Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How many fucks (and shits, and hells) do I have to give? - Editing for profanity on "Mind Locker"

So I've got this story coming out. I've mentioned it to you before. Last week I got my page proofs back, which is always fun because it means the story will be coming out relatively soon. It also means a lot of careful reading for spelling, and watching out for which direction the quotation marks are facing (which is why I never use smart quotes!). But this time was a little different.

I got asked to tone down the profanity. Specifically, to reduce the instances of "fuck," "shit," and "hell" by half each.

My first reaction was to laugh, basically because I'm not a person who swears a lot in my normal life. Writing "Mind Locker" I was continually astonished at the way my protagonist, Hub Girl, used her language. But the thing was, it fit with her. It WAS her. Hub Girl is a girl who swears, and if she didn't, it wouldn't make any sense. The way we use language is key to how people understand our character, and to remove that unapologetic swearing would change her character in an unfortunate way. Furthermore, if I took out swear words in the wrong places, it could totally unbalance the story.

On the other hand, I could see what the editor was saying. "Distracting" was the word used in the request. I've seen stories and movies before where the swearing was distracting! Dogma immediately springs to mind - I saw that film on the plane and had never enjoyed it so much before, just because I wasn't emotionally battening down the hatches every time the swearing character opened his mouth.

So here was the question: How do I achieve a precise 50% reduction on swear words without fundamentally altering the feel of the character and narrative?

First, I went through and highlighted all the swear words in the document. Then I listed the different types in a sort of "hierarchy of profanity." The hierarchy looked like this:

1. fuck
2. shit
3. hell
4. crap
5. damn

My sense was that the lower the number, the more distracting the word. So I set about reading through the manuscript. When there was an opportunity to take something out without changing the feeling of the narrative, I took it out. Redundancy was one of the reasons why I found certain words easy to remove. For example, why have her say "shit" three times if she only needed to say it once? If it was a single instance of a word, but important that some swear word be there, then I considered whether it could be changed, possibly to a word further down the hierarchy.

There were quite a number of instances where the word could not be changed without really changing Hub Girl's character. This sentence, for example, where you first discover that she knows how to swear:

"Fuck the Locker, for scaring me."

It's the only swear word in the first scene, and it's a kind of declaration to the reader of the way Hub Girl responds to a threat. No way was I changing it, so I made a notation in the margin...


...and moved on to the next spot.

Another consideration was whether she was in danger in the middle of action, or in a situation where her friends were similarly in danger. Then I was more likely to keep the swear words that were already there. Here's an example, from a confrontation between Hub Girl's gang and a couple of truck drivers, one of whom has just shot a gun at them. She loses track of her closest friend, Fisher, and when she finds him again, she says,

"Fisher, you scared the fuck outta me!"

Then Fisher tells her one of their other friends is trapped in the truck where he was trying to steal some food for them, and her response is,


So that was F2 and S1! And I continued numbering as I went along.

The last kind of context where I really felt it important to keep certain swear words was in places where she used them very creatively. Hub Girl and the members of her gang speak a dialect which is influenced by internet language, among other sources. She's creative with her nicknaming and with her speech generally (which is part of why I enjoy this story so much). Here are a couple of examples of expressions I wanted to keep because they were just so Hub Girl:

Hell'm I glad Fisher's by me.

That smile says not-past-my-shit-filter.

I was totally expecting that I'd get to the end of the story, found I had gone over on my numbers, and have to go back through for a second pass... but guess what? I ended up getting it on the first run-through.

Final totals:

1. fuck - 9
2. shit - 9
3. hell - 9
4. crap - 7
5. damn - (I didn't end up counting, because there were so few! maybe 2 or 3)

It was an interesting process, and more importantly, I felt like I'd done what I needed to do - make the story more accessible to readers without fundamentally changing the character or the narrative.

I hope you find my experience interesting, and possibly helpful in your own projects. And, of course, I hope you'll read "Mind Locker" in the July/August 2014 Analog! :D



  1. Swear words are so fucking weird. Alright, joking aside, interesting article about how you choose which words to keep in, and which to toss. I've had to work on that as well in one of my books.

    How exactly a character swears really says a lot about a character, as you showed with Hub Girl. Another example I had was that, for awhile, one of my characters was raised religiously. He still swears just as much as the other characters--except that he never used religious swears, such as "damn" or "Christ", unless it was a dire situation. For his hierarchy of cursing, they beat out the wondrous "Fuck!" for first place.

    Creative cursing is also fun. Did you know that research has shown than when injured, swearing (be it real words or creative new combinations) actually helps reduce the pain?

    1. True enough, Dorian! :) I agree that a lot depends on character, and the reordering of the hierarchy makes sense for your character, definitely. I've actually done quite a bit of studying about swear words, and I did see that article about swearing helping reduce pain. It's fascinating stuff!