There are many over-laps between writing for children, adults, and teenagers. But there are some elements that I find specific to writing for teenagers, that I occasionally need to remind myself about.
1) Don’t talk down to teenagers.
Teenagers are in the process of turning into adults, and often feel as though they’re already an adult. If you want to keep their attention, talk up to them, not down. Don’t make your reader feel like you’re preaching to them, that you know all the answers and they don’t. Show your respect through your words, and allow them to engross themselves in your book without being made feel like a student getting a lecture.
2) Modern day understanding
If your story is set in the current day, research current teenagers. Don’t pretend the Internet and social media don’t exist; they’re a huge part of the modern teenager’s life that can’t be ignored. You don’t have to name drop social media platforms, but you do need to have a basic understanding of how modern teenagers communicate.
3) Truths and lies
There is no right or wrong in how much truth to tell when writing YA (young adult). It’s an area of much debate among YA writers, parents, teenagers, teachers etc. I personally try to keep in mind that I’m not trying to traumatise my readers, and I don’t want to normalise behaviour that could be traumatic in later years. I’m not trying to scare-monger; I would be uncomfortable thinking that I’d had that effect on someone’s life. That’s my personal comfort zone in my writing, and everyone’s is different. But I also don’t want to lie, or hide so much truth that the reader gets an unrealistic understanding. Reading is often a teenager’s first experience of something, so I believe sensitivity is vital. But it’s still important to believe in your teenager reader’s ability to safely process the information, and where better than in the comfort of a book rather than real life?
4) Get your voice right
Sixteen-year-olds don’t act or think like forty-year-olds. To have a realistic teenage voice, you need to put yourself in a teenager’s shoes- how did you feel when you were a teenager? What thoughts pre-occupied your mind? What simple mistakes did you make that you would never make now, as an adult? Ensure the reader feels like the protagonist truly is a teenager, and not a teenager written by an adult. Go back into your memories and find your teenage voice.
5) Think about your language
Teenagers don’t speak like adults, because they don’t live an adult life. They therefore don’t say things like “There’s great drying out today” because they’re a) unlikely to think about hanging laundry on the line and b) they’re not thirty something year old mothers living in the countryside, like me. Think about what effect the world has on a teenager before you create their dialogue- for example, what is it about the weather that affects a teenager, and may lead them to say something that includes a reference to it? Perhaps it’s the impact of sitting all day in a scratchy wet school uniform, or being unable to play sports on a soggy pitch. Think outside the adult box before you create your dialogue.
Teenagers often use slang, but slang gets old quickly and dates a book, so is not always a good thing to use in your writing. I’ve read very few YA books where slang worked timelessly.
Teenagers are a tough audience. They are in the process of hyper-analysing the world around them, and thus will spot flaws in your book quickly. I’ve spoken to teenagers who have given up reading a book because it just wasn’t realistic. I don’t mean that it has to be set in the real world to be believable, but the character’s choices and actions do need to ring true to the reader. They need to believe that the teenage protagonist really would act in certain ways in certain situations. Your readers are not small children- you can’t pull the wool over their eyes.
Parents/guardians are a huge part of a teenager’s life. It’s important to give the parents a role in your story, or else give an explanation as to why the parents don’t have a role. Teenagers off for days on an adventure with no adult input is just plain unrealistic. Also, give the parents a real character- I’ve read too many YA books where the parents are just a floating figure in the background, but in the real world, parents are among the most significant people in a teenager’s life.
Most teenagers go to school. This means that unless your story is set in a holiday period, you need to consider how to incorporate school into your story. And if it can’t possibly be set in school, or have any reference to school, there needs to a clear reason why.
A lot of YA books have a main teenage character with an abnormality (real, or presumed abnormal by the character) of some sort; kids who feel on the outside, or kids going through some sort of internal or external struggle. I believe it’s important to be aware of the fact that any of your readers may have gone through a similar experience or emotional journey. Most teenagers do not yet have an adult level of maturity, and being a teenager is a notoriously emotionally challenging time. So write with a certain level of sensitivity. Don’t presume you know everything about something just because you’re an adult. Do your research, particularly looking at how certain issues, situations, or experiences affect teenagers on an emotional and functional level.
Finally, I believe the best way to improve your ability to write YA comes from reading YA books- find out which ones are the bestsellers among teenagers, not adults. Talk to teenagers, highlight paragraphs in books that you know work or don’t work. Read like a teenager in order to write like one.