Mind your Language

On a couple of occasions when I have been looking at books on either Amazon or Goodreads, I have noticed bad reviews based on the fact that the books contained a lot of swearing. One of the  Star-12920-medium reviews was for a book that had received predominantly good reviews, and this particular one star review was based solely on the fact that the book contained bad language. There was no mention of the rest of the content.

As an author, it irks me when people leave a one or two star review based solely on the bad language in the book, which, let’s face it, probably makes up no more than 5% of the content. What about the rest of the book? Does it not matter that the author has toiled for months, or even years, to produce that book? And if the book is otherwise excellent, is that overlooked in that puritanical reader’s quest to banish all bad language from books?

The type of approach described above causes me a little concern because my own books contain more bad language than most. Although I haven’t yet had a bad review because of the swearing in my books, I expect that it is likely to happen sooner or later. The use of bad language in my books isn’t because I am being gratuitous in an attempt to shock readers. It is simply because I want my books to be authentic and to reflect the way the characters would have spoken.

SwearingEven if books are fictional, they are often a reflection of real life, and in real life people swear. Anyone who thinks they can eliminate the use of those words from the English language is on a pointless mission. Swearing is used as a form of expression, to convey anger or humour, or perhaps because the character being described in a novel would typically speak that way. This can reveal a lot about the character’s personality or environment. In fact, in my forthcoming novel, the bad language (and violence) are a fundamental part of who my characters are and, to remove it, would be taking something away from the characters.

So, what can authors do about these negative reviews from people offended by bad language?

I have included an introduction in each of my novels explaining why I have chosen to include swear words and slang, and apologising to those readersNo-Entry-12083-medium who may be offended. I did toy with the idea of putting a warning on the Amazon description page, but would this be taking it too far? After all, the books are crime thrillers, targeted at the over 18s, and the book blurbs give a good indication as to the content, with words such as ‘murder’, ‘killer’, ‘spliff smoking’, ‘thug’ and ‘shady dealing’. Surely, the readers of such books would expect some bad language as well as violence?

I would love to know your thoughts regarding this. Is it a good idea to put a warning on the product page, or not? Do you find the use of bad language in books offensive or off-putting? Do you agree with people giving bad reviews because of the swearing in a book?


21 thoughts on “Mind your Language

  1. I read “Slur” and it did have the occasional swearing and bad language in it, but it was used in the right context and it always in harmony with the character or setting, so I never found it offensive or off putting. Let’s face it, if someone is reading a crime novel, where there are shady dealings, you can hardly expect to find poetic sentences being thrown about. I don’t think your readers would leave you bad reviews because of the language, and if they do, then there’s something wrong with them, not with your book.

    So, in my opinion, the introduction you have written in your previous books explaining the use of such language is perfect, and there is no need to do more on the amazon description pages 🙂

    • Thanks for your feedback Martina. I’m glad you didn’t find the language in ‘Slur’ offensive.

      I must admit that I was quite shocked when I read a review that absolutely slated a book because of the bad language. I really felt for the author because, on the whole, the other reviews were good.

      I think perhaps it might be down to offering free and bargain books, which opens them up to readers who wouldn’t normally read that type of book. I haven’t done a free promotion of ‘Slur’ yet, but I’m planning one as part of my promotional activities after I release the new book, so I’m mentally preparing myself for this sort of thing.

      I’m glad you think that the introduction in my books does the job. Thank you for your support. 🙂

  2. I don’t mind bad language, in books or anywhere else for that matter. Personally I’m always surprised that so many readers and book bloggers won’t tolerate books with bad language, but then again all to their own I suppose. After all I can’t tolerate books with front covers depicting people (male or female) in a state of undress, which is probably unreasonable on my part. Of course crime thrillers require some bad language. If readers don’t want swearing then they shouldn’t be reading that genre. If the swearing is excessive that is another matter, but I can’t imagine that will be the case with your new book Heather.

