Dropping the F-Bomb in YA Lit

AtoZBadge-Letter F(Yes, I scored the letter “F” in the A to Z Blog Challenge!)

At a writing conference the topic of swearing in YA lit came up. I was surprised some writers vehemently believed you couldn’t put the F-word in a YA novel. They claimed no agent or editor would publish it with that word (or even other lesser curses) on the pages. I looked at them in disbelief because I devour dozens of YA novels a year and encounter swearing in… well, I couldn’t tell them an exact percentage or which books, except for a handful that were especially profane due to the characters’ circumstances. The rest? I was sure they all had the odd swear word, but I had no stats.

So how common is swearing in YA novels? For the answer, I hit up Google.

Just one study popped up: Brigham Young University. If anyone else has run numbers on the amount of swear words in YA books, I couldn’t find the information. (If you have more information, please tell me! I’m curious.) The study out of Brigham counted all the swear words in 40 YA books on the bestsellers list (this was in 2012). Out of those 40 books, 35 had profanity in them, and the number of swears per book averaged 38.

One study is hardly the be-all and end-all, but assuming the YA bestsellers list in 2012 wasn’t full of an unusual amount of profanity, we can conclude that the vast majority of popular YA novels include swear words. We can also conclude that cursing is used sparingly – an average of 38 words out of 70,000 is not a lot.

That probably explains why I don’t notice swearing in books unless it’s super prevalent. The odd word dropped in when a character is angry or upset doesn’t even register on my swear-dar because it’s realistic. This was certainly the case for IF I STAY by Gayle Forman.

I had no recollection of swearing in this novel until, while researching the subject, I came across Forman’s blog about her reaction to everyone else freaking out about swearing in IF I STAY. There’s not that much, especially since the main character isn’t prone to cursing, but other characters swear. Forman’s response is basically: real people swear, so it wouldn’t be realistic if her characters didn’t.

On the flip side, some authors avoid swearing in order to ensure their books aren’t banned from school libraries or rejected by booksellers. James Dawson is such an author. He explains why here.

Then there are books like THE MAZE RUNNER where the author makes up slang words for his characters that are clearly swears to them but not swears in our society.

And those are basically a YA Writer’s 3 Options when it comes to profanity:

  1. Swear and face the consequences.
  2. Play it safe and don’t swear.
  3. Make up your own swears.

The presence of profanity in your novel isn’t going to stop it from being published, but it may limit the book’s exposure. Then again, controversy is gold and being on the banned book list may help! This book (WHEN MR. DOG BITES) hasn’t even come out yet and the hubbub around it sure brought it to my attention and made me put it on my reading list!

Though keep in mind that swearing just because you can is never the way to go. The words must be motivated. They hold weight. Use them wisely for ultimate effect.

In conclusion, the evidence states that you absolutely can use the F-word in YA lit, but you don’t have to. Like most everything in life, it comes down to personal choice. What kind of writer are you? What sorts of characters are you writing? Would they drop the F-bomb? Or would they say “eff it” or “darn” or “fiddlesticks”? It’s up to you!


Tomorrow in the A to Z Challenge… Jenn has the letter “G” and she’s blogging about Gender Questions: Why Can’t A Woman Write More Like A Man?

Next Up from Heather… I have the letter “L” and I’ll be explaining how insta-love ruined my love life for a little while in Love in YA Lit.

Click here for more posts by Heather.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

9 thoughts on “Dropping the F-Bomb in YA Lit”

  1. I dislike the F-word. I have never used it myself and wince when I hear it, so I do not use it in YA. In conversations with friends, they don’t either. Pretty much avoid profanity all together. I’ve had characters that might swear a lot, but I use other ways to express their emotion. I’ve seen other writers do the same. I don’t mind made up swear words.
    Thank you for visiting my blog!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sharon. You’ll probably be interested in my “X” day post when I discuss the pros and cons of putting a rating on YA books, much like they have for films.

  2. I view swearing in YA the same way I view swearing in adult novels: great if used with relevance, in context, and in the appropriate situations. Terrible if it’s thrown in for shock value and makes every character sound the same.

    1. Absolutely! The words, no matter what they are, have to fit the character. I will look up Hannah Moskwitz – thanks for the suggestion! Also, your Story Dam community looks really interesting… checking it out now. 🙂

  3. I don’t swear and it irritates me when a YA book has a lot of profanity in it. I don’t mind if it’s just a few words, and it’s used ‘appropriately’, but a lot of swearing is definitely a turn off for me. I especially dislike the ‘F’ word in YA literature, but it seems to be the norm now.

    1. Hi Finley! I should have pointed out that this Brigham study covers all swears, not just the F-word. I don’t see the F-word all that much, but it made for a good blog post title. Is it in a lot of the books you read? I find it more in gritty contemporary YA than fantasy/dystopia/spec-fic YA. I’m curious what the stats are across the sub-genres, but that’s a whole other post!

We love comments and questions.

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