Slang in YA

“Thank you for not using the word ‘bling’ in your story…” 

So said my critique partner to me when reviewing my last manuscript. Why? Because I *heart* slang and tend to intersperse it throughout my stories, not just in dialogue but sometimes in narration as well. I find it hard to restrain myself from using the word “bling” when “jewelry” sounds so bourgeois and stuffy.

Disclaimer: I have no literary degrees to back up my claims. All subject matter is extremely subjective and open to interpretation.

So, what do we demand of our YA writers? We want dialogue to be authentic, snappy, true-to-life, but we want our stories to be timeless, classic, universal. The two goals seem to be at odds with each other. How can I write a timeless story without it feeling old fashion? What technology should I choose to include or exclude? How can I be authentic to the teen voice without trying too hard? In attempt to address these concerns and/or foster a dialogue about it, I’d like to introduce a couple questions to ask yourself when dealing with the use of slang.

Will ‘bling’ last?

Slang is an ever-changing organism and the shelf-life of words is shortening all the time, so think about whether your words will even be recognizable in a couple years. Some words, like “cool” and “awesome” have stood the test of time. Others like “radical” and “cowabunga” are only appropriate for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In some cases, having the slang date your story might be beneficial. For instance, in historical fiction, you’ll want to include colloquialisms specific to that time period to lend authenticity. On the other side of the spectrum, dystopian, futuristic stories, such as Scott Westerfeld’s SO YESTERDAY and MT Anderson’s FEED, make up their own set of slang words that enhance the satirical voice. They are used repeatedly throughout the story to give readers definite context. As a general rule, for a realistic story set in modern times, less is more.

Who said it?

Are all your characters spitting rhymes or is it just one character who tends to wax the vernacular? Consider using slang as a tool for revealing character and a way to analyze your dialogue on a deeper level. Each character’s dialogue should be unique and specific to them. Also, try to avoid stereotypes (the farm boy who says aint, the inner-city kid who flosses the ice) unless, of course, you’re going to develop that character fully and give us snippets of their lives that makes them more (or less) than a stereotype.

Is there a better word?

You might find after a little thought, that there is a more accurate and universally known word that will be just as effective. A good experiment would be to hand off your manuscript to your mother or someone in the generation above you. Ask them to highlight words they don’t understand. Another exercise would be to give your manuscript to a teen beta reader and do the same. You might find that your slang is dating you, to your high school years and the slang that was popular then. As an addendum to this point, think about your curse words as well. There are words that are hot buttons for librarians and teachers, the list is amorphous and ever changing, but it’s good to be aware that it exists. If you’re going to use profanity, do it with intent, and if not, consider toning it down so that your book will have a wider market appeal.

What about technology in YA books?

The kryptonite of all YA writers has to be the continual introduction of new technological gadgets. This brings on a whole host of concerns in and of itself, but for now, I’ll just say, a cell phone is a cell phone. If you want to call it a Smartphone or a BlackBerry or an iPhone, you run the risk of that technology being outdated before your book even hits the shelves. At the same time, technology can’t be avoided and if you try, then your book will be dated to the point of being unrealistic.

In conclusion… The best advice I can give is to go back through your manuscript and highlight all your slang. When you do, you might find that you’ve used it more than you intended. You may also find that you used the wrong words (Some slang words that you think are one thing, are really something else). Treat slang like adverbs and try to reduce as much as possible, and the ones you keep, use with intent. Because sometimes bling is best.

I’d love to hear comments on this subject, any tips you’ve learned or mistakes you’ve made, because like the world of YA, it’s a continually changing rulebook.

2 thoughts on “Slang in YA

  1. Amanda Hoving says:

    I will also thank you for not using “bling.” 😉 Interesting discussion — I’m wary of using a lot of slang, and am extremely thankful that “cool” still means what I think it means. I think.

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