Should Indie Authors Self-Censor Their Books?

Indie authors get to publish anything at all. Traditional authors have their work edited – things get taken out. Probably things that could cause offense, as well as typos and grammar gremlins. Should you self-censor your writing because of the possibility of offending someone with a word or deed, and thereby open yourself to a couple of raging negative reviews? No – you never should. I must admit to a lot of hesitation inserting offensive things back when I first started out, but not anymore. I’ll write what I feel is right for the story whether it could offend or not. It’s fiction after all. There are things in all my books that could offend a wide range of readers if they chose to be offended, but I have more than enough respect for most lovers of the written word to realise that they’re generally intelligent and open minded, and that if they know that certain types of writing will offend them, they won’t buy those sorts of books.

Back before the advent of the internet and eBooks, readers didn’t get to rant on public websites and forums about profanity in books, or something that they for whatever personal reason find offensive. Writers are getting antsy, stressed and overly careful of what they write with all the political correctness around these days, but we shouldn’t be. For me personally I’ve read swearwords that turned a mundane sentence into something profound – or hilarious. Books are books, and we generally choose those that we’re fairly confident that we’ll enjoy. Writers aren’t the same as everyone else. They see things differently, with a different kind of clarity and insight I think, and they have the power to use the tools of their trade to convey emotions. That’s what reading’s all about – feeling the emotions turned into words by the author. And when writers do what they have to do and put their words on the page, that’s the end of that, and whether or not people choose to read or approve of those words, at the end of the day the choice of those words belongs only to the author. The words are our choice of the tools we feel are needed to get a reader totally immersed and involved in our tales. Whether they’re politically correct or not – profane or not. Our choice only.

We tell the stories as we want to, and write the words we want to write, but we have no control over how people read our books. I’ve seen a couple of terrible reviews of really good books purely based on small amounts of profanity in them. I’ve used a good few judiciously placed swearwords in most of my books, because they’re what came out as the stories were told. I won’t take them out, and I’m pretty sure that there will be more of them in future books of mine when they’re needed. Obviously we want our books to be read as we wrote them. I’m not suggesting that writers all over the place suddenly start adding profanity to every second sentence – unless they want to. Just that if an F bomb finds its way into a sentence to begin with, the word “darn” or “poot” or whatever is most likely not going to convey the emotion that we want to convey it the first place. Unless you’re ghost writing, only you get to choose the words, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

As far as I’m concerned, a word is just a word. How you use it is what can create offense, and scribblers have all it takes to offend when they so choose. A writer has the equipment to turn someone into a soggy puddle if they choose to use their words as swords. There are words, harmless in themselves, that you can stitch together in a sentence that can cause soul cutting offense. And sometimes in a book, that’s exactly what you need to do. As far as I’m concerned the occasional use of a beautifully placed profane bomb is much more harmless than many, many other things in the world today. They’re just words.

There will always be criticism of books for things in them that have offended people, and all people are offended by different things, so this shouldn’t bother us overly much. It goes with the territory. There are readers of every genre under the sun, and they eventually find the authors they love. Nobody loves every book they ever read – if every book was fabulous then trying to stand out from the crowd would be futile anyway. Don’t ever try and change the writer that you are. Write whatever comes out. Whether your natural style is to swear like a trooper or to never use a word stronger than bottom, it’s all allowed, because if you try to change the writer you are, your words will end up stilted and fake. Be exactly who you are. I say cuss all you like if you so choose, and write the way you’re meant to write, and enjoy one of the most powerful gifts of being an Indie writer – the fact that you can. It’s bound to offend someone sooner or later anyway no matter what it is, and spending any of your time worrying about these things is a waste of good writing time.

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Image Credit: Unsplash

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69 thoughts on “Should Indie Authors Self-Censor Their Books?”

    1. Thank you Serins! It’s the first in the sci-fi series that’s free on the newsletter – but do sign up so I can spam you up. 😀 Joking. Seriously though, if you want any of mine just zoom over your email address to my contact me page on my site and I’ll send them over. I’m having a devil of a time posting anything still because of the South African post office, so it will have to be Mobi or another e format.

