`Writing for Young Adults: How to Create Exceptional Literature

Writing for Young Adults: How to Create Exceptional Literature

“I wrote a few children’s books…not on purpose.”–Steven Wright.

It can feel that way sometimes, when I am writing for young adults.  Finding the right voice which speaks to both (Young Adult) YA and adult audiences can prove maddeningly elusive.  But conscious effort to understand your chosen genre and audience, and to speak to them accordingly, can make every difference.

Understanding Writing for Young Adults: Genre and Audience

Some insist YA owes its American genesis to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; some point back to Twain and Alcott; others have taken to ascribing YA to some works of that Shakespeare fellow. And there are those who take umbrage at the notion that YA even constitutes a legitimate genre.

But Young Adult fiction–fiction geared, let’s say, toward readers 16-25 (give or take) is as legitimate a genre as any other. To suggest otherwise is an insult to an enthusiastic readership numbering in the millions, more than half of which is comprised of adults. As with any genre, there is good YA and bad. The writer who knows the difference is well-served indeed.

What Great YA Does for Us

Great YA makes us feel something. Young adults relate because they are feeling some of those very things. Adults relate too, because at one point in their lives, they felt some of those things too.  I think of The Outsiders, which S.E. Hinton penned as a teenager herself, and which I first read as a young teen. It is simple and powerful in its classic YA themes of young love, the perils and pain of socioeconomic divides, and, of course, coming of age.

I concur with Meg Wolitzer who contends that it’s not just a sense of “verisimilitude” in good YA which lures in the adults.  The S.E. Hintons of the world aside, most YA is penned by (and, as we’ve already established, consumed by) adults. They are taking a journey back in time (even if a story is futuristic, it is going back in time in the sense that it is told through the eyes of YA protagonists), and hopefully presenting it in a manner that resonates with YA and adult audiences alike.

Great YA  is every bit as much about the words in which these characters  live—the experiences, milestones, feelings, and conflicts that have them faltering at that precipice between youth and adulthood. Good YA does more than tip its nostalgic cap to those good ‘ol days. The pervasiveness of depression and suicide among teens is a sobering reminder that if something is felt strongly enough, it is a reality, no matter how many well-intended folks assure us it just comes with the territory, or that we’ll outgrow it. Great YA mines this rocky terrain, a place where young adults struggle to find their footing at the nexus of two worlds. There is something powerful in speaking to an audience in a way they understand, in a way that tells them you understand them. Great YA does this.  It is a place where hope still lives.

What Role Do the Language Arts Play in Writing for Young Adults?

The Lewises, Alcotts, Riordans, and Rowlings of the world make it look easy but for mere mortals such as myself, it can prove an oh-so-elusive balance: writing for young adults in a way that speaks to—but not above—them, while also speaking to—but not below—adults? Perhaps most of Rowling’s magic is conjured in her richly drawn characters and the dark and exhilarating world in which she placed them.  Let’s sample a small bit from chapter one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

The two men took their allotted places. Most of the eyes around the table followed Snape, and it was to him that Voldemort spoke first.


“My Lord, the Order of the Phoenix intends to move Harry Potter from his current place of safety on Saturday next, at nightfall.”

The interest around the table sharpened palpably.

Unremarkable, but that is my point: there are hundreds of thousands of similar passages I could have excerpted from the series, any one of which flows seamlessly, any one of which simply works.

The two men took their allotted places.

Allotted. No big thing, and yet, everything. Word choice matters.

Rowling might have gone with: designated, assigned, given. And each of those would have been fine. But allotted catches my eye because I have seen words like that questioned in YA work. As in, do teens really talk like that?

I push back just a little against such litmus tests, commonly tendered though they are. I do not always subscribe to the notion that the voice of a third-person narrator must always equate identically with that of the protagonist. It best not deviate wildly, but what is important in this consideration is a narrative voice that reconciles ably with the age, voice and world of the protag. I have faith in young readers, and also do not wish to alienate adults with oversimplified language.

As with anything, the pendulum can swing to an extreme, and must be re-centered. Those who tend toward the other extreme—who in their justifiable fear of losing young readers by sending them scrambling endlessly to the (probably online) dictionary–risk reducing things to painfully rudimentary levels.

