Using the right word is never lazy
(It’s been a while since we run a Short Story Tuesday entry. If you want appear on this blog and be the envy of all your friends, drop me a line with your short story. It must be your property and must not be an entry for the FWA Collection.)
A few weeks ago, I reacted to something Amy Pascal said about removing homosexual slurs from scripts. She challenged script writers to remove the words whenever they encountered them. Here on this august publication, we challenged Ms. Pascal’s assertion that the words should be removed, saying that it’s not the words per se that were offensive, but the gratuitous use of them.
There are a number of words that are offensive to a great number of readers. Personally, I can only think of one word that’s offensive on its face–one word even my characters don’t use. It’s a four-letter word that has a u as its second letter, but it’s probably not the one you think. It’s a pejorative that equates a woman to being no more than a giant walking sex organ.
Personally, I can’t imagine a circumstance in which I would use that word. I will, and have, used the king of all swear words, a word meaning a female dog, and my characters have even taken the Lord’s name in vain. I want to insert an important caveat here: my characters’ views don’t necessarily indicate my views. My characters’ choices of slurs or profanities don’t necessarily indicate my views. But sometimes their words are the right words for the situation.
It goes beyond slurs.
There’s a popular writing guidelines floating around that says the use of profanity indicates lazy writing. If you’re a skilled writer, the argument says, you ought to be able to convey the offensiveness without being offensive yourself. By that line of reasoning, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and JK Rowling are all lazy writers. (I’ll take some of that company.)
Sometimes a swear word is the absolute right word. Sometimes you need to do more than to substitute a non-offensive word for a word that might seem profane. The atrocities in Schindler’s List wouldn’t have carried the power they did if they were off-screen. We needed to see the emaciated naked people, their bodies slowly ground down into something that portrayed the subhuman status their captors believed about them. We needed to see the children hiding in the latrine. We needed to see the child in the red coat.
Any story about Jackie Robinson that doesn’t include racial slurs doesn’t truly tell the story. A Time to Kill without the vivid rape scene doesn’t truly tell the story.
And a story about someone who loses something important and rages at God without cursing–simply because profanity is lazy–is likely to be less than it should be.
There are a lot of things that mark lazy writing–typos, one-dimensional characters, vapid dialogue–but profanity isn’t one of them.
Gratuitousness is the real mark of a lazy writer.
The right word is always the right word.