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  1. I agree with you, but it’s also a bit of a cop out to say, “they’re just words,” especially after you’ve asserted that they have “soul cutting” power. No, we don’t get to pretend that “they’re just words,” either. Writers use words deliberately – and should do so intentionally. That’s why there ARE limits to “free speech” – the cognizance that words alone can incite a riot or provide the tipping point to move a nation to war. THAT may not be our specific intention, of course – we don’t really control others’ exercise of free will, and those who ACT on our words should be the ones held accountable – but we certainly have the ability to manipulate thoughts and emotions, to twist the metaphorical knife just so – and we don’t then get to stand there disingenuously claiming, “But they’re just…words.”

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    1. Words are always only words until they’re added to other words, just as the F word is just a word. As a word it has no power until it’s put into some sort of context, and even then it’s still only a word. I agree that there should be limits to “free speech”, but that’s not what I’m getting at – I’m talking about particular words that offend some people. We write fiction not to incite riots or move nations to war – at least most of us don’t, I hope – we’re just trying to get our stories across in meaningful ways. The point is that when a word is used in context it’s alright – whether it’s a swearword or not. Words are seldom powerful on their own – they’re just words. It’s the sentences that count – the stories.

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    1. I love that indie freedom Teagan – it’s cool too seeing so many Indies going on to massive success writing in genres and about things that traditional publishers wouldn’t have touched with barge poles. We rock. All the shoulds turn us into puddles too – never mind those things. HUGS! X

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  2. This debate is only going to hot up with the advent of the CleanRead app which purges literature of anything untoward. It’s a sad commentary on censorship combined with unintended hilarity. As Jennifer Porter observes, ‘The app actually seems to make sex naughtier given that all the groins are visiting the ladies’ bottoms’. http://www.romancenovelnews.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=1167:my-clean-reader-app-experience&Itemid=53

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    1. Wow! What a fracas – I must say that some of the words they’re using to replace sound a lot ruder than the originals. It’s hilarious, and a bit weird that they seem to have loaded so many romances. There’ll probably be loads of bottoms in those. 😀

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  3. You can’t please everyone. Far too many people are looking to be offended and searching for some reason to run in there and wag their fingers in people’s faces and lecture (like they created/understand/know all the answers.) Sad so many want to be victims or make victims of those they really have no connection to/or standing with. Sad, too, that so many are desperate for attention or want to show how good they are (so much better than you!)
    Writing and literature has always managed to be free – and often be both hero struggling and devil’s advocate. Instrument of great change as well as destruction.
    Those who are offended? Please wander off to some place that makes you happy and read there. These days many need to remember words and thoughts can only hurt you if you give them power over you. You do have control – of yourself – not others. Be strong in yourself. Learn to live and let live. Write and let write.
    Just write.

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      1. That’s not true at all. Say that to a marriage counsellor when ones partner insults and threatens the relationship, or to a boss who uses disparaging words about ones race or religion or gender or physical disability. Hurtful words hurt.

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      2. Or if your child’s teacher or principal speaks disparaging words to your child, esp I’m front of I thers – tell me you’re not going to have a word with the teacher or principal…

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  4. Even if we weren’t worried about stifling our voices and creativity for the sake of not offending, we’d still offend *somebody.* Because there’s always going to be something.

    You could offend by tackling a political issue, but you could also offend by not addressing it when it would’ve fit in the book. You could offend by characterization or by one of the characters teasing another about their religion/size/belief in astrology.

    People find reasons to get offended. Most of the time, the authors didn’t even make it meaning to be edgy or offensive. Even if you try to avoid it and write a clean, sweet, no politics or religion mentioned, absolutely unoffensive book, someone’s going to be offended that you didn’t represent the cursing, rude, ect… culture 🙂

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    1. It’s all so true – the most amazing things really do offend people. One reviewer of one of my stories was appalled because a falling, dying tree was cut down, and offended enough just to focus on that alone. 🙂

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    1. You’re right about the age groups too Sally – these days words that would have curled toes before are just parts of conversations. I generally only swear when furious or injured. The air was blue when I chopped my knuckle – I have some choice words in my arsenal. 😀

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  5. First, I completely disagree that a word is just a word. We use words to express compassion, and understanding and love. We use words to warn of danger. Some people use words to hurt and frighten and subdue. We write because we know the power of words. So it doesn’t work to just then cop out and say a word is “just a word.”

