How to Write for Young Adults (Even If You Aren’t One)

So, you’re writing a YA novel, but you want to do it without:

A. Embarrassing yourself
B. Wasting the reader’s time
C. Falling prey to stereotypes, misconceptions and flat storylines
D. All of the above

Well, you’ve come to the right place.

When you’re writing for a teenage audience, you have to strike a balance between relatability, emotionalism and universal truth. These are the three most important elements in YA.

That’s because young adults respond best to relatable characters with whom they can identify. And, it’s the emotional journey your characters take that resonate the most with young readers. If you can accomplish the first two elements, it’ll be easy to share a universal truth with your readers without coming across as preachy or condescending.

Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Let’s discuss what to focus on when writing for the young adult reader.

Here’s a list of resources for researching your novel.

Define Your Target Audience

Defining your target reader is good advice for any author, but it’s essential when you’re writing for the YA crowd. You need to know your YA reader.

Let me take a moment to say that YA is a hopelessly basic term that applies to a wide range of genres (horror, fantasy, dystopia, romance, mystery, etc.). There’s no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to YA. Remember this, though: YA is not a genre, it’s an age group. And, lucky you, you get to define both the genre of your story and the age group of your target audience.

So, what’s the age of your ideal reader?

Psst: it’s not enough to say, “Teenager”.

While your YA reader is probably a teenager, there’s a huge difference between 13 years old and 19 years old. Even though YA spans an audience of only six years in age, one end of the spectrum is absolutely dissimilar to the other in terms of maturity, exposure, interests and point of view.

To figure out the age of your ideal reader, look at your protagonist. Your story’s protagonist should be the same age as the reader. This goes back to the element of relatability. One guaranteed way to create a relatable character is to make him or her the same age as your ideal reader.

Also keep in mind that YA readers will read books with protagonists who are older than they are, but not younger.

Get Familiar With What Else is Out There

As a writer, it is important to develop a fanbase– an audience that sticks around to read your next novel. To do this effectively, you’ll need to create stories that fit into the genre of your choosing. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel and create an wacky story that doesn’t abide by the rules of the genre.

To write a satisfying romance, there needs to be genuine love (even if it’s not a happy ending). To write a nail-biting mystery, there needs to be red herrings.

While the YA reader is young, that doesn’t mean he is unsophisticated. He picks up a novel of a particular genre expecting to check off certain elements, so don’t disappoint.

It’s important to see what other books interest your target reader. Study the best sellers for your intended genre to figure out what they do successfully. Perhaps it’s pacing, plotting, or characterization. These are general elements that you can incorporate into your own writing to create a book that resonates with your audience.

Learn to Censor Yourself

You’re a writer and you hate censorship. I do, too. But, when you’re writing for a YA crowd, get used to it.

Your intended audience may be teenagers, but teenagers have guardians in the form of parents, librarians and teachers– any of whom can say “no” to your book. Unlike adults, teenagers are not free agents who can decide for themselves what they read. So, your book needs to get approval from one of these guardians before ever reaching a teenager.

Although there are exceptions to every rule, books that describes orgies, gratuitous violence and prolific drug abuse probably won’t make the cut.

But teenagers have sex and do drugs, you say. They use profanity, too.

All of that’s true, but it’s also true that many parents don’t want to expose their children to these things in literature. Or in movies, which is why we having ratings.

If you must write a book that tackles these topics, do so delicately (and probably not in detail), knowing that you’ll need to convince the guardians, too.

Avoid Stereotypes

When you cross over from teenager to adult, something magical happens instantly: all teenagers become whiny, know-it-all brats.

You weren’t that way, of course. Just youngsters today.

Bu,t remember that when we group all teenagers together like that, it’s so easy to condescend. If you’re not extra careful, that lofty attitude can color your narrative and create unsympathetic, unrealistic characters that your reader won’t be able to relate to.

If you write from the posture that “kids today don’t really get it”, you’ll alienate your audience.

Not all teenagers are filled with angst. It would be a mistake to write a novel that way.

Make a list of the qualities your protagonist has that only a true friend would know about. Is your protagonist intuitive, passionate, protective and kind? Don’t just scratch the surface with what a stranger can see, but go beyond to what can’t be seen.

This is how you build characters that your reader can connect to — remember, your YA reader is likely much more emotional than an adult reader. The reader is able to connect to the protagonist through his or her emotional journey.

Be Careful with Cultural References

OMG, whatever you do, don’t get careless with slang and cultural references. That’s hot, that’s bad, that’s rad— none of it’s cute.

While an occasional nod to pop culture may be okay, you don’t want to litter your novel with such references. Hopefully, you’re creating a novel that future generations will want to read. Will a reader 50 years in the future understand your relatively obscure slang from today? Or will it distract the reader from your story?

Use slang thoughtfully. Let your book to stand the test of time and be understandable and relatable to teenagers years from now as it is today.

Find Your Inner Child

Don’t roll your eyes just yet. What I mean is that you were a young adult once, maybe not too long ago. Get in touch with that vulnerable side of yourself– the part where you felt unsure, hopeful, hopeless, open, insecure, invincible, etc.

The most poignant part of growing up is when you crack open and see the world anew– what you see may not be beautiful, but the experience of maturing certainly is. Make that evident in your novel.

One of the distinctions of YA is that the character grows up during the process. The protagonist isn’t looking back and reminiscing about his life– he’s actively and continuously participating. The protagonist transforms in front of the reader. The reader is able to gain insight as the protagonist matures.

Instead of writing as an adult looking back, remember yourself as a teenager, access those emotions and write from that perspective. It’s a small but significant shift that will help you connect with your audience.

Don’t write from the perspective of wisdom and adult logic. Remember that you’re writing as a teenager to other teenagers. They’ll be able to tell if you’re not coming from an authentic place.

Don’t Shy Away From the Hard Stuff

Life isn’t rainbows and fairy tales, and your teenage reader (no matter how young) already knows that. It’s okay to tackle the gritty stuff. Just remember that the ending should be thought-provoking with an ultimately hopeful message.

No matter how bleak the subject material, the story should empower the young reader.

Additional Resources

Check out these related posts:

Don’t forget to download this resource list for researching your novel.

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2 Comments

Parker Hankins

Wow!! This was really good!! Even though I am 15 and really like this genre and write this genre, I found it so helpful. Thanks for writing!!

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Paulinette J Quirindongo Ramos

Nice artcicle and very instructive, so thank you for this valuable information. So, now my problem is the following, this is my first attempt at writing YA for I usually write mature content. My characters are between ages 26 and 35, living in a apocalyptic world. This article says that they feel comfortable with characters of their age, but also love reading characters older than them. HELP! Should I lower their age to 19 and 20 or leave it like that? Any advice would be appreciated.

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