Six Tips for Writing 'Clean' For Young Adults

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
In my newest novel, Blackbird Flies, I presented my book in a ‘clean’ form of YA. I’m particularly fond of the ‘clean’ category of young adult. There are a growing number of authors writing ‘clean,’ which is essentially delving into the same story lines and plots found in most other young adult or adult fiction but without the graphic violence, sex, or language. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with more graphic reads but personally I enjoy the idea that my books can be read by everyone, everywhere rather than be excluded from larger groups who may be offended or those too young to be exposed to such things. And let’s face it: the same story can be told just as brilliantly without all the detailed bedroom scenes or cursing.

Last week, I was asked to give a few tips for authors and authors-in-waiting who want to make it in this genre. I’d like to share them with our WOW readers, authors and writers too. Here they are:

(1) Research those already ‘making it’. The best kind of research an author can do is learning from those authors already selling books. Go to Amazon and search the top 10 to 15 books in the genre you write in. Read everything you can from those authors. They’re the ones to watch and learn from because they’ve already found what works.

(2) Learn about your audience. Just because we’ve ‘been there done that’ doesn’t mean we ‘get’ how kids are handling the same situations today. And because most of us are adults writing for younger people, we need to be sure we research the groups we’re writing about appropriately. Learn about young adults’ peer groups: how they dress, what they care about, what they don’t care about, how they speak (both to adults and to their peers—we’ll touch on that more closely in a moment), etc. The more accurate you are, the more appealing your story will be to the young adult audience.

(3) Speak as a young adult. Your writing voice needs to be that of a young adult rather than an adult speaking to young adults. Get out there and do some field work by chatting with a few young people in the age range you’re writing in. They offer invaluable insight!

(4) Write clean but not too squeaky. In cleaning up a manuscript we have to be cautious not to make it so squeaky that these age groups will avoid the book like the Plague. ‘Clean’ simply means presenting or saying things in a different way. There are many books my girls bring home from the library that still have the silliness, sarcasm, peer jiving and fart jokes but presented in more generally acceptable way. That’s the whole idea! Simply use more ‘show’ with reactions, facial expressions and body stances. Again, it’s important to listen to how these young people talk and react to one another.

(5) Have a good mix of the five ‘basic story ingredients’. I love using this analogy. To make food taste great, we need to tap into the five basic flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savory. When writing a great story, authors need to have a healthy mix of, what I call, the ‘five basic story ingredients’: humor, seriousness (or delving into a serious topic/issues), a sprinkle of mystery, a pinch of drama and a surprise (big or small, depending on the specific storyline). Every story I’ve read or have written has a healthy combination of these elements. Some stories will have a little more humor or a higher level of mystery but almost all stories have these important story ingredients (even the romances!)

(6) Get input from your audience. Do you want to know what young adults are into these days? Do you want to make sure that your particular work is on the right track? Go right to the source. Have a ‘test read’ with a small group of young adults. Have them read your story, have a discussion and get their input on what to change or how to make it better. If anyone knows what appeals to young adults, it’s them!

Aside from everything mentioned above, the most important thing we can do as clean young adult authors is give these readers credit for their intelligence and their choices. These young people will be the adults of tomorrow and the books we write for them today will, hopefully, give them a solid road to walk on for their journey. Having our books on the shelves as ‘cleaner’ options to reach them, teach them and/or give them a voice is the highest honor I can think of.

Write on!

Chynna Laird has written two memoirs, an adult suspense and a ‘clean’ young adult novel. Aside from writing, she does what she can to raise awareness for families living with SPD and other special needs. Check out her Website (, main blog ( and her White Elephants blog ( to learn more about her and her work.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Chynna--I am not prudish when it comes to language when I am around my friends. However, I am a 3rd grade teacher, and cannot read aloud a book or recommend a book to a student if there is colorful language in it.

Thanks for your post.

Robyn Chausse said...

Great post!
Even when I was a pre-teen--and that was quite a while ago--there were YA books that shocked me and made me uncomfortable. One of them had a traumatic scene at a pool that I won't repeat but was completely inappropriate...and I purchased these books through the school!

Chynna said...

Hi there! Thanks for your comments!

Sioux, I know what you mean. I'm not really that offended by 'colorful metaphors' but I have an 8- and 6- year old who are very good readers so I'm careful what I leave laying around for them to read. Thanks for your point!! =)

Robyn, that's CRAZY! I remember reading a similar book like that when I was in elementary school. Although I'm not sure I agree with censorship or 'getting rid of' books, I think there are some that should have a warning of certain issues discussed in books like that--both so parents know what their kids are reading and so kids can be invited to ask quesitons, etc. That's SO important.

Thanks so much, you guys!


Stephsco said...

I attended an Young Adult bookstore event to see 9 fairly popular YA authors. They discussed how awkward it can be when a parent asks what the recommended age range is for their books, since usually that question is followed up with a qualifier; is there swearing or sex. One writer admitted her language is clean, but it is an action-oriented story about an older teen, so technically it was violent. She said most parents seemed unconcerned with that, focusing more on the swearing or sex.

It's interesting what people will focus on for a "clean" book. A friend of mine is a teacher in a Christian school. He asked if I recommened a certain YA book for his class, and although there was no swearing or sex, the story was about a girl shunning her religious beliefs. I think parents at his school may have a problem.

I definitely support clean writing, but I have to say it gets into the weeds a bit when you have to define what that is, and to whom.

Carradee said...

Yeah, I remember being scarred by books in my middle school's library. I didn't want to read books with certain content, and I've always been kinda frustrated that there's no easy way to shield myself.

I write "clean" YA that includes dark topics, myself. My goal: that if a parent's going to ban their kids from reading my work, it'll be for the subject matter, not due to any graphic or gratuitous content.

My betas say I do a good job.

For example, I have a YA UF that's in the final stages before release. The narrator's a runaway female slave. (Yes, that kind of female slave.) No blasphemy, and very light on objectionable language, though part of this final polish is seeing if I can't scrub even the few d——'s out. No sex scenes.

I'm even including parental advisories on my site. I've known 8-year-olds with enough maturity that they would've enjoyed my books. I've also known 15-year-olds who wouldn't be able to handle the subject matter. Maturity levels matter.

Chynna said...

Hi again, y'all!

Stephsco: you made some amazing points here. 'Clean' writing, like all genres, gets criticized for what should be accepted under that cateogory. The main considerations, of course, are swearing, sex and situations but it can be cloudy.

My YA novel "Blackbird Flies" is categorized as 'clean' because there is no explicit sex or swearing but has been labeled "18+" by some distributors because I delved into situations such as drugs, mental illness and teen suicide. Personally, I think these subjects are very important to address and get people talking about but it's all in how you talk about them. As Carradee stated.

@ Carradee: we share similar frustrations with our work! And you are absolutley right that maturity levels matter. AGE isn't always a factor...MATURITY and level of understanding IS!!

FAbulous points. Keep them coming!!


Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top