    If a writer wants to keep his profanities in, so be it. The writing, or book, will be subject to market forces. If nobody wants to read it, if certain reviewers choose to not review it, that’s the consequence. If people do, that’s another consequence.

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  6. As in life some things offend me. I’m aware of bad language but don’t particularly care for over usage as with the young or certain communities. So when reading a book it’s the same. Over usage , even in context can offend me but as with the TV I know where the off button is.
    When words are used out of context they also may offend me because there’s no necessity for them, but on the other hand they may also shock me out of a complacency I’ve been lulled into.
    As an author I’ll write what I deem necessary for my books. As I reader I have the right to decide whether the author has done a good job with their words or just used them to randomly shock. I may decide never to rad anything by that author again, as a reader has the same opportunity with a book of mine but I hope my audience has seen the reason I haven’t censored myself by agreeing I have used enough but not too much of anything that may shock.
    xxx Massive Hugs Jo xxx

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    1. I do agree with you that over usage is really offensive. If I start reading a book littered with foul words for no reason – also there are some words that just gross me out totally, I’ll stop reading it. I don’t use swearwords a lot, but a couple of times they’ve been necessary I thought.
      xxx Massive Hugs xxx Dear David. 🙂

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  7. Okay I was too slow typing and David said pretty much all I was going to say. I agree with Serins…“To thine own self be true” and with Jane that the reader will be the one to determine if your truth is to their taste. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination but to me expletives are all too common in a lot of the books I read and movies I watch. I’m reminded of my old days when I briefly lived in a house with five (sometimes more) people in their late teens and early twenties. It was in the Sixties and profanity was pretty common except for one girl who could have been the poster child for the “butter wouldn’t melt” crowd. One night after a bit of teasing from one of the guys she dropped the old “F-bomb” and the room went silent. Normally this would have gone almost unnoticed but considering the source everyone felt the impact of that simple four-letter word. That why I use minimal expletives in what I write. If they’re used sparingly to develop another side of a character (perhaps an angrier emotional side) or to react to the ten-ton boulder rolling towards the hero then I’m okay with it. I believe it’s the old “less is more” philosophy.

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    1. I use the “less is more” philosophy too. Some people can get away with a lot of swearing and still be amazingly cool though. Chuck Wendig is the king of swearing but I still think his writing is absolutely brilliant, and his personality magnetic. Not many could get away with that sort of thing though.

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  8. Thanks Jo.I agree that we need to be consistent with the story we’re writing. Some writers write for specific markets and they will fit in the language to the story and the demands of the market. But I agree that not writing something for fear to offend somebody will never work because we only know what we’d react to as readers but other people’s point of view are very different. I remember a writer I know wrote a novel and she thought it was “daring” and when people read it they told her it wasn’t at all.

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    1. People really see things so differently. I like to think that I’m pretty broad minded but I’ve read lots of things I found offensive that I could see so many other readers loved. I would never attack anything like that though – different strokes for different folks. We just have to write what we write regardless.

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  9. There are so many issues here, and my last comment before I get off this post is that we are always taught to know who our audience is and to see how our writing appears and is processed by potential readers. As a speaker, a teacher, the first thing we say is WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE? Who are you trying to reach? And in our editing that’s what we always go back and look at: To see ourselves as a reader, reading this for the first time, would. Looking at it through different eyes. It’s what we, as writing teachers, have our students do in the editing process, or sharing with other students. That’s why we even ask for 2nd and 3rd and so on opinions. So the problem with this author’s whole approach is that to me, it seems to be “reader-be-dammed. If you don’t like my writing it’s YOUR problem.” “The words are our choice of the tools we feel are needed to get a reader totally immersed and involved in our tales. Whether they’re politically correct or not – profane or not. Our choice only.” If a writer hasn’t gotten his message across, his job is to try to figure out why, and take that into consideration for the next piece.

