Is There a Good Time to Use Bad Words?

Disclaimer: This post has some offensive words in it. The purpose is purely educational and is meant to start a meaningful dialogue. This post is NOT meant to shock, offend, or promote any kind of hateful thought or rhetoric.

Not all the time.

“There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, and wooooords.”
― George Carlin

Nothing like a good disclaimer to get things started, eh?

Ahem. Alright, let’s dive right in. In my book, one of my characters hears an idea. A rather bad idea. She addresses it and calls the idea “retarded.” My editor gave me a note that said, Some people might find this offensive.

I agree. But I wasn’t trying to be offensive. Going back to the Carlin quote, words aren’t bad, the intention behind a word is bad. The intention behind that word, in that specific context, should be addressed. I wrote that word for that character because that is how teenagers in the late 1900s spoke. It seemed very natural to me that word would be used in that context. Would I let one of my kids or former students use it conversationally in my presence

Absolutely not.

Promoting realistic dialogue and promoting hate-speech are two very different things. As a creative person, I believe that while sensitivity to others is important, realism in art is also important. That said, reflecting real life is different than promoting ideas and philosophies.


Writers have long faced backlash for the words they put in books. Stephen King, for example, has had characters say all sorts of hateful words. People have called him out for being racist for using the word “nigger”, homophobic for using the word “faggot”, misogynistic for using “bitch” and “cunt”, and on and on. But the man, in my opinion, is none of those things. His characters are a different story. Trying to be realistic when confronting the nature of evil, hateful people in a work of fiction does not equate to being evil or hateful.

Does it?

My book is borderline YA. Knowing that teenagers may be reading it (hopefully in the not too distant future) I had some worries about the some of the language in the book. Ultimately though, I’d feel like a hack writer if I didn’t use a few “bad” words. It’s not a trying-to-be-edgy thing. It’s simply a this guy would probably say, “Oh shit!” in this situation thing.

And for anyone out there thinking, You don’t have to swear; you can simply allude to it. I did some of that too. But sometimes people swear, and I don’t think bypassing that completely would be realistic. I’ve read books that have no swearing but lots of violence. At some point it feels disingenuous, if not a bit silly.

Alright, I’m running out of steam. I think I’ve said all I can. Your turn.

So sound off. Let me hear ya, people!

When, if ever, is it OK for writers to use “bad” words?

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