Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Can you curse in a query letter?

In a recent discussion in a writers' Facebook group, it was generally agreed that curse words shouldn't be used in the query, since the query is a professional letter, similar to a cover letter for a job. You would never use curse words in a cover letter. However, you would never write about time travel, or faeries, or love, or adventure in a cover letter either (unless maybe you were a physicist, or a safari guide, or…well, you know what I mean). I’m not suggesting that a writer drop F-bombs all over their query, but I’m wondering if there are any instances where a curse word might be acceptable.

I’m thinking of cases where a curse word might help to show a character’s voice. For example, my character’s goal is to escape her rundown neighborhood and life of poverty. I’ve tried “decaying neighborhood,” I’ve tried “rundown neighborhood,” but the truth is, if you asked my character, she’d call it “shitty.”

Thank you for your time and consideration 

Like all similes, "a query is like a business letter" has some limitations. The question you pose is one of them.

When I say a query letter is a business letter, the implication is you don't use the salutation"Hi there honey!" or close with "Love" or write in crayon or colored gel pens (creatively discombobulating, but there you have it.)

I also mean to convey you don't write in the third person, and you don't tell me personal things like "I've been writing since before I was born" and "my children hate me and want me out of their house, so I need to sell this book to make rent on a new place"

As for the specific language you use: a query should reflect your voice and your style without being over the top on either.  I swear a LOT but I generally don't drop the f-bomb in pitch letters. I'm VERY judicious about other kinds of words as well, because I want the reader to hear what I'm saying not be slapped upside the head by the word choices.

Is shitty the best word? Only you can decide.  I can think of colorful language that isn't blue: ramshackle, rat corners, dogpatch, a place that aspires to be just rundown.

There are lots of ways to say shitty without actually invoking the fecal matter.

Can you use it? Sure.
Do you think it's the exact right word? That's your call.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Oh, this is such perfect timing, it's creepy.
Here's a four letter word question.

"WTF" is part of my memoir title.(As in WTF moments and actions).
Do I have to explain in the query that WTF means or may I assume the agent knows?

I'm assuming readers will get it so am I shortchanging an agent's urban language knowledge? I mean really...doesn't everyone know what WTF means?

Stacy said...

"I've been writing since before I was born."

That made me burst out laughing. Thanks for the chuckle, Janet.

CynthiaMc said...

I don't like curse words. My mother called them lazy words and encouraged us to be more creative.

They're getting harder to escape.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: Everyone knows that WTF means Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Just as SSMT means So Suck My Turnip. ­čść

Stephen King's counsel is to use the first word that comes to mind. If you think too long, you'll come up with another word, but it's likely to be not quite what you mean.

I'm not a big fan of the cuss, but if that's part of your novel's voice, then use it in the blurb. But maybe not in the salutation, housekeeping, or sign-off. ☺

Unknown said...

2Ns, yes, pretty much everyone knows what WTF means. Google is a thing for the rest. Plus, WTF is like KFC. It used to stand for individual words, and now it's its own word.
PS: I'm never sure with you. Is your post real, or a joke? ;) I think a memoir with WTF in the title sounds delicious!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Well, crap.

Cheyenne said...

Excellent question, OP. It hasn't applied to me as such but I have wondered about it since I've seen various "queries that worked" posted online and a few that included swearing. I like Janet's point, that you want to get across the idea and the vibe without slapping the agent upside the head.

That said, I do enjoy a good swear and a creative mashing of curse words in dialogue. Love me some Scott Lynch :D

Kitty said...

Years ago I emailed Janet and asked her if the title Dickhead Must Die was a no-no, and she said, "Oh man, that's exactly right." I agreed, but I had to ask.

Then years later I saw this book with the S-word in the title and cringed. Janet was right.

Unknown said...

The interesting part here is not the curse word, but that the OP wants to write the query in the character's voice. I thought that was a no-no, hence why the OP would want to use a curse word in the first place.

Unknown said...

This reminds me of one of the favorite query shark posts ever281.

And your character's voice can show in the query letter, I believe the no-no is writing the query as if you were one of the characters.

Craig F said...

I managed to not cuss in my query. It was a challenge because I cussed at it since, what seemed like, the dawn of time. The query seemed to have absorbed cuss words after all that. I ended up digging out my old copy of Roget's Thesaurus. Great resource when you need it.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Terry R, I didn't get the feeling OP is writing in the character's voice. I saw it as using a specific tone to express how dire the character's life is.

