Genre tips / writers tips

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.

42 thoughts on “15 Tips for Young Adult Writers

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  4. If ever I try the genre this will be of help, Jacqui! It is the one novel form where I would need all the help I can get, because I am so not a YA writer, unfortunately. But yes, a lot of these apply to almost any genre, really, don’t they?


    • There are certain nuggets that apply across genres–I agree. This isn’t a genre I’d every write for either. There are enough people who do it splendidly. I leave it in their competent hands.


  5. Jacqui, I think I’m sensing a difference between what girls might like to read as opposed to what engages teen boys. Harry Potter crossed all ages and genders, but that was a rare series. Working in a bookstore, I noted that teen boys didn’t buy what their girlfriends bought – unless it was the occasional sex manual slipped onto the counter between a Time magazine and People! This is a great set of markers by which a writer can determine if they’re on the “write” track for YA.


    • I’d love to see how those different purchases are beyond the stereotypes–or aren’t. I have no idea.

      As for the YA characteristics, I’ve really enjoyed the comments from readers. I wouldn’t have thought of most of them, yet in retrospect, they sound entirely true.


  6. Amazing tips. ”Include lots of dialogue. YA readers like hearing the characters talk.” I just realized that a few days ago. Nothing better than testing what works and what doesn’t with your target audience.


  7. I read this post on my lunch break at work and I have been dying to comment all day. I simply adored it. I am a YA writer, and I haven’t seen many posts on YA writing – maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but anyway this was fantastic. I decided about a week ago, that I wanted to create a huge list of all the best or most recommended YA books to read, but to my delight – you linked to one here, so I don’t have to, although I am going to have to rifle through it to find the fantasy and dystopian ones as thats the list I want to create, but I am so grateful you posted this list.

    I love your quote from Nora, I think everybody stops ageing at some point, my mum says she stopped at 19, I think I was probably 16 or 17, my wife early twenties my step dad 25 and so on… but being a YA writer who stopped ageing at 16/17 is ideal because my mind never stopped being a teen! (or maybe I’m just desperately clinging to my youth as I rapidly approach my 30’s!)

    I think I might disagree with point 14. Sex is a really big first for a lot of teens and young adults, and actually, I think its becoming more and more present in the YA books. I think its patronising not to confront it and have it in books, particularly with generations being exposed to older topics more and more these days.

    Ok, so you wouldn’t have full blown erotic sex scenes in an YA novel, but actually there is something to be said about honestly covering that first kiss, the first time you undress or spend a night together etc. I am currently reading Susan EE’s last instalment in her trilogy and she spent the first two books building up to the protagonist falling for and being with the male character and we wanted them to get together for so long, that when they did there was no shock that she wrote a steamy scene, I was just jumping for joy. Although as I said before, there was no actual sex – it was however, steamy enough for a raised eyebrow!! But you see my point – I think there needs to be some sexual oriented scenes.

    To pace – and the big why – good question. I think, it is something to do with the pace of life these days. I still think of myself as young… ok youngish, and I grew up as the first generation with easy access to technology, I still remember not having the internet, and then dial up and then the joy of broadband. Everything is fast, phones, people, we have access to everything now. There is no waiting, no having to walk to your friends house to see if there in, a quick text and boom instant access to information. We have become impatient, like Connor says. There is also something to be said for innocence and the pace of innocence – teens and YA’s rarely think through consequences, because you don’t have to – you have parents who are a support blanket. Parents are cotton wool, they protect you from your mistakes, protect you and tell you its ok when you make them – which means you don’t need to stop and think – you just act, its responsibility that comes with age that forces you to stop and think, because the older you get, the more you bear consequences and take responsibility for those consequences – its just another of those ah ha moments! 🙂

    thanks for such a fab post, sorry I ended up writing an essay.


    • You are wonderful–what great thoughts on YA writing. I loved that wheel of books when I found it. There are tons of books that look fascinating to me.

      I can see your point about the sex scenes. Me, I can’t write them in my adult novels but that says more about me than my readers.

      Like you, I noticed there weren’t as many posts on YA as I expected. Luckily, I have a few favorite writers in my PLN who pointed me in the right direction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aww :). yeah that wheel is bloody awesome. What’s a PLN? It’s true actually – the lack of YA posts. Maybe I will do a YA series, I’ve few ideas for posts, but thought they might be too niche, maybe I will do a couple and see how they go. just seen your steampunk tips – LOVE steampunk too. Your blog is so rich and interesting, I literally love it. 🙂


      • PLN–Personal Learning Network–the people I turn to first about writing topics. They’re all over the world and most I’ve only met virtually. A couple in the UK even (is that where you are?). But, they all keep me centered and positive!


  8. I love that Heinlein quote! It kind of sums up one of the reasons I consider my post-Trojan War novel series to be essentially YA, too: I didn’t want my teenage heroes sleeping their way around the Mediterranean (the way one of their fathers did) so I decided if I considered the book YA then it would feel appropriate to leave out the sex.

    My books are very dialog-heavy, so I’m glad that a lot of dialog is a YA thing. Definitely doesn’t deal with anything today’s teens are going through, though. (At least, I rather doubt any of today’s teens are having to stop ancient gods from rising up and slaying the newer pantheons…) Pretty safe to say that there’s not really much in the way of language used by today’s teens. (Then again, it’s the Late Bronze Age…)


      • I’m sure there was slang of some variety, but the only texts that old are official documents, so we have no way of knowing what it was. Since they’d be speaking Mycenaean Greek, it’s all “in translation” anyway, so I just try to make them sound at least somewhat “natural”. (Not sure if I’ve succeeded or not, but it’s still all in the first draft, so there’s plenty of time to fix it later.)


  9. I’m not a YA fan. Too often the genre makes complex issues two-dimensional and characters too predictable. However, I recently read that if To Kill a Mockingbird were written today, it would be a Young Adult book. Think of all of the rich experiences regular adults would have missed, had they passed over this classic because of genre. Makes you think twice.


  10. Great post!
    I write YA myself and one of the things I love about teenagers as the protaganists is that the adults around them understimate them so they are constantly trying to prove their capabilities. They are already underdogs before they’ve even been given a chance


  11. ‘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.’

    Another reason why I would never attempt this genre! What a minefield this is.


  12. Jacqui,

    Tough genre to tackle. I would take a swing at the pacing issue–it’s about a lack of patience. I’ve been a not-teen for a little under a decade, and even in that time I’ve noticed a definite extension in the period of time I’m willing to mull things before I act, in the speed with which that intervening time goes by.

    Teen problems, especially the big ones, are almost always first problems, without the context of experience. Everything is now, now, now. We don’t have the depth of experience to know when we’re being manipulated emotionally, or even by our own emotions. So it’s unlikely teens will identify with a protagonist who really takes their time–or that the protagonist would really be an accurate reflection of youth.

    Just a guess.


    PS Thanks for stopping by the blog the other day. New faces are great, but returning faces are so much better!


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