Vocabulary And Word Choice In Teen Novels, by Andy Briggs
How do you know exactly what kind of language to use in a novel for teenagers? You may know the slang and jargon, and have a good feel what most teenagers vocabularies are like. Don’t be fooled. It’s not that straightforward.
Despite your best efforts, your editor will come back to you with a note on the manuscript telling you that a teenager would never say that. Worse, they will tell you a teenager won’t understand a phrase you’ve used. Worse still, they will tell you that a word is too difficult for a teenager to understand. I have had all those comments from people. I could have easily edited them out, but I would recommend you don’t completely back down.
In one story, my lead character – who is British – said, “My bad.” Just to clarify, in case your street cred is not all it should be, it means my fault. It’s an American term. I never thought it would result in a salvo of emails, then actual conversations, with my editor because I didn’t want to change it. Their excuses ranged from, “I haven’t heard it” through to “a British child would never say such a thing”. I just felt it was the correct, light-hearted response my character would say, so it stayed. I got an email back from my editor a few months later telling me they had now heard the phrase everywhere.
Was it an important line? No. Did it matter? Probably not, but my protagonist would never have said “my fault”.
These minor things can get out of hand. I used the word hawse in a line of description. My editor wanted it cut – nobody knows what a hawse is, apparently. If you don’t, then see my next point below. But the hawse was the precise name of the thing I was describing. Instead of “the chain rattled through the hawse”, they would have preferred “the chain rattled through the hole in the side of the hull”.
Using such words is important when a character is supposed to be knowledgeable about something and where someone knowledgeable would use such a word. A pilot is less likely to say, “pull back on the control column”. They would most likely say, “pull back on the stick”. Using the right word adds an extra layer of believability to your story.
There is an execrable trend amongst some publishers to dumb-down the language in stories just so they can make sure it works in the 9-12 or YA sections of the bookshop. We don’t all have the same vocabulary. I know you use words or phrases that I have never heard before – in which case I would look them up. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to throw in one or two words that would perplex the average reader. Usually the meaning of the word can be guessed at in the context of the sentence. If you didn’t know what execrable meant when I used it above, you most likely still made a correct guess. If a word can’t be figured out, then that’s what dictionaries are for.