I have no problem with curse words - but language should fit the situation.

Julie Weathers said...


I'm going to have to disagree with Mr. King. Often the first word that comes to mind is the one we use most often. It isn't always the most precise word.

I'm more of a Mark Twain devotee when it comes to word choice. "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Was she a nag or a harridan? There is a difference, but nag is the word that comes to mind first. Harridan is the one that best describes her.

Terry Rodgers I wondered about that myself. How do you get the character's voice across in a query letter and still remain out of character? It can be done, but it's tricky to do well.

I am irked that it was overcast here and I missed the super moon event last night. grumble grumble grumble

Colin Smith said...

Julie: I tend toward agreeing with you. His point, I think, is to say what you mean, and don't settle for words that might be fancier or more "literary" if they are less precise. That may not be the first word that comes to mind. But sometimes it is.

Dena Pawling said...

I write MG, so I considered long and hard about including words like CRAP in my ms and query [and decided to use a different word]. But if you don't write MG or younger, that's a different thought process.

Kids and I were awake at 5am [normal time for me, one hour early for them] to see the eclipse. Nice clear sky. Big red moon. Cool.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I've heard 'curse words are the least creative option' a million times. I've got to tell you, I have heard some spectacularly creative monologues and rants that are absolutely laced with profanity. (Imagine Baldwin's speech in Glengarry Glen Ross without curse words! What a loss!)

I don't think writers should shy away from any type of language because it's 'lazy.' Is an electric screwdriver lazy? Maybe, but if it's the most effective tool for the job, you use it.

No one should have to use profanity either. It all depends on voice.

There's an excellent line in one of Patricia Brigg's novels: "[Character} used crudeness like he used all his weapons: seldom, but with great effect."

Beth Carpenter said...

"...seldom but with great effect." Bethany, that is good. We've been watching Black Mirror and apparently the writers are paid by the f-word. It loses its effect with overuse and just becomes annoying.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Like James Leisenring, I also immediately thought of Query #281 on Janet's QueryShark blog. Use of the F-bomb in first paragraph-good. Last paragraph about the gist of the storyline-um...NO.

It was cloudy here too (plus more snow) so no viewing of the eclipse. Now, a couple hours later, the sky is--maddeningly--crisp, clear, blue.

Steve Stubbs said...

Julie Weathers said...
"Resolve to think your work is not important to anybody."
Never in this life or the next. I don't deal in defeat.
How do you like me now?

Hi Julie,

Luck is the only lady I like better. Oh, well, I like Ms. Reid better. That's it.

People seem to be chewing their fingernails all the way down to the elbow because they can't wait to get a query rejected.

Not necessary. You have to write but you don't have to be anxious.

Feelings follow thoughts. As Epictetus said, it is not what happens to you, but how you deal with it that matters.

I'm not Victor Frankl. Being in a Nazi concentration camp would get me down. But I admire his tough mindedness.

I also admire the toughest birds in the tree, the people who sell successfully and eat rejection for a snack. I can't do that, but it is great to know it can be done. I can beat Major Depression and laugh at diminished vision, but I'm a wimp compared to those guys.

The key is in how you think. One thing that keeps coming out over and over is that writers think it is a matter of life and death that their stuff get published, even though they may not get much more than car fare out of it if it does.

Get some perspective. Write the very best you can, market the very best you can, and if it doesn't get published, grin and like it. Life goes on.

You don't want something that doesn't fly in the marketplace out there with your name on it. An agent said on the net a few months ago that you may not get more than two shots at the brass ring. If you line the bottom of the tank with two published books, your "career" could be over.

If a professional tells you something doesn't work, s/he may be saving you from burning one of your two shots at the brass ring. That's called doing you a favor.

As for wanting to not win the lottery, publishing IS the lottery. It's a literary lottery. The litto lotto I call it.


WTF stands for World Tennis Federation. I like tennis memoirs.

Joseph S. said...
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Joseph S. said...

Like James Leisenring and Lisa Bodenheim my first reaction was to think of the Query Shark entry. Unlike James, I never would have recalled its number.

I wonder, James and Lisa, if people ever mutter naughty words when they try to get the letters in your last name in the correct order (or use the correct number of letters).

JEN Garrett said...

When used effectively, words invoke exactly the message you intend to send. When you use words that literally are impossible to do (and I don't want to know about your sex life anyway), or gendered inaccurately (No, I'm not the son of female dog), or misused words from the Bible (well, you get the idea) - that gets my dander up.

