Green Test for Overusing the F-Bomb

Green Test for Overusing the F-Bomb

Today’s writing tip is offered by Jan Nerenberg.

The “Green” test for the “F” bomb. What is it and how can you use it to avoid overusing the f-bomb?

Recently I edited a manuscript and noted the overuse of the “f” word. The writer questioned why the use of the “f” bomb was offensive, after all he stated, it’s common usage. Personal preference aside (I personally don’t like it) but as an editor, mentor, and fellow-writer I considered his statement/feelings/reasoning and decided I needed to look deeper into why I felt this way.

The “f” word, originally shocking, describes sexual intercourse in a vulgar or lewd light. An expletive, it was disallowed in the Oxford English Dictionary in the Nineteenth Century as unseemly within polite conversation. Its use dates back to the Fifteenth Century, again connoting sexual congress.

My line of reasoning dates to an old adage – “Profanity is the effort of a weak mind, trying to express itself forcibly”. (Note: From Paul Holdscraft, Cyclopedia of Bible Illustrations (1947) [snippet]:1078. Profanity defined.) https://english.stackexchange.com/

But “Why?” my writer friend asked again, is it still considered in this light if it is in common usage in the Twenty-First century?

I fell back to my standard answer and likened its use to the addition of a teaspoon versus a cup of salt added to a savory stew. One enhances and the other sickens. But the best explanation was yet to come as I continued to search for a deeper meaning and better answer.

During another discussion, another friend suggested a simple experiment. Within a given manuscript, replace the “f” word with another word, like “green”. I laughed at the simplicity and finally understood why I didn’t like the word beyond its vulgar connotations. The overuse of the word is simply lazy writing. That writing doesn’t let the reader into the story. It is not graded and/or descriptive in context. The word has lost meaning and is in danger of becoming a non-word.

“It was a f—ing sky.” – Leaves one to wonder – Gray, overcast, threatening, blue, cloudless, ominous, cheerful, filled with Hitchcock’s birds or a single soaring swallow … you get the drift. Even the sentence, “It was a green sky” gives more sensory input than the first.

An accomplished writer wants the reader to experience their story.

However, when “F” is used to denote mood, show situation, predict outcome, bemoan failure, and declare expletive, the reader wonders what is really happening. Sadly, the nondescript “F” closes the gate. The reader is left to merely wonder about what delights live on the other side of the fence.

My conclusion: Use it if you must but try the “green” test and see where you can deepen your story, sentence structure, and your reader’s overall enjoyment.


Dave’s note: Overusing the F-bomb is like body odor, if you use the word a lot, you might not notice it, but everyone around you can’t help but notice.

Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders of Pern series, once put it to me this way: “Many readers are very sensitive to the F-bomb. If you put out a hit book and get a million readers, I estimate that about 1/3 of them will put the book down and stop reading once they tire of the profanity.

“A new writer can’t afford that. Losing that many readers will not only cripple your career, it will mean that you lost them perhaps for many, many books. Think of it: three hundred thousand fans over 20 books is a loss of six million sales. If those are hardcover books, you’re talking about $5 in lost revenue per book–perhaps $30 million over those twenty books.”

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