In praise of writers using the F-word. I’m F-wording serious.

Someone wrote to Dear Annie, an advice column in my local newspaper, complaining about writers who use the “f-word” in their novels. The letter was signed “Love to Read.”

Annie agreed, responding, “Anything said with the F-word could be better said without it. More than anything, it’s lazy.”

Another reader, “Love to Write,” wrote in response, telling Annie, “I think this stance is too harsh,”

But do you really, Love to Write?

Love to Write continues, “I avoid profanity and agree that such words are a lazy means of expressing oneself, but as a writer, I try to represent my characters and who they are. People swear — so in dialogue, I must represent characters truthfully.”

Annie says writers who use it are lazy. Love to Write says people who use it at all — apparently in writing or conversation — are lazy, with the exception of writers who use it in dialogue for characters who, I presume, are lazy.

We’ll get back to the second part of Love to Write’s quote in second. I’d like Annie, Love to Write (as he/she holds his/her nose and uses the f-word as a sacrifice to “truthful” writing) and those of you who agree to consider this: It’s dangerous, and — dare I say it? — lazy, to make a huge, sweeping generalization about one word.

There’s a Til Tuesday song, “Believe You Were Lucky,” that I remember a Boston Globe critic writing something like, “It’s the only time you’ll hear the word acquiesce and the f-word in the same song.” He was right, and when Aimee Mann drops that f-bomb, it’s perfect. Annie — take a listen — there’s no other better word for that moment. And in the sanitized version on YouTube, the song suffers without the word.

Let’s get it out of the way that I have no issue with the f-word. Anyone who knows me is aware of that. But the fact that I’m an even bigger fan of good writing is why I defend it.

I write about journalists, police officers, firefighters, college professors, owners of diners and country stores, farmers, murderers and more. Some swear, some don’t. You might be surprised who does and who doesn’t. It’s got nothing to do with their laziness or mine. In fact, I don’t think the two laziest people in my new book say the f-word at all.

As Love to Write points out, knowing your characters and how they speak is a big part of writing. I’ll take that a few more steps — thinking about all of the words you use in writing, and how they’re used, is important.

The English language has a lot of words and they’re there for us to use however we think is best to tell the story we want to tell.

Words that are considered shaming and ugly should be used with care and context, of course. So should words that really aren’t, but that some find offensive. See how I’ve been using a euphemism in this post instead of the actual f-word? I get that.  [Just so you know — every time I write “f-word” in this post, I’m saying the real word in my head. ]

I’m not saying some writers don’t use the f-word more than others, or that there aren’t cases where it’s gratuitous or another word may work better. But the f-word isn’t any different than other words.

Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, for instance. Clunky cliche phrases that make a book stiff and less engaging. There are words I see — “inoffensive” words — that I never hear in normal daily conversation, but yet may litter a book like thesaurus vomit.

There are words or phrases, descriptions and tropes, that as a woman I find paternalistic, marginalizing, sexist or ignorant, but are common in books. Then there are ones that the writer, in his or her bubble, doesn’t realize are subtly or not-so-subtly racist.

There are words that are just plain used incorrectly — purposefully when purposely is meant is one that drives me bananas.

And how about dialogue that reads like it’s pulled from a buddy movie or sit-com instead of from a knowledge of character, theme, tone or purpose?

It’d blow your mind some of the words and phrases I don’t like. A lot of them, you’d think are just fine. If you’re a writer, they may be some of your favorite words or phrases. That’s okay. I don’t think you’re lazy, I just think we have a different take on words.

There’s one universally popular and beloved mystery writer who changes point of view mid-scene. It drives me so nuts that I can’t read her books. [No, she’s not a Maine Crime Writer, or even a Maine writer.] I’m apparently the only person in the world who it bothers. When I mention it to people, they try to talk me out of it, insisting it shouldn’t bother me.

But they can’t, and it does. I’m not going to enjoy the jarring mid-scene point of view changes any more than Love to Read, Annie and Love to Write are going to get cozy with the f-word.

Love to Write suggests that Love to Read “be selective in her genre choice – not every genre is for every reader, but there are so many to choose from that I’m sure she will find novels more suited to her taste.”

I agree.

That’s the great thing about writing. You take your 80,000 to 100,ooo words and toss them together and make your story. I’ll take mine and make my story. I may have more that start with F than you do. You may have more that start with some other letter.