If you want to bring to mind fecal matter when describing the neighborhood, then use appropriate words to invoke that image. But be professional about it - you don't want fecal matter brought to mind when describing your query!

Joseph S. said...

A basic writing tenet is to avoid clich├ęs. Still I’m stunned at how may novels contain multiple uses of the F_ _ _ word or the S_ _ _ word as thought tha was realistic writing instead of the cliches they’ve become.

Unknown said...

Joseph Snoe I'm guessing a lot. I've debated using a pen name if I ever get to the point where I might be published, like James L. Ring or maybe J.R. Elring. (my middle name starts with R) (this is too derivative of Rowling and Tolkien, isn't it?) (FINE GUESS YOU'LL HAVE TO USE MY FULL NAME THEN GOOD LUCK!)

There was a time when someone pronounced my name as "Listerine" and I definitely cursed, but not out of anger. It was something like "That is effing hilarious!"

Unknown said...

I don't swear much. When I do, my kids listen to me and do what I ask. Without complaint. Swearing should be judicious and well-applied.

I still remember the only time I heard my dad swear. Seventh grade. Mom asked him to talk with my brother and me about not practicing piano.

Dad sat us down on the piano bench and said, "I work hard every day to pay for your piano lessons, and you won't practice. Do you think I'm an ass? Is that why you don't practice?"

Never forgot it. Judicious and well-applied. Dang!

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I am swearing at the fat grey squirrels on my bird feeder today while doing my tax prep. It really helps.

Sam Mills said...

In my (critiqued but not yet tested) query I didn't go further than 'damn' but I'm really loathe to lose the 'damn' for the same voice reason the OP cites.
"[Character] never did anything right before...XYZ" is accurate, but "[Character] never did a damn thing right before...XYZ" is even more accurate.


Stephanie Bittner said...

Sam Mills:

I think which is better would depend on the rhythm of the rest of the sentence. If you think "damn" fits, keep it. I never saw damn as much of a cussword anyway.

Lennon Faris said...

This is where you employ your writer friends as beta readers! Ones with conservative vocabulary and those with, more colorful word choices.

I was amused reading the comments today. My dad only ever cursed once that I can remember, too. Our car broke down in the middle of an intersection with all of us in it. My siblings and I were delighted!

Sam - I have to go with the cursing on that one. It's got a nice ring to it.

Craig - you crack me up.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Using "curse words," or profanity, blue language, whatever you want to call it, may be just the thing to create the exact feeling or express the proper mood you're trying to create. But it also could offend, or be the one little thing that pushes a query that's on the edge into the reject pile. For me, the bottom line is, no one is going to reject you're query for NOT using profanity, but they might well because you did. So why take the chance?

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Joe Snoe: Thank you for sending me into a fit of the giggles. I've been called Bodenheimermeister (which makes my name easier how?!!) or Burgerheimer (what's with adding the 'r's?)

James: Oooooh. Now I wanna think up some creative last names for a pen. Without adding an 'r'.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I only know a few of your abbreviations. WTF/WTH yes. SSMT nope, like sooo many others.

It's like:

Me: "Sorry for disturbing you, but do you know what NP, IDK and SYL means?"

You: "No problems. I don't know. See you later."

Me: "Okay, I'll ask someone else."

Dena Pawling: Glad you saw the moon. I got up, too, and only saw ice fog and -15°C (5°F). Not so cool.

Lisa Bodenheim: Are you German, Swiss or maybe Austrian?

Adele said...

Have you ever done one of those creativity exercises where you write down 20 things your character might do next? You're asked for that many because the first few are bound to be dreary cliches, slapped down with little thought. The theory is that you start thinking creatively when you get them out of your brain, down onto the paper, and then have to think of something else.

Change the process to "what 20 things your character might say next". You might write your list of 20 and still think your shock-word is the best, in which case - go ahead.

In the past few months I've seen quite a few books with the F-word in the title - it seems to be a fad? Sometimes in fiction, but also in cookbooks and other self-help. I think it's just a gimmick, maybe a Christmas ploy to get you to buy the book as a joke present. But what the *bleep* do I know.

Lisa Bodenheim said...
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Lisa Bodenheim said...

One of Us: It's a German name but I'm part of the quilted mosaic of America. (Although nowadays, how many countries are not composed of diverse people?)

Colin Smith said...

