Let's Talk About Sex...

...or drugs, or alcohol, or profanity, or... name your poison.

I'm going to deviate a little from the essay-style format we've got going on here, because there’s something on my mind and I want to open it up for discussion. And considering the types of books many of us in this group write, I think here is a pretty appropriate place for it.


I recently received my revision letter and manuscript notes from my editor and one of her comments was that I needed to scale back on the profanity. I’m not complaining about it or entrenching myself for a fight or even looking for advice. It’s just that the comment raises questions in my head.

My book is about a Marine. The ones I know swear--a lot. They talk about body functions and sex. They make mom jokes. The editor said a little goes a long way.

So how do you know what is too much? Do you rely on your editor to tell you, or are you your own litmus test? And, if the profanity/sex/drugs is representational of the character you’re writing, how much are you willing to sacrifice while still maintaining the truth in your story? Do you worry that not scaling back will increase the odds of your book being banned?

(For our readers, feel free to adapt these questions and answer them from a reader's perspective.)

The editor said my book could be important for teens thinking about the military, but we don’t want it to be banned from schools and libraries and not reach those kids. And I totally, absolutely understand that. But then I think about the Marines I know and how they might feel if they open the book and get a watered down version of their Corps. Obviously, I know there’s a middle ground and I need to find it.

But in the meantime, I’m curious to know what your experiences have been like and what readers think. The floor is yours...


  1. Great post - I'm not sure what the answer is, but you're the expert, and you know what Marines act/sound like. Personally, I'd rather read a realistic account full of debauchery than something canned.

    And how does audience come in to play? If a Marine read the book, would they "buy" it? And even if they don't buy it, would a teenager? That's a hard line to walk. I feel for you.

    My experience? My book is about a girl on a football team, so of course there's sex, profanity, drinking galore. That's just the way it is. So my book opens up with some of that going on, and it definitely turned a couple people off. That's life, I guess. But when I asked my agent if I should dull it down a bit and gave her an example of how I could make it a bit more, um, chaste, her response was, "This is canned and boring."

  2. Great timing. I have been thinking A LOT about this while waiting for my revision letter.

    In my story, Noah is a foster kid who has had a cruddy life. His language reflects this and he often uses rough language as a defense mechanism to keep people away. I just don't see Noah using the word darn.

    I'll let you know what they have to say when I get my letter.

  3. (Wandered over from Crissa's Twitter RT)
    Trish writes: "My book is about a Marine. Have you met one? Because the ones I know swear--a lot. They talk about body functions and sex. They make mom jokes."

    I'm married to a Marine (former enlisted, then commissioned officer, & recently retired), so a vast number of the men & women I know are Marines. The "too much in YA topic" in general is one where I am pretty wide open (one of my books has a poly relationship bc it was plot necessary), & thus one I've replied to enough that I wouldn't comment . . . except for the Marine question :)

    I suppose defining "swear" is one aspect of this. Are we talking light words (e.g. hell, damn, ass) or vulgarity? There's a range & context. Yes, there are Marines who swear across the scale, but there are a good number who don't swear at all, and some who only use light words. Many don't cuss in front of women (even the Marine wives like me who "use f*ck" as frequently as "the"), so I'm going to respectfully disagree with you on the need for swearing to make the character sound like a Marine. Acronyms, Ooh Rah remarks, & inside jokes? THOSE are incessant to the point that as a young wife, I had moments when I felt like they spoke a foreign language.

    As Marines got older, my experience was those that did swear, swore less & the acronym use got worse. . . as did the wives (myself included). Suddenly LES, PCS, MOS, TAD (etc) are words. *pause* And "word" is something you "pass." That, to me, is a necessary trait--along with making sure you have up to date will, power of attorney, and someone in the rear who can look after your important possessions if you aren't married.

    Again, I have no objection to cussing in YA (or life), but I DO object to the need for it in veracity's sake for a fictional Marine.

    As to worrying how Marines feel about their representation. . . well, a lot of them focus on the Commandant's Reading List so they aren't reading our books. There are exceptions, of course, especially on deployments or on ship. In talking to my Marine & our friends (bc this is a subject we've discussed), the things they object to in fictional reps in re: language is "how they'd say it"--they're an acronym heavy bunch. They have strict rules for addressing other Marines based on rank, chain of command, & sometimes friendship. Are there individuals who react differently? Of course! And that's the real question, IMO: it's about the individual, the CHARACTER in your book, not Marines at large.

    I suspect the question of "how much he swears" in a character who'd be young enough for a protag in YA is more a case of his pre-Corps background than the influence of the Corps. Once in, I suspect further that it depends on M.O.S., years in, rank, & context of the scene. In other words, I would posit that the swearing topic is--like so much--about the character.


  4. I think it's like Melissa said, a matter of character and like your editor said, you don't want it banned because of something where a little definitely can go a long way.

    Trust me, I've had these battles as well. Musicians can also be a foul-mouthed bunch and on top of that, I write older YA characters who are on the cusp of adulthood, so they're often more open in talking about sex and doing it.

    I wasn't going to go into detailed specifics, but neither was I going to shy away from the fact that my characters have sex. As such, I've actually been rewarded with reviews that say this is one of the most sensual YAs they've ever read, a comment that tends to come as some surprise, since I've read YA novels that are far more specific than anything I've written.

    I know this probably sounds all wishy-washy and flaily, but seriously, it all comes down to the story itself. I think you have to do what serves the story and I think that, you'll know, down in your gut.

