Warning: this post contains some cursing to demonstrate my points. Anything that one wouldn’t find in, say, a Harry Potter book is censored, but still, if you’re easily offended by that sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend reading this post.
I, for one, have never understood the controversy over swearing in books intended for teenagers. It’s nothing they haven’t heard, and likely used, when talking to their friends, or haven’t been exposed to from films and TV. It’s certainly not as if strong language is used gratuitously in most YA literature–I can understand why parents/educators and literary critics alike would be opposed to swearing just for the sake of swearing. When well used, however, it serves a purpose: impact and realism.
Suppose that, as a writer, you wanted to make your readers hate a certain character. You wanted to make them feel angry and defensive. Consider these two options for a bit of dialogue:
He glared at me and insulted me.
Yes, it gets your point across, but it still allows your reader to skim over it with little emotional reaction.
He glared at me. “You little bitch,” he spat.
Not only does this version allow for more description, but it gets that emotional reaction you’re looking for. Think about Mrs. Weasley’s final duel with Bellatrix in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That stopped readers in their tracks. Sometimes, when looking for impact, a choice swear is the only way to go.
Then it comes to realism. Say your main character is a 17-year-old drug addict who dropped out of high school and lives in a rundown apartment with her ailing mother (not to stereotype, but imagine a typical hardened YA character). Do you think this embittered and jaded teen is going to be using elementary-school substitutes for curse words? With this character in mind, which piece of dialogue sounds more realistic?
“This piece of junk isn’t working. Now everything is messed up.”
“This piece of s**t isn’t working. Now everything is f**ked up.”
Strong language can be a necessity to develop characters’ personalities and set the scene, and so there’ll be more or less of it depending on what type of story it is. If it’s a fantasy set in the Middle Ages, the cursing might be decidedly more Shakespearean, or perhaps it’ll sound like the French Taunter from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” If it’s a fun story about a bunch of nerdy types, maybe everyone will be cursing each other out in Latin. Strong language is just part of the literary landscape, and authors should be free to use it at their discretion.