    I’ll end here.

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    1. I would never suggest “reader be damned” and I’m very sorry if I came across that way. What I mean is that not all readers will like what all writers write, and that that shouldn’t stop us from telling the stories we want to tell, whether they’re politically correct or not – profane or not. I’m not suggesting that you purposely set out to offend, I’m just saying that trying too hard not to offend is not a good way to share what you really want to share sometimes.

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  10. I believe a writer should write the book they want. This may lead to work that offends people, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not, but it is their book. It also means readers have the same right to judge a book and say if they have been offended. How the writer reacts to that is up to them.
    My books have certain scenes that I’m sure would offend some people. I didn’t set out to offend anyone but they deal with difficult and unpleasant situations. They are the scenes I spent most time agonising over, not because I was worried about offending anybody, but because I wanted to ensure the scenes made the reader uncomfortable without being overly gratuitous.
    I have no problem with profanity where it works for the situation and characterisation, however too much profanity just bores me. Again, when used well it brings shock and drama to dialogue, when overused it adds nothing.

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    1. Spot on Dylan! I was terrified of offending when I wrote my first book. It had the potential to offend a lot of people, but happily enough most people read it the way I hoped they would, so I’m glad I didn’t remove the things I thought might offend. You’re so right that it has to be used right to add shock and drama, and adds nothing when overused.

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  11. A profound post, Jo. I treasure the ability to write what I want and let the devil take the hindmost. If someone doesn’t like something I’ve written, they can put the book down or not buy it in the first place. Profanity works, just not all the time. I like to think about my son in the Army, where everything is f- this and f-that. It doesn’t mean anything to him or his men in their context, I just have to remind him not to use it at home or off base.

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    1. Thank you Noelle! I was just having a look at the posts where Suzanne added the link in the comment above where they’ve launched an app for getting rid of profane words – the mind boggles. Ursula le Guin swears like a trooper, so if we pop a rude word in here or there we’re in good company too.

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  12. There have been critics since the beginning of time.What is alright for one is offensive to another? You should never second guess yourself so just write and do not concern yourself with the moral climate. This is your art, your creativity, a part of you so be true to it.

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    1. I have a 20 year-old granddaughter who is big into art. She showed me her sketchbook one afternoon and apologized in advance for one particular piece she had done (it was Christ astride a T-Rex). I took her to task and told her to never apologize for anything she creates. The second you feel you have to apologize is that second when you have lost belief in what you have created. Art of any kind is, as the old saying goes, in the eye of the beholder and if our ideas of what is art differ then this is a good thing. You have to approach what you do with a certain abandon and be free to let it all out without consideration of what anyone else will think. Wondering ahead of time how people will feel about what you do is akin to hobbling a horse.

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      1. I totally agree Mike. Creative artists, regardless of the form they create whether writing or painting shouldn’t hobble themselves or be too self critical. Amazing folks creatives – did she tell you what that picture meant by the way? Sounds fascinating.

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  13. Mike, What seems to me to be missing from this conversation is the craft of writing. Yes, there is a step of creating where we go all out with abandon. But there is a stage where we look at what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, and work and rework it. That’s essential. What seems to be missing from this whole dialogue is whether any of the profanity is necessary, or if the idea can’t be conveyed more effectively by using the other beautiful words of the English language to convey frustration, anger, whatever emotions, and many there are. Nobody’s talking about censoring the emotions, just how we use the English language to express them. There has to be an element of control in any creative act. Maybe the character in the dialogue does not curse, maybe the character does, under certain circumstances. This is about the writing.

