This post originally appeared on IPEd's blog as 'How editors can ensure teen fiction is timeless', written by me and published on their website with my permission. The below blog is a rewritten version for authors.
As someone who isn’t far from being a teenager herself (I’m at the older-end of Gen Z), I have read and continue to read a lot of young adult fiction. But one issue I often find as a reader – and have noticed that other readers struggle with as well – is the way young adult (YA) books are often outdated by the time they’re released.
This happens when authors try too hard to make their teen fiction relevant, adding aspects like pop-culture references and slang, or the use of social media apps, but either don’t understand the way teens use these things, or don’t realise how quickly they go out of style. They might also be writing too much from their own teen experience, which could be a decade or more ago. The problem is, YA writers and editors aren’t usually teens. They’re millennials or older. This means there’s a gap they are responsible for bridging, so teenagers can fully enjoy the books made for them.
Some books are meant to be set in a certain time period, and that’s completely fine. But sometimes I’ll be reading a book that feels timeless, and suddenly something alerts me to an exact year. It’s in these cases that I flag the line with the author and query if they might want to omit or change it.
Trends have always had a short lifespan, but since the rise of TikTok, trends can last as little as a few days. To craft an authentic teen voice, it’s important to steer clear of trends and instead go for a timeless feel that doesn’t easily become outdated. It’s also important to look at things young people are closely linked to, like social justice issues and technology, so you don’t write them ‘wrong’.
The last thing an author wants to be seen as is ‘cringe’. So let’s get into it! Here are some ways you can ensure the YA books you edit are timeless and can be enjoyed by teens (and adults) now and in the future.
Avoid pop-culture references
It can be almost painfully obvious when a YA book is written by a millennial, because the pop-culture references are about ten years too late. I completely understand authors wanting to write books that they relate to, and that represent their teen years. But they have to remember that current audiences won’t relate.
Teens now aren’t interested in the same TV shows, celebrities, music and books. For example, it’s painful to read Harry Potter references in new books. It has the most millennial stamp on it, and instantly says, ‘I’m not a teenager, I’m just pretending to be one’. (It also says they support JK Rowling, but I won’t get into that here.)
I see a lot of Marvel Cinematic Universe references in recent YA books, and I love them. It works for NOW, because it’s something that’s very popular. But you still have to remember that in a few years’ time, it could be outdated. People aren’t going to be obsessing over the same characters and actors anymore, and by the time the book is released, the reference might have a clear ‘2022/3’ feel.
If you’ve written a pop-culture reference into your YA novel, consider checking if it is relevant today, if it’ll be relevant within the next few years, and if it will date an otherwise timeless book. If the reference is definitely outdated but you really want to include pop-culture, consider a more current replacement.
Be careful with slang
Just like pop-culture references, slang doesn’t last. As great as it can be as a tool to show where your character lives (Australian slang in books is always fun!) it quickly dates a book when you use slang that isn’t timeless.
Let’s consider the current popular use of ‘slay’. It’s one of those words that’s somewhat ironic among teens, but is beginning to be used widely enough that it carries real meaning. Usually it just means something is great in some way. And there have been many words to mean the same thing over the years. This one will disappear and be seen as ‘cringe’ very soon as well.
Consider a word like ‘dude’, or swear words and curses, which have never really disappeared – if they’re in character, they’re okay! But if a word isn't timeless or in-character, reconsider its use.
Craft an authentic teen voice
Though speech patterns change, there are ways to give your characters authentic teen voices that won’t go out of style. I’ve told you to avoid slang and pop-culture, so how can you use timeless voice strategies that show a character is a teenager?
The truth is, there isn’t one way teens speak. Everyone is different. It’s more important that characters have a unique voice than a ‘YA’ voice. Is the character extroverted or introverted? What are their interests? Who are their friends? Where do they live? These things and more will craft their voice, just like any other character. Characters shouldn’t just sound like the author; they should be their own person.
But there are things that will usually reflect a teenager’s voice. They tend to speak more casually, in a less formal, educated way. You have to remember that they have less life experience, and probably no experience in workplaces like offices, so they won’t talk like a doctor or a lawyer. They’re less mature and have less knowledge than the average adult. Again, many teens won’t reflect this, and your characters don’t have to – but a regular teenager won’t speak like a 40-year-old.
If the characters sound too similar, too adult, too childish or too much like the author is trying to sound like a teenager, consider how to look into different options to strengthen voice and make the prose more relatable to teenagers (beta readers can come in really handy in these cases - talk to real teens!).
Technology and social media
As I mentioned earlier, with the rise of TikTok and quickly-changing trends, technology and social media are ever-changing – especially for teenagers. For example, most teens don’t use Facebook anymore, although a few years ago everyone was on it. Tumblr came and went, though it seems like it could be making a comeback. Instagram has remained popular, as has Snapchat, but the ways teenagers use these apps consistently changes.
And, the way teens use technology is certainly different to how adults use it. I’m sure you’ve noticed that every generation uses social media differently, so when editing YA, make sure you’re considering how teenagers really interact online - not how you interact online.
Unless technology/social media is a big part of the story, or you have created a unique culture of technology that makes sense and feels timeless, I suggest avoiding specifics. Unless you specifically want your story to be in a certain time period, where it relies on that year’s technology, you can just say ‘phone’ or ‘laptop’ – you don’t need to tell the reader what it is exactly (like an 'iPhone 6). You can say ‘post a photo’ without specifying the social media app used. This keeps the usage timeless!
I also want to add a warning about texting/messaging language. The way people message each other changes constantly, and everyone is different. The big trend recently was turning off auto-correct and never using capital letters, because teens wanted to look casual. But even this is turning around already. Instead of relying on what’s current, think about how the characters themselves would write messages. One character might text in full sentences with perfect punctuation. Another’s texting might be full of typos and abbreviations. Some might use emojis. But again, it’s about avoiding slang and instead about crafting a timeless voice that suits the character.
Offensive or Triggering Content
If you hear the term ‘PC’ or ‘woke’, and it fills you with rage because you just hate how sensitive people are these days, maybe you shouldn’t work with YA. Gen Z is constantly consuming information, and readers in particular have a stronger grip on world issues (reading makes you more empathetic!).
Ensuring that the books you work on handle triggering content (such as suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, racism, etc.) with care, especially considering readers are young and impressionable, is a big part of your job when writing YA. Things like content warnings, or using sensitivity readers, greatly help with this.
Gen Z notices when something offensive slips through the cracks in fiction, and they won’t hold back their criticism. There is no room for insensitive content in today’s stories, and no excuse for including it. (Unless it's to make some kind of point, where it is obvious these things are wrong.)
There are many resources out there to help with this, like Writing With Color, which has great advice on writing racial, ethnic and religious diversity. When in doubt, use a sensitivity reader.