    • Ooh, actually I did cut down a lot on the swearing in my forthcoming novel on the good advice of one of my beta readers. She quite rightly pointed out that I could still give a flavour of how the characters would have spoken without having to go overboard.

      I am also surprised at how many readers and book bloggers won’t tolerate books with bad language. To me it’s real life but, like you, I live in a big city and I hear bad language when I’m out and about shopping, in bars, on public transport etc.

      I know what you mean about front covers with people in a state of undress because that always suggests to me that the book is more about titillation than reading a well constructed novel.

      Thanks for your feedback Guy – much appreciated. 🙂

  3. You’re quite right, it is so confusing when books get bad reviews just because of the odd swear word – understandable if it’s children’s fiction, but not for thrillers or crime novels! I wouldn’t bother putting a warning on the product page, as you say the blurb should give a flavour of the novel and the genre tells potential readers what to expect too.

  4. Ha, Heather, when I saw your tweet I thought the reference to bad language meant poor use of language and grammar, rather than swearing! I’d definitely leave a bad review for that. But regarding swearing, we all have different thresholds for what’s acceptable. If it reads in a way to make the characters and plot more authentic, I don’t see how anyone can complain. If it interrupts the flow, then it can be jarring and that should be flagged up in a review – but in a way that acknowledges that other people might read it differently. A review is just one opinion after all.

    • Thank you for your comments Anne. I see your point about interrupting the flow. I must admit that I don’t like to see swearing in the narrative because it doesn’t feel relevant unless it is written with the purpose of capturing a character’s thoughts. Otherwise it feels as though the author is swearing at me. When that happens I think it is similar to using bad language with somebody you have only just met in real life. On the other hand, swearing used in dialogue reflects the characters’ personalities. (Obviously, a book written in the third person would be the exception because that would reflect the character’s thoughts throughout the book). 🙂

  5. I have a friend who tut-tuts every time a swear word is spoken in a movie – it gets tiresome after a while – especially as she does it very loudly. It must be infuriating to put so much of yourself into a book only to get a bad review because of the language used. Keep doing what you do and ignore these silly people.

    • Thanks for your feedback Barbara. I can imagine your friend’s tutting must be tiresome especially as there is nothing either of you can do to change the amount of bad language in a film. I think it’s something that is so widespread nowadays that we have to come to accept it. If we complained every time we heard bad language on the streets then I think we would run into continual conflict. Thanks for your words of support. Hopefully there won’t be too many people who raise objections to the language in my books – fingers crossed. 🙂

  6. I do get annoyed when bad reviews based on bad words or characters not behaving themselves bring down a good book’s star average, but I guess they serve as your warning label (which I don’t think you should add, btw). I’m sure you’ve heard that 1-star reviews often say more about the reviewer than the book. In this case, the reviewer thought himself so special that you, the author, should have predicted he would take offense to you using what are arguably the most common words in our language, likely in an effort to make your story more authentic.
    Ignore such self righteous idiots and write what you want to write.

  7. I’ve commented in a few places recently about this subject – it seems other people are asking similar questions. I don’t think you need to give a warning – the majority of readers would not expect that (in fact, I’d find it odd if there WAS a warning) and it would be naive of people to think that a gritty thriller isn’t going to have swearing in it. I’ve noticed, too, that some romance novels get one stars because the leading lady has sex outside marriage (the one stars coming mainly from American Christians I deduce). Really, you are never going to please all of the people all of the time. If the reviewer says in their review that it is a low star because of swearing, well the majority of potential buyers are going to ignore that, so it’s not a problem (other than for Amazon rankings, but only if there are a lot of them). And the thing about star ratings is that, on Amazon, one star means “I hated it” – the reviewer is giving an opinion on how THEY found the book, and if they hated it because it has swearing in it then that’s their prerogative, however unfair that feels.

    My own feeling on swearing is that if it is necessary for the story, then it should be there. If it’s in dialogue or first-person thoughts, then I have no problem with it. Except, if it’s in every line it is hard work to read. It is better used occasionally to give flavour/shock value/emotion. The reader knows some people are going to be swearing every other word, but in that case I lump it with ums and ahs, which everyone says but are better not included on the page, or dialect, which is difficult to read if there’s a lot of it.

