the reaction.


Edit:
I just found that word you mentioned.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited October 25, 2005).]


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