Thoughts on Writing – Swearing in Audio Formats

In my last post, I read from Magic’s Stealing. It was the first time I edited one of my Youtube blog videos using Premiere Pro, and I used it to remove some of the more obvious stumbles where I tripped over my words. However, I ran into a bit of a conundrum that I hadn’t considered before. For public readings, should I bleep out swear words, or should I leave the text as-is?

If you recall, I wrote a post a while back on To Swear or Not To Swear, in which I debated whether or not to include actual swear words in the dialogue of the book. Ultimately, I decided to keep that particular instance, because it fit the character’s intentions and offered readers a bit of insight into the characters.

Keeping the swear as-is continued to bug me, though, largely because I wondered whether or not a middle grade audience (not just young adults) might be inclined to enjoy the book–but might have a less-inclined parent if those parents read the first chapter.

And that in itself is a whole new debate. Is it a good idea to tailor a story to a specific audience, with certain marketing expectations in mind? Middle grade novels are typically expected to be free of swearing. YA ranges the gamut, and adult depends on the genre.

The conundrum I’ve run into is that I intended Magic’s Stealing to be YA. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a middle grade audience enjoyed it. As such, it’s led me to a new thought… if I ever do a public reading, should I censor the word? Then again, if I didn’t keep the swear, the passage wouldn’t have quite the same meaning. It’s unfortunate from a marketing standpoint that the only real-word swear is in the first few pages. Should I simply find a different chapter to read, perhaps in the middle of the action?

I suspect this will depend on the venue in question. Some venues, especially ones that are geared towards being family friendly, may ask to not have the swear read. Others may not care at all. It’s probably up to the type of fiction you write as to whether or not you choose to use venues that have specific preferences.

But what about audiobooks?

My first thought was, why change what we wrote? We choose our words for a reason.

On the other hand, people reading a book can very easily skim over words they don’t like. It’s not so easy when those words are being spoken aloud.

(I’ll admit that I don’t tend to listen to audiobooks, so I’m not sure what the general protocol is here.)

Granted, censoring spoken swears will depend on the audience. Obviously, censoring an erotic novel would be ridiculous. The target audience has expectations as to the contents of the novel.

But what about a YA novel with the occasional swear? Should this be censored in audio format? My first thought was “no.” That’s not how the author wrote it. But when read aloud, does that change the impact of those words?

Does reading the book aloud change the impact of the intent, and thus, change what should be read? Does reading aloud change how the text is perceived?

Or does trying to censor a word–whether by dropping the volume or inserting a bleep– actually draw more attention to it?

What about switching the word? The meaning changes, but what if, by switching words during a spoken performance, you actually get the intended reaction?

Is there a difference between the impact of something spoken, versus something silently read?

That, to me, is the real question.

If what we write on the page takes a different meaning when said aloud, then perhaps we should consider that impact, and decide what to change from there.

After all, screenwriting is different from novel writing. Adaptations are made because a book is a different format than what you might see in a live or recorded performance, and has different advantages and limitations.

But if the spoken word has the same impact as the written, then perhaps no changes should be made.

Honestly, I’m probably over-thinking this. For the previous reading, I left the swear in. I figured that pretty much anything I did would draw more attention to it (other than writing a whole blog post pondering the question), while letting it flow in context should keep the story running smoothly.

And in general, I’m thinking I’ll read the text as-is. If the one swear is likely to pose a problem, I could always chose a later segment to read.

But now I’m curious as to what you think. How would you handle a reading that has the occasional swear, whether an audiobook or in public?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Swearing in Audio Formats

  1. This seems like a good occasion to mention movie ratings. Toy Story 3 has a scene where everyone holds hands and awaits death as they fall into a furnace, making grownups cry a river – it’s a G rated film. Comapre to Frozen has a very subtle “size doesn’t matter joke” that nobody under 18 would get – it’s a PG.

    The recently released The Martian has a naked butt, graphic surgery with a stapler, and 2 F-bombs – it’s only PG-13. Go figure. The standard they use is “if they believe the language is justified by the context or by the manner in which the words are used.” That’s a pretty nice way of saying that you can curse if you really need to.

    If the story makes more sense with it, don’t be afraid of it. Like you said, you chose it for a reason. If it’s in the book it should be in the audio book and/or preview otherwise you’re marketing it incorrectly. If it bothers you to say it, then you probably need to remove it from every edition. But your real concern doesn’t seem to be about the kids as much as the parents. Some parents say that Harry Potter is a bad book because it promotes witchcraft and homosexuality (I wish I was making that up). Some parents are dumb. I think most would be happy their kid is reading, as long as it was anything short of 50 Shades of Grey.

    Read your book the way you wrote it, readers and listeners deserve nothing less.

    • Self-reply. Here’s a quote from a parent’s guide to a popular film: “4 uses of damn, 5 uses of ass, 1 uses of crap, 1 brief and quick use of hell (very noticeable).”

      That movie was Shrek. I think that still qualified as a kids movie and is rated for 7 and up in virtually every country.

      • I think Shrek was one of those movies where a lot of stuff probably went over kids’ heads… but you’ve got a really good point about that tending to be seen as a kids’ movie. Not everyone saw it that way, but a majority of people I know did.

        But the interesting point here is that it has an audio component, which was one of the things I was curious about. Thanks for chiming in. 🙂

        • Almost every kids movie in the last 20 years has at least one joke just for the parents. Just like Frozen’s “size” joke, Inside Out’s gay “bears” joke, and this joke from Rugrats http://ak-hdl.buzzfed.com/static/2014-10/8/15/enhanced/webdr05/enhanced-buzz-18577-1412797716-4.jpg.

          I think Shrek’s the best comparison for you though. Even throwing out the donkey themed uses of ass, there’s still a lot of mild curses that are there for emphasis. I think you’re still under that movie’s threshold and it was super PG.

          When it comes to makes something have meaning I greatly prefer a “damn” to italics. 🙂

          • LOL Yeah. You never did like those italics. 🙂

            But that’s definitely an interesting point, regarding what different kids’ movies have and how they handle various references. When you put it that way, it does offer a bit more perspective regarding options for an audio reading.

    • Good point on the movie ratings (I tried looking those up once, and they pretty much seem to be all over the place). And the point about context, and parents, makes sense. I remember the whole uproar over Harry Potter, since I was reading it at the time. Seemed to be two camps… those who thought it was terrible because it had magic, and those who loved it because it was getting kids to read.

  2. I agree with ^^^. Read your book the way you wrote it.

    I have a 6 year old. I don’t censor my language around her. She, also, is allowed to curse. But the rule in place is “Appropriate context and usage”. If a guy’s acting a douchebag, and she calls him a douchebag, I’m not going to censor her. However, if she tries to slip the f-bomb into casual conversation, she will get soundly scolded.

    We place too much emphasis on ‘bad words’. There’s all sorts of BIG problems in this world we could be debating. In that context, an f-bomb in a story is pointless.

    • I agree with your point about context… and about the emphasis on bigger problems to worry about. In the long run, choosing whether or not to use a “bad word” can seem quite minute. (And like I said, I figured I was probably over-thinking this).

      On the other hand, considering the small things, like how a word might be interpreted, can allow you to really hone what message you choose to send… whether it’s a message within a science fiction novel, or how you want a certain character to be perceived.

      It’s funny how a single sentence or word can change the entire meaning of a passage (sometimes in ways we don’t intend, and because of that I am quite thankful for beta readers). 🙂

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