The Secrets of Voice in YA

People often question what defines “voice” in writing. What I’ve learned is that voice is the element of style that makes us sound unique and offers the reader a deeper view into each characters perspective. Voice comes through as you create multidimensional characters, infuse your story with realistic dialogue, and choose words that are authentic to each  character’s personality. Now that may seem like a mouthful of malarkey, but it is my understanding of what constitutes “voice”. As always, take what works for you and leave the rest.

One of the reasons I began writing contemporary YA stories is that I found it best suited my voice. My editor, a literary professor who was a high school English teacher and who shudders at the idea of reading romance novels, told me that I write at a ninth grade reading level. I might have been insulted if she hadn’t mentioned that most best-selling authors these days write at that level. But it got me thinking, and since I found writing in first person came very naturally for me, and I had a whole lot of youthful indiscretions and foibles to write about, I figured YA was my genre.

The most difficult part of writing YA for me was getting out of my adult head where I have things like experience and retrospection mucking up my teenage writing brain. To have an authentic YA voice, I needed to put myself back into those situations that my teenage girl characters are experiencing—no easy task since that was thirty years ago for me and I only had experience raising sons. I still find male characters easier to write–something I will explore in the near future.

The other difficulty is balancing realistic dialogue with proper writing technique. Teen-speak is fraught with colloquialisms such as, ‘like’, ‘ya’ know’,  ‘really’, ‘seriously’, ‘get out’, and the always annoying, ‘whatever!’. Loading up your prose with such verbal diarrhea can kill a manuscript, but you want to sound authentic at the same time. You also have to be concerned about how quickly slang and vernacular change. Words like ‘cool’ and ‘dude’ seem to come back around often. However I believe, ‘gnarly’ and ‘totally awesome’ are hit or miss.  I consider my characters, their personalities, their quirky word choices, and I try to give them something of their own without making the reader flinch every time the character says, “oh, crap!”

Scribes secret to writing the YA voice:  Use the above terms sparingly, avoid the creeping in of adult perceptions, keep the million dollar vocab words to a minimum, and write from your teenage brain. It doesn’t mean to dumb it down, because kids are pretty brilliant and will spot a phony a mile away, but tell a great story, get the emotions right, and be true to your characters. Tap into your teenage brain. We all have one. We just have to dig a little to find it and be willing to go back there and re-visit (or in my case—re-write) history.

Join me next week to welcome multi published author Jo Ramsey as she talks about her lessons learned along the way in writing YA. Jo will also be a guest on my personal website at on Friday the 9th if you want to come over and hear how she made it into the publishing world with her REALITY SHIFT SERIES and her DARK LINES SERIES. Book 2, WHEN DARKNESS FALLS, comes out this month.


15 thoughts on “The Secrets of Voice in YA”

  1. Great stuff here PJ. In the YA category there is a lot of crossover material. I for one have enjoyed some YA like The Giver by Lois Lowry, Esperenza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan and Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. So rest assured your YA books will probably end up in the hands of many adults like me who enjoy them. And it’s not so much what level (except that I don’t want to read children’s books like Little Bear or Goodnight Moon unless it is to grandchildren or children at the library) but a really great story that can be enjoyed. So write on PJ you’ll probably be banking on it soon!


  2. Thanks, Deb. From your pen to God’s eyes. I’m hoping for the “Write it and they will come” miracle that happens when you’re writing what your supposed to be writing and all the planets align to help you create that great story that everyone will love.

    I haven’t read the titles you mentioned, but I’ll be sure to add them to my list of TBRs. Thanks for the tips.

  3. I sat in a workshop at RWA in NY, and the question raised to the editor was, “What exactly is voice?” The editor replied, simply, “If I hear my own voice while reading, I put the book down.”

    Your characters need to come alive on the page, so much so that the reader loses themselves in the story.

    And if you really want to use those big vocab words in YA, you could always create a character that fits that role…you know that girl… 😉

  4. Absolutely, Katy. I do tend to write kind of mature and brainy protagonists so I can get away with using language that portrays a character with some depth. Inevitably, when you are adding in friends, you have one or two who fit the mold of a snarky teenager, a shy loner, or a big mouth jokester. That’s where the fun of creating different voices for each character comes in.
    Thanks for commenting and I love what that editor said. “If I can hear my own voice while reading, I put the book down.” That about sums up the importance of getting it right.

  5. Great points, PJ. I appreciate your comment that you need to keep the dialogue believable without overloading the manuscript with miscellany. Sometimes, when I hear someone say that they need a bunch of extraneous words to sound realistic, I think, “It’s fiction. Be real enough, but write well too.” And yes, we all have teenager bured in there somewhere!

  6. Thank you, Julie. However you portray a character, there is no substitute for good writing. I think “voice” is as much in what the characters ‘do’ as what they ‘say’.

  7. Nice post! My 14 year old characters definitely seem older than their years, but hopefully not by too much. And I’m actually working on a list of current slang that isn’t too trendy (so as to be out of fashion in 6 months) because I can’t rely on my 1980’s teen slang. I have an easier time tapping into my kindergartener/1st grader voice than I do my teenage voice, but you are right on when you say that if you are writing for a younger audience, you’ve got to find the right voice.

  8. I started a writer’s group for teens at the public library last year just so I could hang out with them and hear how they speak and ask questions about current venacular. Of course I also love teaching writing and sharing ideas with teen agers. They have such great imaginations. I have learned a lot from them, but I have to admit, they are not what I consider “average” teenagers. They are writing geeks like me, so their language skills are probably more mature than most 14 year olds.
    In a pinch, I ask my 23 year old son about certain slang. Sometimes he just looks at me and says, “Um…no.” Boys are so much less complicated.

    1. Agree with you there about the boys. They either like it, or they don’t. There are no nuances or shades of gray 🙂

      And I know exactly what “look” you’re talking about. I see it pretty much every day!

  9. I love voice – it’s what makes characters individuals. I love when a character grabs me, puts both hands on the side of my face and says “listen to me!!”. As far as slang and sounding like a teen, I agree with Julie – it doesn’t have to be actual teen slang.

    I will quote from Dean Wesley Smith here – Verisimilitude: An appearance of being true. He goes on to say -“In every story we need enough detail to make it feel right. That does not mean it has to be right, it just has to feel right.”

  10. Thanks Susannah and Casey, you ‘feel me about the boys, huh?’ Of course that’s how my character Sami in ON THIN ICE might sound. She’s the street smart-but-not-so-much- common-sense best friend of Penny, my usually straight laced protagonist, who gets way off track from her so-called perfect life. In revisions just now, I was noticing way too much of my adult brain talking. Must go back and put my alter-ego cap on and teen it up a bit…I mean…tune it up a bit.

    And Dean Wesley Smith is a smart man.

  11. All good points, PJ! I think a “YA” voice isn’t much different than writing a character who speaks with an accent or in a specific dialect – a little is all you need to give readers the flavor, and they’ll fill in the rest.

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