YA KNOWHOW Language in YA

In the first of our series of YA KnowHow, Kim Hutson looks at the language we use in books for young adults. 
“Should I dumb it down?"
 “It has to be simplified though, doesn’t it?” 
“It can’t be too scary/sexy/violent/upsetting*, can it?” 
(*delete as applicable) 
I will say this only once: YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NOT STUPID. 

Well, not generally. No more than adults are stupid. What I mean is: give them some credit. When you are speaking to a teenager do you dumb down your language? (I would hope not.) You might avoid certain topics or expletives (we’ll come on to that) and you might not understand some of their slang (we’ll come on to that, too), but in general you would use the same language as you would with an adult. Remember, they’re constantly soaking up information about relationships, culture, their own identity and where they fit into the world. They are Young Adults – talk and write to them as such. 

Swearing (and difficult subjects): if it is appropriate to the story, and not gratuitous, then write it in a way that feels real and correct to you. I am not a ‘pulling punches’ kind of writer. When a writer friend mentioned that their publisher had asked them to remove all expletives, I had a meltdown which prompted me to email my editor friend. In response she told me to a) Calm down and stop being so worried about the little details, and b) Write the book the way I thought was appropriate – if a publisher later wants less swearing or booze or sex or violence, they can ask you to edit it.

I recently read this article by a teen writer who is adamant that you should avoid slang and pop culture references because as well as dating your writing, they are unrealistic because (she says) teenagers don’t really use language like that. Whilst I do mainly agree, I also think that a little slang can be used to create a believable and engaging voice for your characters (Becky Albertalli does it brilliantly in The Upside of Unrequited) – just remember that the more ‘down with the kids’ you try to be, the more ridiculous you will probably sound. Maybe make up some slang particular to your character? Use unexpected or old-fashioned words? If that’s not appropriate then listen to actual teenagers speaking (YouTube is a great resource).

 In short: Read a lot. Listen a lot. NEVER ‘dumb it down’.


Useful links 

"I'm a teenager and I don't like Young Adult novels" - a look at what YA gets wrong about teenagers
"How much sex and swearing is okay in YA?" - a useful discussion forum
"How much bad language is allowed in novels?" - a look at expletives in writing
"Do teens need an abridged copy of the Da Vinci Code" - Dan Brown writes a YA version of the Da Vinci Code 

Based in Manchester, Kim Hutson won the Margaret Carey Scholarship 2014. She is currently writing YA whilst working as associate lecturer in Creative Writing at MMU and supervising a museum.

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