    So I say use swearing where it really adds value, and leave it out where it’s not strictly necessary. But there’s no need to warn the reader.

    • Clare, welcome to my blog and thank you for your valuable advice. It’s very useful to get feedback from someone who is used to reviewing books. Thanks also for the link that you recommended on Twitter. I’m going to check it out now. 🙂

  8. I don’t stay away from books with bad language, but I will admit that it does annoy me if the bad language is out of place and feels like it’s been used because it could be, not because it adds anything. I wouldn’t leave a bad review based solely on this, but I may mention it in my review if I felt it was particularly necessary. Other times, I may just contact the author with my feedback.

    I must say that I didn’t have a problem with the language in ‘Slur’, Heather. It fitted the characters and context. I don’t think that you need to add a warning to the description of your book – the subject matter implies bad language.

    I have no doubts that your new book will have the right balance of language, too. Looking forward to it! 🙂

    • Thanks Katy, it’s good to read your thoughts on this because I know you read and review a lot of books. Thanks also for your comments regarding the language in ‘Slur’. ‘A Gangster’s Grip’ is about the same, maybe slightly worse because of the characters who are gang members. However, I’ve kept it in context so hopefully the majority of people won’t be offended, and it’s so good to see that most people don’t seem to take offence as long as it is in context. 🙂

  9. Ridiculous! Writers should use language appropriate to the character – there’s no point making a Scouse drug dealer say ‘flipping heck’. If you don’t like ‘gritty’ books, don’t buy them. Or, if a book has language in that offends you, stop reading it. The problem with reviews, of course, is that if you put your book out on show you have to take the remarks given. Reviews are for readers, essentially – if you are put off by a book because it has a lot of swearing in it, so give it a 2*, this might advise someone else who might be put off by this, too. A bit of a bummer for the writer, if it’s well written, but we don’t live in an ideal world, alas!!

    Incidentally, if you would like to take part in my Zodiac feature on my blog, Ms B, please send me a DM with your email! It wouldn’t appear until December now, but I have a couple of spaces left and thought you might like it – it’s all publicity! No worries if not your bag 🙂

    • Thanks for your feedback Terry. I agree with what you say in that people who don’t like gritty books shouldn’t be reading them, but what irks me is when people who don’t like that type of book either read part of the book, or perhaps all of the book, and then leave a review solely based on the bad language. It just doesn’t seem fair to the author. Constructive criticism about the book, on the other hand, is fine because we can take something from it which might help us improve our work.

      I think this type of negative review is often associated with the wider issue of making free books available to people who wouldn’t normally choose that genre. I know that I will therefore come up against this problem when I do a free run of Slur as part of my promotional activities, but at least I’m prepared for it.

      Readers are entitled to their opinions and I suppose, as authors, we just have to rise above it. As Alison says above, this type of review says more about the reviewer than the book. Personally, I think that if an author has predominantly good reviews then there is no point worrying about the pettiness of a few people.

      Thanks for your offer to take part in your Zodiac feature. I would love to take you up on it and will DM my email address to you. 🙂

      • Absolutely ~ I agree with all you say, including the free promo issue. I make sure that even my more negative reviews are balanced and constructive (books I am commited to reviewing, for Rosie’s Review Team), because I have a responsibility to Rosie’s blog, and because it’s a matter of personal pride to write decent reviews, but not all negative reviews are constructive because we do not live in a world where all is as it should be, and if someone just thinks ‘don’t want to read that, put off by all the effing and blinding’, and that’s all they wish to say, then we just have to suck it up. After all, we are all capable of making rash judgements of something without assessing its worth fully. You’re right, a few bad reviews never hurt anyone, although it’s still horrible getting them. Honestly, though, you really do get so that they don’t bother you. Or so that you think, hmm, yes, they might have a point.

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