Some people will like your book better, some will like mine. Neither of us are lazy — we’re just writers who use words differently. The reading world (and writing world) would be a boring place — not one I’d want to be in — if one person’s taste dictated what made a good book.

The great thing about reading AND writing is that there is a world of styles to choose from. Now, isn’t something to f-wording celebrate?

BY THE WAY, for those of you who don’t mind a few f-bombs — though fewer than before my publisher got hold of it [you can insert smiley or other emoji of your taste here] — BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST, the third book in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series has just been released. Though the official launch date is October 31, it’s available on Amazon in both Kindle and print, and will soon be available on Audible, your favorite local bookstore, S&H Publishing’s, website and, as always, out of the back of my car.

The launch party is Friday, 6 to 8 p.m., at Lakehome Group realty, 75 Main St., Belgrade Lakes. [It’s a small town — we take our venues where we can, and this one’s awesome]. There’ll be refreshments, including free wine, door prizes, and I’ll read briefly and with no f-bombs from BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST, which will be available to buy. So will be COLD HARD NEWS and NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS, the first two in the series [special discount for buying all three!].

My publisher is donating $1 to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for every Bernie O’Dea book sold at the party.

It’s going to be f-word great!




About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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13 Responses to In praise of writers using the F-word. I’m F-wording serious.

  1. bethc2015 says:

    I don’t like the F bomb because of the way it was used in my own life. I see it used daily on Facebook but don’t seem to get desensitized. However, for many people it is part of their everyday vocabulary so it might seem strange not to see it there. I like what my husband’ mother, Arley Clark, did with her children. They played with creative words you could use without swearing. Thought provoking post!

  2. Maureen Milliken says:

    Thanks for the response, Beth. Everyone has things that bother them in life, so I get where you’re coming from. But writers who try to write in a way that will make everyone comfortable won’t write very good books. It’s up to readers to decide what writers they’re comfortable with.

  3. Anne says:

    When did you climb into my head?

  4. Gram says:

    Happy almost book birthday!!!

  5. This is a very good, thought-provoking post, Maureen. I don’t like all the characters I create, and I don’t agree with everything they say. But I will always let them be who they are, and say what they will.

  6. I don’t see a need for profanity in books. One or two words is okay, but past that the book goes. I don’t use it in my writing, either.

  7. Liz Milliron says:

    Good post. I’m always asking, “Is this the best word I can use for this situation?” So far, the f-word hasn’t been one of them, but it might be.

    And I think I know the writer to whom you refer and you are not the only one that particular tactic bothers. 🙂

  8. Barbara Ross says:

    Hear! Hear! on using all the words. English is a big, beautiful mutt of a language. Prohibitions drive me crazy. Like the only dialog tag to use is “said.” Or no adverbs. Everything can be used–in the right place, right time, right way.

    I write cozies and the most challenging thing for me is the prohibition against swearing. It causes me to write myself in circles. And I hate it when I get fan mail that says, “I loved your book because there was no swearing.” Really? I wrote 70,000 words and your only comment is about the ones I didn’t write? It is easy for me not to include descriptive sex or excessive gore (also verboten in cozies)–I have no desire to write those things. But I do have a desire to have my dialog reflect my characters.

    But all that being said, I love that writer you hate. I am never unclear on whose POV I’m in because she writes so well. So, in the end, it’s all a matter of personal taste. I get that for some people, personal taste means no swearing.

  9. Rebecca says:

    I understand how some words bother some. For me as a reader, it’s not the words but the writing, if that makes sense. If the writing is good, the word will be the right one for that situation. I deal with the public all day at my job and I censor what a say. But many of y customers don’t. People use profanity freely. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I can’t control what others say. Characters in books are the same way. You don’t have to like them all or agree with them. Some of them use the word, necessary or not. And when I’m on my own time, I use it!

  10. Julianne says:

    One of my sister’s friends had the nick name F-ing Harold, because almost every other word was the F-word. It was instructing to hear him use that one word as creatively as he did. I believe he used it as every form of grammar possible and many times could build a sentence with only two or three articles by varying the ending on the F-word! He was a master. He wasn’t for everyone but definitely could get his point across.

  11. Amber Pierce says:

    Well said!

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