Writing YA: Capturing the Teen Voice

by Taryn Albright and Kate Coursey
published in Writing

Today we have a double-guest post by Taryn Albright and Kate Coursey, freelance editors at Teen Eyes.  This editing service looks at manuscripts through the eyes of teens (both Taryn and Kate are under 20) and helps writers nail that ever-elusive “teen voice.” When I met Taryn and Kate at BookExpo, I knew I had to have them guest post this week.  Without further ado, here’s their take on how to write Young Adult (YA).

TA:  When I started the editing service that would become Teen Eyes, I had many goals, but one stood out. I had read enough manuscripts to know that a YA writer’s greatest struggle is nailing an authentic teen voice. It seems to be an innate gift. Unlike writing, it does not come with practice. Unlike plot, it does not come with planning. Unlike setting, it does not come with research.

KC:  My agent calls voice the “It factor.” It’s that intangible, indefinable quality that allows a writer to bring their characters to life. With teen characters, an adult writer must be (somewhat) able to separate their own experiences and perspective from the experiences of their characters.

TA:  Some elements of books can disconnect the teen from the character even more than voice. For instance, certain vocabulary (“willy-nilly”) gives away the author’s age. So do references to certain bands, books, or works of art. Anything that dates the book should be avoided—including beliefs. I always roll my eyes when a teen character is wary of technology—today’s teens grew up in a world where it was weird not to have a cell phone!

KC:  As editors, Taryn and I focus on overall voice as well as these smaller issues. For instance, one of my clients had a character who spoke of her best friend’s incredible intelligence by referencing a 1600 on the SAT. The client obviously didn’t realize that the SATs are now scored out of 2400, and a 1600 would not be a particularly good score.

While these small issues are easy to fix, overall voice inconsistencies can be quite problematic. I recently read a manuscript by an older woman, who wanted to write a book for her grandchildren to read. Her 17 and 18-year-old characters spent much of their free time obsessing about marriage. At the end of the book, two of these characters married their boyfriends over the summer between junior and senior year. As I explained to the woman, our culture has shifted in recent decades, especially in large urban centers (where the story took place). It’s very, very rare for a 17-year-old to get married, even if 17 might’ve been the norm when she was a teen. Subsequently, most teenagers aren’t thinking seriously about marriage. The characters’ mindsets did not match with those of current teens.

TA:  It’s a mindset, which is why so many YA authors are convinced they’re teens in adult bodies. And it’s hard.

Here are some tips to make writing authentic teens easier:

TA:  Read YA. A lot of YA. Almost exclusively YA, until you feel like you can pick out a YA book in a paragraph or two.

KC:  Ask teens you know what their favorite books are, and which books ring “true.” Personally, in terms of voice, one of my favorite books would have to be BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver. She nails the contemporary teen voice.

TA:  Observe teens. As creepily as possible. Go to malls, movie theaters, or sports games. What slang are they using? What slang aren’t they using? What technology is on their person?

KC:  Watch teen movies, especially high school movies. I know, I know – high school movies can be pretty ridiculous. But they do get some things right!

TA:  Read teen magazines. Seventeen, Teen Vogue, and other teen fashion magazines will show what fashion is “in” and what’s not. Avoid things you don’t see consistently, because that will date you.

KC:  In fact, try to avoid specific references to fashion/bands/trends, because if you get your book published, odds are the trends will have changed by the time it releases.

And here are a couple tests for you:

TA:  Have a friend grab a pile (like 15-20) of books, a mix of MG, YA, and adult. Open to a page in the middle and read a few paragraphs. How long does it take to put your finger on the age group?

Obviously, your manuscript can be tested by asking a teen in your life to read. Don’t expect an uber-helpful critique from this teen. Ask questions like “Do you have someone like my main character in your life?” “Would you say some of the things my MC says?” “Is there anything that you would never ever in a million years do?” (Like do the moonwalk with your dad at your sweet sixteen.)

There are a lot of rewards that come with writing for teens. Your character experiences everything in the extreme. You get to describe something for the first time—first kisses, first jobs, etc. And above all, teens can become the most passionate about a topic of any age group, and a teen who loves a book will not hesitate to champion it above all else.

KC:  The teenage years are so versatile and formative. Writing teen characters really is a gift, because their experiences have such a profound impact on the people they will become. They are constantly shifting, changing, and adjusting their perspectives, and thus the events in your book have the power to mold your characters, perhaps more so than adult fiction.

Have fun with your writing! Remember, the teen audience is smart and enthusiastic…time and time again I’ve heard authors say that interacting with teen readers is the most fun. We are always looking for a good read.

Taryn Albright is a 19-year-old author represented by Vickie Motter. She is a freelance editor at Teen Eyes Editorial, a literary agency intern, and the personal assistant to Gennifer Albin (CREWEL, Farrar Strauss, and Giroux, October 2012). When she’s not immersed in the publishing world, she is a collegiate swimmer and weight-lifter.




Kate Coursey is a 19-year-old YA author from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is represented by Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh and Otis. Her debut novel, a YA steampunk set in a world based on India, is undergoing revisions at Scholastic Press. She is a freelance editor with Teen Eyes.

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