Lisa: Mine is the lime green and orange paisley square from Aunt Veronica's 1972 prom dress. :)

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Lisa "Burgerheimer" Ha! I once changed my last name to Leisenburger on social media. I think only one of my friends even noticed.

(I know what everyone is thinking, and actually I do have more than one friend, thank you very much!)

Also I blame this movie for all of the extra "r" pronunciations

BJ Muntain said...

If it were me, I'd use a more precise word than shitty. You've only got 250 words, so precision is needed. A shitty neighbourhood could be rundown, ancient, corrupt, or just plain hostile. In what way is it shitty? Find a single word that gets the full idea across. Even 'party's gives a view of a decrepit area where there may or may not be actual rats. To me, 'shitty ' just isn't precise enough.

AJ Blythe said...

I don't swear (for an Aussie - I've come to understand, thanks to Joe Snoe, we use some words that would be considered swearing in the US). Never seen the need. But the Hub makes up for it (he's ex-army).

Opie, I'd avoid in the query if at all possible. I still think there's a difference between a query and the manuscript, although there are always exceptions (as James pointed out with QS281).

Julie W. , there's another lunar eclipse July 27 (early hours 28th for those on east-coast Oz). Not sure if it is a super moon though.

Julie Weathers said...

AJ, Thanks.

A super, blue moon, blood moon combination is really rare. I so wanted to see it. Between the tree cover here and the inevitable clouds whenever anything is going on I am ready for some wide open spaces.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Sorry to jump back in so late.
KATHY, yes, WTF is in the title and STEVE I hate tennis.Yellow balls are intimidating.

Joseph S. said...


Long ago in a place far away (Los Angeles, California), I mentioned to the woman I was playing tennis with that tennis balls at one time were white but now they are primarily yellow. She said the balls are green. I said no they're yellow. She got angry and said they are green. I explained everybody says they are yellow. She adamantly adhered to her misguided green theory. Anyway, our tennis day (and future) was over at that point.

Lennon Faris said...

Joseph, I have up until this very moment always subconsciously thought of tennis balls as green. After reading your comment, I realized that might be untrue. I happened to have a tennis ball on hand and observed its color. It is chartreuse.

To think the precise word might have saved your day of tennis! (Trying to loop it back here to the discussion. Really I'm having a paradigm shift. Never knew everyone saw them as yellow. They'll always be 'green' to me.)

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Joseph Snoe, I'd voluntarily agree that tennis balls are yellow.

I need a new tennis partner :D !

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Lennon, once they are old and your dog has carried them in their mouth, they're green.
Fresh from the tube, they are yellow :D.

I too remember the white ones. Seems they were argument-proof. Maybe the lady would have loved to play with pink ones.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Tennis balls consensus?
White balls are the color of the "I'm showing my age."
Yellow is the color of the informed.
Green is the color of the misinformed.
Chartreuse is the color of the WTF color are your balls.

BJ Muntain said...

2Ns, as long as they're not blue... :P

Alina Sergachov said...

Like James Leisenring and others, I thought about Query Shark post #281 when I read this. And the revised, winner post #123. I personally, like Omar, don't use profanity. However, the goal is to get the character's voice across. Janet mentioned that you can use profanity if it "adds a layer of nuance to the description".

P.S. I really like the "a place that aspires to be just rundown" line. What a beautiful description!

Harley Bishop said...

Thanks for posting this.

I'm getting close to querying time with newest MS and the MC does swear a lot.

No, it cannot be replicated by anything else (the fact that people have such adverse reactions to swearing surely prove that point) and no, I don't think it is lazy writing. Other MSS I've written swearing wasn't appropriate; this one it is.

I do have 'fucked' in the query. Everyone keeps saying to take it out. But two things have struck me;

1) It's primarily men who have objected to the swearing, and I can't help but wonder if that's because the MC is a woman (women shouldn't swear! How dreadful, I do declare!)

2) Surely, surely, surely the agent is better off knowing what they're getting into. I'd had for MC's colourful language to give someone an unpleasant shock.

Anyways thanks for the interesting post, glad to know it's not *necessarily* an instant reject on principle etc :-)

Unknown said...

I've wondered about this myself. My writing contains a lot of profanity and I don't want to query someone with a deceptively g-rated letter, only for them to get turned off by the writing sample. Plus it conveys some of the character voice they'd have to spend hours of their time with. Seems like a waste of both my time and the agent's if I play it too safe.

I haven't used 'fuck' in my current query, but I did use 'bullshit' and 'ass'. And I've gotten a manuscript request with that.