Writing a Young Adult Voice When You're Not Such a Young Adult Yourself

Some of us Avengers are no spring chickens. The Captain, after all, is a thawed-out popsicle from the mid-20th century. I can't calculate how old Thor might be, gods being famously immortal. And I, Dr. Bruce Banner, am no "young adult" unless you compare me to those two.

Being a little long in the tooth, so to speak, can make writing for young readers a little daunting. After all, Holden Caulfield might be a fictional one, but like him, most real life adolescents hate what he called "phonies" - and they can smell one at twenty paces. Trying to be cool, act cool, or sound cool around an adolescent is like putting your ego in a Cuisinart and hitting the "puree"button.

Wait - do kids even say "cool" anymore?

See what I mean?

So here a few things I've learned about crafting an authentic YA voice.

1. Listen Up
You want to know what young people sound like? Listen to them. I'm not saying that you should hang out at a mall in a trench coat with a small tape recorder. In fact, please don't. But when you're around young people, listen to the way they talk, and not just the words they use, though teen slang is fun (see below). Pay attention to the way they talk, the rhythms and cadences of different teen tribes. There's the sweet, slightly sad song of a somewhat insecure girl whose sentences rise up a few notes at the end: "So I'll wear a skirt to school tomorrow if you do? But, um, only if you do, okay?" Or the somewhat flattened out buzztone of a neohippie: "Dude. You're, like . . . crushing it." Just be careful not to create stereotypes or cartoon characters. Nothing will mark you as a phony faster.

2. Teenspeak: Keep it Real (as the kids used to say) But Don't Overdo It

You need your young adult voices to sound like young adults, not like parodies of young adults. In other words, you may have learned a lot of really nifty teen slang by sitting near the kids' table at the holidays or hanging out on Twitter chats or trawling urbandictionary.com, but you don't want to overdo it or you sound less like an actual adolescent and more like you're trying to sound like an adolescent. You want to create a character who sounds like an actual teenaged human being, not some old fart's caricature of an actual teenaged human being. So don't throw in a lot of lines like

"OMG, that Kendall Jenner is so bae! Her eyebrow game is so strong, I mean, like her eyebrows are on fleek."

You're going to alienate your audience and look pretty foolish.

3.  Tempus Fugit
Time flies. And language evolves. (Listen, kids, in my day we spelled "any more" as two words!) Slang changes seemingly overnight while publishing notoriously moves at a snail's pace, so the ultra current hip word you use in your draft may sound hopelessly dated when the book comes out.

Yesterday I heard a kid refer to something he liked as "super clutch" (as in, "If someone developed an antidote to gamma radiation that turns you into a big green rage monster that would be super clutch.") My first thought was, "I have to work that into a conversation in my work in progress." But then I reconsidered, realizing that by the time I finish my WIP, query it, get it accepted, edited, revised, edited, revised, and finally published, anyone still saying "super clutch" will be marked as a caveman so out of touch he should be institutionalized for the community's safety. While you may fall in love with a slang word - and word love is what drives a lot of us to writing - be aware that sometimes, for future authenticity's sake, you just don't go there. (Do kids still say that? "Don't go there"? Yeah, I didn't think so. Which proves my point nicely.)

In short, try to capture how young people really talk, just as you would try to capture how anyone really talks; enjoy the slang but don't overuse it; and don't be a phony.

Until next month - happy writing!


  1. One additional comment that I would make is to do with region. I say "don't go there" all the time. I also say things like "scuppered", "on my larry", "randomer", "I swear down" and "mullered". These are not words my friends use. Sometimes they actually have to ask me what I mean -- because I come from SE London, because I've got Northern friends, because I've picked things up from books. In England particularly I've noticed our slang words vary hugely by region so even friends who come from St Albans or Cambridge or somewhere else not too far away are surprised by some of my London phrasings (which in turn are often specific to the boroughs near my school). It varies so much by where somebody's from even in the age of the internet where slang becomes so much more widespread that it's really difficult to accurately capture the vibe of somewhere you don't inhabit yourself.

  2. Character voice is such fun. But it's so hard to not get carried away sometimes...
    Miriam: I actually got asked if I was British once because of the way I said "strawberry." -_- True story. I'm from the American midwest, and New Yorkers sound weird to me. I almost never say "dinky little thing" or such, but I have relatives who do...

    1. Also, to Americans a "Yankee" is a New Yorker (or, if you live in the Midwest, anyone from the East Coast), while to "Brits" a "Yankee" is any American. :-P