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The Top 5 Do’s of Writing YA Lit

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Hello, Wise Ink readers!

If you follow this blog, you’ve gotten used to hearing from Dara and Amy. This post is going to shake things up a bit. My name is Laura, and I’m the new Wise Ink editorial assistant.

I’ve had a lot of experience working for traditional publishing houses, especially those producing young-adult (YA) literature. Having branched out into the world of indie publishing, I’ve noticed that it’s a good time to be an indie YA author. There are a few reasons for this:

  • YA is the fastest-growing genre

  • Readers of YA are technologically savvy, and thus more likely to respond to an author or a book’s presence on social media

  • While it’s true that teens don’t have a ton of money, much of the money they do have is used for entertainment

Almost every teen has access to a credit card, which means that on top of being avid social media users, they purchase books online. Because there are millions of YA eBooks available at their fingertips, teen readers today are extremely discriminating. Growing up with the internet has taught them to sort through content fast, and as a result, their attention spans are short. They will not hesitate to delete a book if they aren’t engaged quickly and consistently.

The quality of writing in YA books is usually quite high, but no matter how good of a writer you are, there is one thing you need to be aware of if you want your book to engage your teen readers: as an adult writing YA, you are an outsider. Let me say this again: YOU ARE AN OUTSIDER.

Let me explain. We were all teens once. You went through puberty just like the people in your book. You had a first kiss at some point, and fought with your parents, but you’re not a teen anymore. You can look back on your teen years and realize that nothing incredibly dramatic back then was that important. And if you’re not careful, you might produce a book that subtly communicates this same sentiment. If that is the case, they won’t buy it.

Luckily, I have five tips that can help a writer produce a YA book that teens will actually want to read…

  1. DO take it seriously

Historically, there has been a lot of shame and derision surrounding YA because there’s a sense that the authors aren’t producing “important” or “serious” work. However, YA literature is good, and it influences an adolescents’ view of the world and shapes who they will be for the rest of their lives. YA deserves the same kind of gravity as any other genre, and should be just as consuming for someone to write, if not more so. Give it the time, care, and love it deserves, and it might just connect with readers in lasting ways.

  1. Don’t make it didactic

This bears repeating: DON’T MAKE IT DIDACTIC. There’s nothing teens hate more than being told what to do.

It’s fine if your characters have certain ethical standards they live by, but allowing a character to sound like a D.A.R.E. Poster or giving your whole story a moral that hits the reader over the head is going to make them go running for the hills, and I can guarantee they will never again pick up another one of your books.

If you want to communicate a certain message, make it subtle. Make them figure it out for themselves. Teens are smart. They know how to read critically, and this will go over far better than moralizing will.

  1. Do use internal logic

Obviously, you need your novel to have internal logic to carry on the story in a clear and satisfying way, but your character’s actions and words also need to conform to an internal logic.

In reality, teens do things that don’t make sense. They do weird and confusing things all the time, but they don’t want to be reminded that they behave this way! Your characters, regardless of age, need to follow a clear, logical path at all times. It doesn’t have to be the right path, but your reader is going to need to understand your characters’ motivations, and they can’t do that if your characters are too unpredictable.


  1. Don’t date it

You might be incredibly proud that you use abbreviations in your text messages and know all the cool new slang and pop culture teens love, but be very conscious of what kind of technology and what aspects of culture are fads. Google, Facebook, and texting are here to stay, but things like the iPhone 5 and the name of the latest Bachelor should be avoided at all costs. Instead, be subtle or vague about your references.

Using any slang that hasn’t made its way into the general American vernacular (like LOL) has the potential to alienate your reader. Be selective about your slang, and use it only to enhance your character’s voice.

By staying away from specifically referring to a trendy piece of culture, you are extending the life of your book because you are not directly linking it to a discrete time period.

If you need to incorporate a specific piece of culture like a band, make one up. Inventing a group is much less polarizing to readers than having your protagonist be a Justin Bieber fan.


  1. Do know your audience

Is your book for girls? Boys? Both? Does your protagonist’s age match your ideal reader? Is the language you use appropriate for the age for which you are writing? Think about the change in style and content in the Harry Potter series, where each book is written for a slightly older reader.

There is a big gap in reading proficiency between ages 13 and 18, and even more of a gap when it comes to interests and experiences. Know that it is not necessary for character ages to match up with the reading level of your book: typically, young readers prefer characters that are slightly older than themselves. By adhering to this preference, you will also open yourself up to the market for struggling and reluctant readers, who require easy prose coupled with more mature content. Your language is the number one thing that can expand or constrict your teen readership, so be deliberate about your choices.

By writing specifically for your teen reader, you, the outsider, have the potential to turn your YA book into something engaging, genuine, and amazing.

What was it about your favorite YA book that made it so good?

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  1. Good rules. They apply to all writing, I think. I just shared this post via the social media. No LOL there. :)

  2. This is the best advice I’ve read in some time. I work for the largest children’s book publisher, and this has some fantastic points for writing something a publisher can sell. Well done.

  3. Thank you very much for your tips! They provide a lot of guiding perspective for writing for teens that you wouldn’t necessarily think of right away.

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