This tendency has gotten me into some pretty embarrassing situations. When I was in my early 20s, for instance, I was driving one of my young nephews to the park when another driver cut me off so sharply that I had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. I won't tell you exactly what I said, but to this day, more than 20 years later, my nephew can still repeat every cringe-worthy word of it. Let's just say that I didn't win any Aunt of the Year awards for that one.
Strong language in my writing has occasionally become an issue as well. Obviously, there are some venues where it is verboten. Even I know better than to cuss like a sailor when I'm writing grants, white papers, academic pieces, and church newsletters.
But a few months ago, I was writing a case study and used the word "dammit" as part of a quotation. The editor asked me to please remove the profanity and, red faced, I did as she requested.
Pros (And There Are Some)
In spite of the problems I sometimes create for myself, I do stand by the use of profanity at times. Think about the last few minutes of the movie version of Gone with the Wind. Would Rhett Butler's exit have been nearly as dramatic if he had said, "I really don't care," instead of "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."?
I sometimes use curse words when I write young adult fiction. While I can sympathize with parents who want the books their kids read to have a "G" rating, most teens that I know don't live a "G" lifestyle. I have yet to meet the teen--or adult for that matter--who accidentally whacks his thumb with a hammer and says, "Gosh, what an unpleasant sensation." The more typical response is to swear creatively, suck on the injured thumb, and then swear some more.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Swear words catch our attention because of their crudeness and ability to shock. They can be an effective literary device if you want to show strong emotion.
On the other hand, if you make every other word a four-letter one, you sacrifice any emotional punch the profanity might convey. The words become like an annoying car alarm that goes off so frequently that you stop paying attention to it. Worse, you may offend your audience to the point where they simply stop reading. Good Will Hunting, for instance, is one of my favorite movies, but many people I know have never been able to watch it to the end because the characters drop so many F-bombs.
When it comes to profanity, you need to make your decision in accordance with your own comfort level and with your client's or publisher's guidelines. If you don't like cursing, you're certainly not obligated to use it. For instance, you can always write, "Mike looked at his watch and swore," instead of telling the reader exactly which words popped out of Mike's mouth. You can also use tamer versions of potential show-stoppers like, "I am so effing tired of him always being late."
Do you use profanity in your writing?