Writing Clean for Today’s Teen

Teen readers are some of the most avid readers in the market. They deserve well-thought out novels that entertain and inspire. Yet, every time I pick up a YA novel at the bookstore there’s some kind of cuss word, explicit reference, or drug reference in the first five chapters. Sure, teens deal with heavy stuff every day at public high schools. But that doesn’t mean authors need to promote sex, drugs, and rock and roll. (Just kidding on that last one. 🙂 )

Why Teens Need Better Options

Ok, before you get Footloose on me and organize a dancing protest, consider this. Teen reading is a great time to show kids making good choices. Those high school years are not only a teaching time academically, but relationally as well.  That’s why it’s important to portray characters who eventually make good choices, even if they mess it up at first. They still need to get it right in the end.

Teens want to read books they can relate to. But what makes a book transcendent? A book that rises above the standards, shows real characters fighting tough choices, and becoming better people in the process.  Don’t give the character exactly what they want. Watch how they deal with it. That’s real life. Adulthood. Aren’t teen years preparation for adulthood?

Readers want to grow with the character. It’s part of a good story. Especially to teenagers. They’re in the middle of a hyped-up time of change and they are open to learning new things. So give ’em what they need, not just what they want.

Why I Choose to Write Clean

I read clean fiction. The Christian market is a great place to find clean reads, but I’ll consider books that meet the clean standard. I prefer positive, redemptive books that show a glimpse of a new reality or shed a new light on something.

It’s what I strive to write. Even in the land of the unpubbed, I picture my reader when I write. In my mind, my reader is a teen girl who is tired of the same old click-lit, mean girls club, vampire romance. They want something that’s funny, honest, and thought-provoking. And they don’t want the junk they deal with every day.  They want to rise above it to learn more about themselves and their world.

I loved those stories as a teen. Madeleine L’Engle is still my favorite author. I grew up reading her young adult books, A Wrinkle in Time and my all-time favorite A Ring of Endless Light. Those books stayed with me. They transcended the time period they were written in and spoke to me. One day I hope to publish novels that will speak to any reader, anywhere, just like that.

An Author’s Challenge

In YA fiction, it’s hard to stay on trend and still write a transcendent story. It takes extra research, plotting, and characterization. But it’s well worth the effort for a book that will speak to teens the way no other book can. And those books are usually appreciated by adults as well. I still love finding that great YA book I can rave about.

Everybody loves a good story, but a great one is remembered for a long time. Maybe that’s why Jesus taught in stories. Yeah, I like to set my standards high. Reach for the stars and all that. A good story is something we can all relate to. A great story is one that makes us see the world in a whole new light. Gotta love the power of story.

Here are some of my favorite YA authors:

Madeleine L’Engle Classics that read like modern-day stories.

Jenny B. Jones Hilarious and thoughtful books that inspire.

Robin Jones Gunn Godly stories the portray girls making good choices.

Stephanie Morrill A thoughtful, funny, and dramatic series of how a bad girl finds a good path.

Kristin Billerbeck Lighthearted, inspirational chick lit for teens and twenty-somethings.

Nicole O’Dell Great choose-your-own-ending series.

For more insights on this topic go to Holly Michael’s Writing Straight blog post with guest blogger YA author Jennifer Donohue What’s In a Story.

Q4U: What are your pet peeves about YA fiction? What are some clean reads you can recommend?



  1. I so agree with you. I just read a YA novel in verse for a writing conference and was amazed with the author’s talent, but turned off by the trashy scenes in spots. I didn’t recommend it to anyone else after that, and was sad, because she was a gifted writer. So many people think that books have to show the ‘truth’, whether it be cursing, explicit sexual scenes, etc. But that is not MY truth, and so I applaud your efforts to raise the standard for teens.


  2. You bring up a great point, Char. There’s a difference between “showing” what teens face, and creating characters that rise above their circumstances. The difference: you don’t need to go into explicit detail, especially enough for an entire scene.

    Thanks for your insights. 🙂


    • Thanks to Marliss Bombardier for this stat on the ACFW YA Loop:
      Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne analyzed the use of profanity
      in 40 books on an adolescent bestsellers list. On average, teen novels
      contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers. That translates to
      almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.

      Coyne was intrigued not just by how much swearing happens in teen lit, but
      who was swearing: Those with higher social status, better looks and more

      “From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because
      adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in
      positive, desirable ways,” Coyne said. Coyne’s study will be published May
      18 in the journal Mass Communication and Society.

      From: ScienceDaily.com.

      Just some food for thought. 🙂


  3. I have issues with YA fiction whose characters talk, act, and react like adults. Let’s face it–teenagers are not simply younger adults. They think differently. Their limited life experiences cause them to react and respond to life events differently than adults do. Okay, most adults. We all know adults who will act like seventeen-year-olds til the day they die!

    An authentic YA voice is key to making YA fiction realistic and relevant. It doesn’t have to be trashy or contain profanity to be realistic, but if the characters are too-good-to-be-true and the storyline is lame, the novel won’t appeal to the majority of teenagers. Relevant, realistic and filled with hope–that’s what I’m striving for in my YA fiction.


  4. Wow Beth, well put. I couldn’t have said it better myself. So many times people lean to the extremes on this issue. I completely agree with you. There’s a happy medium of relevant, clean, and still redemptive. Thanks for the great perspective. 🙂


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