To swear or not to swear in writing

To swear or not to swear in writing

“Fuck” is possibly the English language’s most versatile word. The roles it can play are virtually limitless: verb, noun, adjective; emphasis, denial, joy – to name only six. “Shit” is equally versatile and also funny, for the same reasons that kids love the poop emoji (poop-emoji themed birthday parties are a thing).

Some authors use swearwords prolifically when telling their life stories (James Rhodes) or conveying the stories of others (David Adams Richards). Over time, social mores shift and profanity is now common on television, in movies, and throughout the internet.

But what about leadership writing, like in an email or an executive blog? Is it OK to have a potty mouth in these contexts? One of my clients put “Shit” in the title of her first book. I used “shit” in the title of a Phrase Strategy blog.

So here’s the thing: it might be O.K. to swear in your professional writing.

As a writing coach to leaders, I guide clients to be intentional and authentic in what they write. That means really knowing what you’re doing – thinking about it and deciding that it’s the right thing (for YOU) to do.

Being intentional

Being intentional means that you’ve thought about an action and are taking it on purpose. These are some valid reasons to swear in writing:

  • Defy expectations
  • Create surprise
  • Purposely offend
  • Capture attention
  • Demonstrate self-confidence
  • Appeal to the like-minded
  • Break taboos
  • Express strong emotion
  • Generate response (understanding that the response may be negative)

If you’re using profanity in writing just because that’s how you think and speak, that doesn’t count as intent. (If you’re using those words in your thought and speech without much thought about why, that’s worth looking at, too.)

Being authentic

Being authentic in leadership writing requires:

  • Clarity and confidence about your voice (check out Phrase Strategy’s Essential Voice programs)
  • Clarity about your business’s voice (see our Essential Story service)
  • Consideration of the audience and how best to connect with them (we can help with that, too)

Really swear, damnit!

If using swears does align with your authentic voice, your company’s brand, and your audience, then use them. Authenticity and intention include responsibility, so you’ll need to be prepared to acknowledge it when some readers take offense. (Note that I didn’t say “you’ll need to prepare to defend yourself”, because an authentic voice never needs to be defended.)

But if you ARE going to use swear words in your leadership writing, REALLY use them. If you’re just going to &^%$ and sh*t and heck and darn it, you can do better with language than that – William Shakespeare set the bar on it. You don’t want anyone thinking that your “wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard”, after all.

Further inquiry

“On paper, swearing takes on a different attitude. It can make you sound very angry when you use it a lot.”

Joanna Coles