The appropriateness and in-appropriateness of a writer’s words

As a writer, I don’t believe in censorship. Of any kind. I think that one of the most ridiculous episodes in our journalistic history was and continues to be when grown men and women broadcast the news saying things like “Today so and so was heard to say the “n-word”.

photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer

The word is nigger. We all know that but we are pretending that we don’t hear it or that if we use a nickname it will go away.

But it won’t.

Mark Twain used it in his classic story of Tom Sawyer and because of that some people want his books banned. Was he trying to be disrespectful? No, he was using the language that was common for the day. The words nigger, just like cracker, and faggot have a place in our country’s history and to forget that is to deny our history of words and language.

Having said that, however, I do, with all my heart believe that words should always be used appropriately. The words nigger and cracker and faggot are considered disrespectful. I get that. I don’t use them in my daily speech and I counsel my children not to use them.

But if one of my characters wants to use them and it is appropriate for his or her scene, I’m going to use them in my writing.

A while back, I wrote an essay ranting against some improper medical treatment I had received. I was hurt. I was angry and I was in tremendous pain. My language was more than colorful in that little piece as I railed against my Doctor and the callousness of the medical establishment.

Not more than a few hours after it was posted, I received some email from my mother. “Wendy,” she admonished me, “a lady doesn’t use that kind of language.”

I was shocked that instead of seeing the piece for what it was, an angry outcry, all she could see was the few words that for her held offense. She was not seeing the forest for the few blighted trees.

Well, guess what? This lady writer does and will continue to use “that kind of language”. If, and here is the ever present caveat, if it is appropriate which in this case, I felt it was. The language was fine. There were not enough hot-red, angry words out there to describe my pain. I used the roughest, loudest, and most shocking language I could to convey my outrage. The essay said what I wanted it to say.

My mother wanted me to take the post down.

I did not.

For the most part, I tend to write of happy things, children, chickens, and life lessons. For the most part I’m a happy person. But if I am trying to convey a thought, a character, a scene – as a writer I’m going to use everything that’s available in my writer’s toolbox to make it work.

There is a time and a place for everything and my job as a writer is to find that time and place and to make it work in my writing. Often it’s not easy because some people (and there will always be some somewhere) are going to find offense, especially when you are trying to convey anger or other strong dark emotions.

Does it mean I back down? No, as long as I am confident in the appropriateness of my words for that situation, my words will stay.


About the Author:

A features writer, interviewer, and columnist, Wendy Thomas has been published in national magazines, newspapers, e-zines, and blogs.

Wendy discusses marketing writing at Savvy B2B Marketing.

Her current project is to blog about life living with 6 kids and a flock of chickens.


5 thoughts on “The appropriateness and in-appropriateness of a writer’s words

  1. One of the troubles with social marketing, blogs, and writer “platforms” is that they put us in the position of “packaging” ourselves and our writing. In most traditional venues, that package had better be neat, wrapped up, easy to identify, and pigeon-holed … in other words, marketable.

    I struggle with this because I am a Real Person. I have a multi-faceted personality. I have good days and bad days. I have mood swings. I don’t usually curse in my writing, but if you talk to me in person there’s a pretty good chance I’ll let fly with a cuss word here and there.

    I don’t want to be stuck in a box. I want to be able to write about lots of different things for lots of different audiences without having to hide any aspect of my personality. But, to be honest, I’m not sure that’s possible. Maybe that’s why the pen name was invented.

    • @Jamie

      I’ve tried writing under a pen name but it doesn’t work for me. I’ve gotten into some trouble over the years as a result of my writing (when you are really angry it’s best to wait 24 hours before clicking on Send) but overall, it’s my work, my words, and I take full responsibility for that.

      There will always be people who object (my mom 🙂 but there will also always be people who look at what is written and see it for what it really is.


  2. OH A to the MEN to that!

    Word selections are like artwork. We all know what we like, but not all of us can do it well. Sometimes that “bad” word is the best word to convey the sentiment. Some people just use those words for effect and that gets tiresome, but some times, the nasty word is the best word.

    • @Lee

      It can be tough though when there are kids in the house. There have been a few of my pieces that my kids have objected to “mom, you used a bad word”. I’m glad they can recognize that some words stand out but may I never discourage them from ever using them appropriately.


  3. “But if one of my characters wants to use them and it is appropriate for his or her scene, I’m going to use them in my writing”. Is this sentence appropriate? “This white pervert who preyed on unsuspecting young boys for…..” -)

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