WTF: the Use of Profanity in Writing

Every writer has a voice or a sort of tone and style specific to their writing. For many non-fiction and technical writers, their written voice can be very similar to their pattern of speech. And, while there are some people who do not use profanity, it is very much a part of the vernacular for most of us.

All writers at some point wonder when and if it’s okay to employ the use of profanity in their writing. The truth is, there is no real hard and fast answer. If the acceptability of profanity is in question, it’s best to err on the side of caution and leave it out. What you should be considering, however, is your audience and the tone of your writing.

If, for example, you’re writing a memo to your boss, omit your favorite four letter words. If you’re a bestselling erotica writer, then a few fucks here and there are more than acceptable. Your target audience is important! The tone is important too, but it also relates to your target audience. Formal writing should not include profanity. There is almost never an acceptable place for profanity in professional settings.

There are, however, some professionals who have built personal brands which include salty language because it’s either a part of their personality or part of a public persona. It would be unrealistic to expect someone like that to speak at an event in a more casual setting and not use at least some profanity. It is important, though, for those people to distinguish when harsher language may be inappropriate for any given audience and tone it down accordingly. And, let’s just be honest, the idea of erotica lacking in profanity is just a little bit silly.

Obviously, there’s a vast world of words between a memo to your boss and erotica, but that’s the point. One of the most important pieces of writing advice I ever received came from my eleventh grade English teacher in response to our use (or lack thereof) of profanity and obscenities in our writing, “Say what you mean.” So, here’s my advice to you: say what you mean, but consider your audience and the tone you wish to convey when you do it.