  5. As a reader and writer, I crave realistic dialogue. If your book is in first-person, those words are going to come, possibly even more frequently, in his/her internal dialogue. As a parent who got interested in YA books because I was buying them for my kids (who are now 15, 19 and 21, so I started wandering into the YA section almost a decade ago), I personally was not going to be turned off of a book because of language. Sexual explicitness is another matter, but I reminded myself that I was reading Johanna Lindsey at 15 BECAUSE I couldn't get that anywhere else, and I wanted to read about sex even if I wasn't interested in doing it -- so once my kids hit high school, I knew that language, sex, drinking and drugs were all a part of their daily hearing lives. If I want to affect their behavior, the best weapon is open communication between them and me. Hence I found myself reading YA because one or the other of them would say, "Mom, you've gotta read this book!" My 15-year-old still does that -- Ned Vizzini, anyone? Have you read HIS language and the protagonists' thought processes? YA-reading boys are LOVING him.

    If I was you, I'd scale back as requested, because you're making a business decision, keeping your publisher happy, and no one expects you to lead a language crusade (I would hope!). However, if there are places they want it cut where you think it's necessary, there's no reason not to push back a little, ask, "Are you sure? Because I think she'd definitely be screaming the F-word here..."

  6. Yeah, I'd pull back just a little as Tamara said, but fight back in those places where it's absolutely necessary. In my novel, which is set in the ancient world, I had a couple of discussions with my editor about casually referencing male bisexuality, which was very common. The editor agreed so it stayed in.

    Interesting discussion!

  7. There are so many readers, parents, teachers, librarians, etc. that have serious issues with profanity, sex, all of the above in books, but I've never been one of those people. I don't see why books are banned strictly on the basis that it has one or more of those things. These things happen in real life, they happen and are talked about in schools, amongst classmates.

    I have no issues with any of it as long as it isn't gratuitous. If I picture the situation and could imagine a person saying this or that, then that's fine. Sure, there are people who swear left and right and maybe that shouldn't be in a book because it may come off as gratuitous and just too much to be accepted. I know that I swear like a sailor, but to put that into dialogue just wouldn't work.

    There can't really be a correct amount of this or that in a book, it just has to feel right. It has to feel realistic and not forced. If it works for you, then it's most likely going to work for everyone else.

  8. What a great post! I am only a reader (most definitely NOT a writer) so this is only my opinion about books I read that include profanity, sex, and drugs. Why not include it? You would have to be completely ignorant to even think that those don't happen in nearly every school. I very rarely let cuss words slip out of my mouth, but that isn't to say that I walked the halls of my high school with "ear muffs" on. There were swear words all over, there was talk of sex all over, there was even talk of drugs on many occasions, and sometimes there was talk of all three at the SAME time. So when I read a book that includes all three, I am not completely shocked. It has become a part of my everyday life so why should reading a book of teens going through everyday life be any different. However, since you want the book to be read and accessible to teens that are still in high school and have no other means aside from the school library to get books, I will leave you with this little piece of fashion advice: Before you leave the house, take off one accessory. Roughly translated, I am trying to say, to ensure that the books gets published and to avoid the risk of your book being censored (that would be absolutely terrible) then maybe just take out a few. Leave enough profanity in to really get the point across, but take out a swear word here or there probably (well hopefully) won't change the dynamic of your story. I hope this helps you out!

  9. The first thing that came to my mind was the advice a friend gave me on dialogue. The dialogue in a story should sound authentic, but wouldn't flow very well if it was a verbatim transcript of how we actually speak. Perhaps thematic elements are the same. The key is to find the balance between an accurate portrayal and an appropriate amount for the book.

  10. I think that it's editor and publisher specific. I also think it's every person for themselves out there with this topic. For example: my agent frequently draws my attention to the profanity in my books in order to keep me from going overboard. On the other hand, my acquiring editor for Deathday didn't have a problem with it. I've heard an anecdote from an author who said her editor actually looked for more places to insert F-bombs.

    I think what you have to look at is whether the story NEEDS the profanity. It might be authentic, but can you write the story without it? Can the line of dialog stand on its own without the bad word?

    I wrote one gritty, dark YA that has almost zero profanity because there are two specific scenes where I needed one cuss word to really have an impact. I realized that the only way to make the cuss words stand out was to make them unique. On the other hand, in the YA I've got coming out next year, my teens are at a party and profanity is flying all over the place. I'll probably eliminate more than half of that before it hits shelves but still, I think every book is unique.

    I do see where your editor is going with this though. She's trying to position your book for broader appeal. If you have a book with a lot of profanity, you pretty much guarantee that you're going to have a much more difficult time getting into libraries and schools and such. It may not be right, but it's just a fact we have to deal with.

    My advice (which may or may not be worth following) would be to save a copy of TNN and then do a find and replace and take out every single cuss word or at least the major ones that you can't say on network TV. Then re-read it after a few days. If YOU don't notice it's missing, I guarantee your readers won't. Then you can go back and keep in the profanity that you think you absolutely have to have there. Good Luck!

  11. Trish, as a write who likes to make everything as realistic as possible -- this is a tough one. I remember a customer review that said one of my books was "loaded" with swear words. I thought...huh? I went back and counted and found exactly two that went beyond the word "Damn." I think a lot depends on the kind of book you are writing. In THROAT I just said someone "swore" without spelling it out and figured the reader could just use his/her imagination.


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