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To Curse or Not to Curse: That’s the Dilemma

Unscrupulous by M. E. MayThe following is a guest post by M. E. May, author of  Unscrupulous, the 5th book in the Circle City Mystery series. If you would like to write a guest post on my blog, please send me an e-mail at

When I started writing the Circle City Mystery series, I wanted it to be realistic as the series centered on cases solved by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Police officers curse, don’t they? Hardened criminals certainly do.

As a writer, I am faced with creating scenes that are real without offending those who think certain words are offensive. Words like damn don’t seem to be on the list of words, but use the “F” word and some readers will stop reading, no matter how good the story. Then there are those who love me, like my sweet eldest sister, who told me she loved the story, “but there was some language.”

When an editor from Harlequin approached me to produce my series in the smaller mass market paperback, she asked me to delete or replace certain curse words. Harlequin has been in the mystery genre for a relatively short time, and they do have a reputation for being “clean cut.” At first, I was overwhelmed by the idea of complying; however, I found it to be quite easy. I’ve also had no complaints from readers about this new “cleaner” version.

That’s when I decided to look at novels I’ve read in the past. As a reader, what did I enjoy? Did I like the book because of the cursing? Not really, the story is what catches my attention. Blatant errors in novels that should reflect realism, such as DNA tested within the hour, cause me to stop and mentally fuss at the writer for not doing his/her research. However, in my reading experience, I skirt over curse words as I’m sure I do conjunctions or an article such as the. Therefore, as I’ve continued to write the Circle City Mystery series, I’ve found more ways to avoid using curse words.

Of course, those who write and love to read noir would probably disagree with me on the need for these words. I have listened to many panels of noir authors who blast cozy mysteries and who think you cannot write a police procedural without lots of “bad words” to express the feelings of the characters. In some ways, I see their point. What I don’t understand is why some authors need to use so much foul language that those are the only words you see.

ME MayEven when I go to see comedians perform, if every other word is the “F” word, I lose track of the joke. By the time the punch line comes, I often miss it because my brain is so full of “F#%$ing” curse words I don’t remember the others. I think the same thing can happen when using curse words in prose. These words can be so distracting, that the reader will not see the point the character is making. In my opinion, anything that distracts the reader and could cause them to have to reread is harmful to the story.

So what should authors do to keep readers focused? In my opinion, if the writer deems it necessary, he/she should minimize the cursing. Use the words only when they emphasize something—the character’s anger, the character’s personality or background. The writer can give the same realistic impression without using the volume of these words which might happen in “real life.” In real life, people are trying to distract with their words. In a novel, you want to minimize that distraction so your story flows and it doesn’t stop your reader from turning the page.

My challenge for those of you who are writers to do is think about what you enjoy reading. Have you ever read a book so full of cursing that it stopped you cold or made you decide not to continue? Not necessarily because you don’t like the cursing, but because it ruined the story. Also, look at ways you can minimize the amount of cursing. Are there other words you can use that get the point across without the curse word? I believe you’ll find this much easier than you think.

About the author and her work: M. E. May’s Website.