Balance, my friends. Balance.

Let’s briefly revisit the Potter passage.

The interest around the table sharpened palpably.

Palpably. Let’s try this again: do most teens speak in this manner? Not many. Rowling could have perhaps opted for noticeably, or visibly. But palpably sticks a little better, singes the meaning a bit more hotly onto the page. If some young readers need to look it up, so be it.

When all’s said and done…

If you love YA then keep on reading it (here is but one of many YA lists you could consult), and if you love writing for young adults, keep on doing that too.

Stay focused on your target: target genre, target audience.

Your weapons of choice are: story, character, language, voice.

And if you are guided by a commitment to speak authentically to your readership, your aim shall be true

Tell me your opinion: Do you enjoy YA, or do you agree with some of its critics? What additional traits should be stressed in writing for young adults? What are some of your favorite works?

Writing for Young Adults-How to Create Exceptional Literature


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About Daryl Rothman | @drothmanwrites

Daryl Rothman’s novel The Awakening of David Rose, will be released September 9, 2019, by EvolvedPublishing. He has written for a variety of esteemed publications, and recognitions include Flash Fiction winner for Cactus Moon Press, Flash Fiction second place winner for Amid the Imaginary, and Honorable Mention for Glimmer Train’s prestigious New Writer’s Award Contest. Daryl is on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. He’d love you to drop in for a visit at his website.


  1. I think you’ve over complicated things here. Just treat it like any other story! Teens don’t mind reading adult book, what they don’t like is being talked down to. Teens are not that much different than adults when it comes to books. If the characters are enjoyable and the plot is intriguing than it doesn’t matter whether you use big words or not!

    • I agree with you, Sunny! I guess my story is YA, because the main characters are in their late teens and twenties, but I’m not really that concerned about what teens generally will like. I know it’s a story I would have liked as a teenager (and now), and I’m sure there are many others like myself–odd as I was (and still am).

      But if someone is trying to create a big YA hit, it does make sense to think about the language and themes that will connect with a larger audience.

  2. Thanks Sunny I concur–but I can’t tell you the number of posts I’ve read and comments from readers and editors cautioning that teens don’t talk that way, teens don’t want to use a dictionary…but I’m with you–if you have those other strong elements, that’s what matters most. That’s why I reference erring on side of NOT talking down to them. Thanks and best wishes!

    • Yeah, I think that the only place where it matter whether its some thing a teen would say is in dialog. As for possibly having to look up a word in the dictionary, often it’s easy to tell what the author meant by context. If the story is good and happen to see a word I don’t know, I often skip over with out a second thought.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Daryl!

  4. Evelyn thanks for those perspectives and KM, thank YOU: always an honor!

    • Daryl, thank you! Your post was so helpful! I especially enjoyed this sentence: “Great YA mines this rocky terrain, a place where young adults struggle to find their footing at the nexus of two worlds.” — I think this explains a lot about why good YA speaks to adults. Don’t we all feel like we are “at the nexus of two worlds”?

  5. Thank you Evelyn, and yes, I think we can all feel that way…:)

  6. Steve Mathisen says

    Thank you for your excellent insights and examples. 😀
    I will need to reread this a couple of times.

  7. thomas h cullen says

    The Representative isn’t YA (naturally, of course); writing it, however, the “four youths” had felt like a nod to the genre. Just as so much else in it felt like some nod to something.

    The way I feel towards YA is the same as all other genre fiction: it’s genre, thereby in some context insincere – entertaining, and even humane perhaps, but still insincere.

  8. I appreciate the thoughts, Thomas…I hear you…I think it’s still possible to write something genuinely and passionately without being beholden to audience/genre to such extent as to forfeit the heart of what you’re writing about…I.e, become palpably formulaic. Every story may be send to have a primary audience and be classified in some way by someone…so long as tail doesn’t wag the dog, I think there’s hope. 🙂

  9. Thanks for an awesome post, Daryl. I agree with you balance is everything. I have wondered about this, about word choice when writing for the YA market, but then I remembered the books I read in my youth. You don’t have to throw a dictionary into your writing stew and you don’t have to oversimplify things. Words carry the tone and atmosphere in a story. No matter the market you write for, you use the words that is appropriate to your narrative. In that sense when writing for YA I assume ones story intention is paramount.