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    1. I agree. Is profanity necessary? My characters are based on real people (from that house) I knew back in the day and if I were to be totally accurate to the personalities their everyday conversation would be laced with varying degrees of mild to blatant profanity but other than an occasional “damn” I chose not to show this side of them. Only in one scene does the main character use what I consider to be strong language and only once. This scene involves him coming to grips with a suicide death and his emotions were at a confused boiling level. Generally I steer away from expletives and one of the comments I received from a reader of my first book was that considering the characters she expected far more swearing than the 85,000 words contained. I haven’t counted but if I used more than twenty “damns” and one, well, you know…I’d be surprised. Emotions can be depicted in physical narrative (clenched fist, shaking hands, tear-filled eyes) but sometimes one choice word can complete the representation. Of course you’re right about the reworking…many times I have deleted what I first thought appropriate but that’s the beauty of the writing process isn’t it? Get it all in there then tweak it to say the same thing in a more artistic or acceptable manner. As I said I write what I’d like to read and anything with unnecessary profanity isn’t something I would enjoy so I won’t use it in my writing. Could I have accomplished the same feeling in the suicide scene by eliminating that one word? Maybe but I don’t think so. It was so out of character for him that it put the crown on his anger, fear, and sorrow plus it was something I would probably have said in that situation. It may not be appropriate to some people but it is to me.

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    2. It’s unlikely that certain characters could credibly speak a line of dialogue without dropping an f-bomb. A good writer doesn’t include every instance of the f-bomb that same character would really use – in the same way we don’t include every “like, um, y’know…and then he went, like, I dunno, y’know?” that real people blather every day.

      But should writers “self-censor”? No. They should learn how to use the tools of their trade effectively, so as not to dilute that power we were talking about earlier. Honestly, in everyday speech, f*** has taken on the quality of mere verbal punctuation. It will soon have no impact at all, other than to make people look vulgar if they drop it in the boardroom or a nice dinner party. We’ll have to get more creative when it comes to swearing.

      Then again… http://io9.com/heres-the-first-recorded-instance-of-the-f-word-in-eng-1519247071 It has survived a very long time, already. And the sexual revolution didn’t exactly stop people from wanting to have sex.

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      1. Now that’s some serious shock effect seeing it written by a monk in the 1500’s! Thanks for the link – I never realised that word was so old. I agree – the big F is overused these days. I’m fairly sure that I haven’t used more than around ten times in total and only when I couldn’t think of a word more “violent” instead. I like what you say about getting more creative with swearing – sounds like thinking new things up could actually be a fun project. Not guilty of the ums and y’knows yet.

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  14. Mike, that’s exactly it: You reworked it, decided you could eliminate a lot and then added in what you needed to make it effective. That’s the craft. In human conversation, if I may borrow from linguistics study, our brains are able to sort out, from a lot of background sounds that our ears take in, what we need to hear to keep the dialogue going. I think that in a book, an author has to choose what to include and what to exclude precisely in order to maintain the effect and reader focus. Though some people may use profanity commonly in their conversation, in a book if too much profanity the rest of it loses its effect, and has to keep the action moving forward and the character developing, so it has to be controlled. And correct, using other clues will help heighten the emotions effectively, and keep the reader engrossed. When people speak, they say “you know” a ridiculous number of times. A writer would never include all those “you knows” in dialogue. So, yes. Thanks.

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    1. I confess to a few “y’knows” with a couple of my characters but I try to steer away from those as much as possible as well. I created one character so is a bit backwoods and raw for my new story and he uses the “y’know” a lot but it seems to fit. I’ll decide how many to leave in on a future edit. This has been fun Jane…have a great day!!!
      Mike

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  15. Excellent advice as always lovely Jo, I agree totally. Always love the way you write about this ‘stuff’ in such a straight-forward, no-nonsense way. Helps me know I’m doing the right thing…writing, writing and more writing 🙂 xxx

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    1. Thanks to you my lovely Sherri! You’re much braver than most of us writing your memoir. That’s really baring your soul for all to see, but it will be perfect I know because everyone who reads your words loves them. 🙂 XX

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      1. Ahh Jo, thank you so much for believing in me, that means so much dear friend. I love how writing flash fiction is getting me into a whole different genre too…and I so much want to explore that. I love the free rein it gives and the surprises writing fiction brings, as you so perfectly express here. And that is why I just love how you encourage us not to get so hung up on things like the odd swear word here and its relevance at such times.. You’re the best 🙂 xxxx

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  16. Well said. Although we may take liberties in our words, editors are always a good idea. We will always have the choice as Indie writers to decide if we shall cut all that is suggested.

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