May 19, 2015

15 Tips for Young Adult Writers

I Read YA week is May 18-22. “YA” or “Young Adult” fiction is novels, stories, poetry, and various non-fiction written for adolescents, the group somewhere between ‘children’ and ‘adults’. It includes popular novels like Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and SE Hinton’s The Outsiders.

HarperCollins made this great infographic that suggests 365 YA books for you to read in 2015.  To see all of the details, go here.

ya novels

The YA market is exploding, not only in published novels but readers. Plus, as many adults read YA as the core audience, so if you’re writing in that genre, it becomes a difficult requirement to fulfill at times.  Here are fifteen tips to help you succeed (some from my YA post last year):


  1. include themes appropriate for teensyoung adult books
  2. include language used by teens
  3. don’t ‘dumb it down’. Intellect and depth of meaning has nothing to do with YA reading.
  4. plot, setting, and character are more important than theme and motivation
  5. most YA protagonists are teens that have teen sort of problems–first love, dysfunctional families, school.
  6. ‘coming of age’ stories are popular in YA, showing how a young adult deals with problems typical to that age group and ends up stronger and better for that struggle
  7. Rachel Cohn estimates that 60 to 65 percent of YA fiction is written in the first person and present tense. Certainly not required
  8. the pace is quicker than other genres. Why? Hard to say (because I don’t write it). I’d love to hear from you on this
  9. include lots of dialogue. YA readers like hearing the characters talk.
  10. teens in the story often sound like adults but act like kids. The idea is that teens are intelligent and capable, just not as experienced. I like that.
  11. include what David Levithan calls an ’emotional truth’–the ah hah moment that makes the book resonate with its young readers.
  12. don’t be afraid to use Pop Culture to ground the story, but be aware it could date it. Pick carefully when you include those references.
  13. there’s almost always an underlying optimism in YA–that things will work out, the world with survive, life will be better. Not true in all genres.
  14. Robert Heinlein’s advice: Write the best story you can and then take out all the sex (I couldn’t verify this as a Heinlein quote. It’s catchy though, isn’t it?)
  15. Nora Raleigh Baskin at Gotham Writers say, “In writing for young adults, do not write as an adult looking back.” Why? “It requires truly putting yourself in the teenage mind and often not caring much at all about the grown-up world.”

YA writers: Please add your comments. I update this list yearly and would love to include your thoughts.

For more on I Read YA week, check out This is Teen,

More genre how-to articles:

10 Tips for Steampunk Writers

8 Tips for Historic Fiction Writers

Can You Mix Genres in Your Writing?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor of technology in education, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.