  10. Woelf thanks, I very much agree with you!

  11. The coming of age story is as old as human culture itself. Perhaps that’s because we rely so heavily on stories to pass down the ways of surviving on to the next generation. And what more important lesson can there be than how to become an adult? How to take hold of the reins of the world, as all those before you have.

    The great thing about books is that they give us a sense of shared experience, allowing us to tap into our innate desire to connect with the world around us. And when a book speaks to something so universal as the struggle to find one’s place in the world, well then it has the chance to become something truly beautiful.

    Thanks for the great, though provoking post.

  12. Thanks for the kind words and great insights Jake! Very eloquently stated! Take care-

  13. This might sound a little unorthodox but the occasional swear word will definitely attract the attention of a young adult reader. I’m not saying that the entire story should be rife with foul language but a few correctly placed and congruent to the story does seem to work in my experience.

  14. I am sixty-six years old and I read YA novels almost exclusively. As a child, I read the classics (Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson) because that’s what my Dad would buy me. I also read The Famous Five and the Adventure series (Ship, Castle, River, Circus, Valley) by Enid Blyton. These days, it’s Garth Nix, Sharon Hink, Michael J Sullivan, Peter R Stone. Michael S. Federson. Some of the authors are well established and others are fairly new.

    If I’m going to write YA, I feel the need to immerse myself in that genre. If you’re going to be a doctor, you don’t study horticulture. One reason I think I love reading YA so much is that I’ve never really grown up 🙂

  15. 80smetalman I concur regarding occasional expletives–if they fit and ring true which they very often can. And Lyn, thanks for the perspectives and I’m abundantly with you in stubbornly refusing to acquiesce to maturity…:)

  16. Ed Arrington says

    C.S. Lewis said that a book written only for children is not good even for children. Lewis took great pleasure in reading George MacDonald’s books, many of which were written for young adults. For myself, I first read Lewis’s classic Narinia series when I was in my sixties, and I remember it as one of the great experiences of my life. To put an age limit on books by people such as MacDonald, Lewis, or Rider Haggard seems not only foolish, but borders on being abusive.

  17. Well . . . first, I think that even children are capable of understanding more than most adults believe they can. So, don’t sell them short. Yes, there’s a great deal that they don’t have the knowledge or experience with. So the language you use and the pacing you use has to be at a level they can understand. NOT talk down to, but explain in simple terms that even an adult can understand.

    Second, the concepts can be adult, even if the language is kept to what the age level can handle — with some exceptions. Where a more advanced word fits better than a simplier word does, I tend to go for the more advanced. I faced this when I was reading in the ’50’s and ’60’s without the Internet and Google to help me define words, and it still worked. Today’s kids have the advantage over me in that respect.

    Third, consistency, continuity and logic. That might seem like three things right there. Actually they’re not. Others might call it ‘plotting’. Me, I just let the characters figure out what was going on for themselves, but kept it consistent forward and backward — foreshadowing sometimes even a book ahead (I wrote 9 books, for fun. Three trilogies based on the same characters and universes). That consistency both ways helped keep what in movies is called ‘continuity’ alive and well. It also played into the logical progression of how the characters developed over time.

    Fourth, have fun with your characters. ” ‘What do kids do?’, Muriel asked. And twelve voices responded, ‘Kids kid!’ ” How do kids of the age group that you’re writing about behave. Notice that I said, ‘that you’re writing about’. Not the age group that will be reading it. Your characters have to be believable. They each talk in slightly different ways, and with slightly different attitudes. That’s real. That’s the hook. So, have fun writing, and play the parts in your head.

  18. My view on vocabulary in YA is that anything an adult can understand, a teenager likely will as well. I learned a lot of words from reading Harry Potter in my early teens, many of which I figured out through context clues rather than a dictionary. Variety in vocab is important in order to service the wide variety of literacy and interest levels, but again that’s not so different from what you’ll find in adult readers.

  19. Thanks Ann, I concur. 🙂

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