Writing non-fiction for teenagers is much like talking to them: the writer must find the right voice and approach to get through to the teen reader on any given topic -- and some topics are so outdated or overdone that it is nearly impossible to write anything new about them. Writers have to be able to reach teens on their own level, while turning out material that's well-researched and informative enough to be read by all.
Don't underestimate your audience: Teens understand and enjoy much of the same materials adults do. "A successful writer for teens must be able to reach up, not down, to the teen level," explains L.L. Amana, Editor of Teenage Buzz Magazine. Aim for informative, brief pieces that won't bore teen-agers; "articles that are more for the teen-next-door: practical stories that even Jack at his dullest moment will appreciate," Amana says. Don't try to be overly "cool." That means don't pepper articles with teenage slang, don't oversimplify your sentences, and certainly don't waste your time on a certain angle just because you believe most teenagers will identify with it. Like adults, teens turn to magazines for useful information and unique reading material.
Don't do the overdone: Certain topics are used so often in teen magazines that editors dread to read queries on them. Writers, especially those hoping to break into the market, are better off using a new topic or a new slant on a popular topic. "If everyone else is talking about campus tours, I prefer to read stories about city tours around campuses," Amana advises. Avoid topics that teens hear about constantly, from school counselors and teachers, from parents and peers, and from the media in general. There are too many banal "how to study" pieces, articles about the effects of drugs and unsafe sex, and stories about fleeting fads. If you're intent on writing about a popular topic, be sure you have something new to say -- for example, write about new research in eating disorders as opposed to writing another personal story about the subject.
Stay informed: Avoid sounding boring or outdated by perpetually doing research. Keep abreast of teen pop culture, changes and issues that affect teens, and trends in fields that play important roles in the lives of young adults, such as education and social development. Depending on your market, pay attention to local and national fads. For best results, go straight to the source: talk to teens and the people in their lives to find out first-hand what their interests and passions are.
Understand your readers: It may have been years, or even decades, since you called yourself a teenager, but don't let that reflect in your writing. Teens enjoy articles with a friendly, yet somewhat authoritative tone. In fact, many teen girls' magazines look for pieces that sound much like advice from and older sister. Strive to include personal accounts to which teens will relate. As an example, if you're writing about SAT preparation, include some personal stories of recent test-takers. Furthermore, it's important to give all subjects and topics serious attention, no matter how insignificant they may seem to adults. Young interview subjects, for example, should be given as much credit and attention as professional sources.
Concentrate on a specific area: While many mainstream teen magazines contain similar features and sections, there are plenty of teen publications that specialize -- college planning magazines and religious education journals are just two examples. Break into the market by writing about something you know well -- for example, if you enjoy movies, write for teen entertainment magazines. Research is the key, says Amana. "Read all small and large teen publications, but instead of imitating their format or style, try to find what they are not offering and consider that small niche [on which] to concentrate." Once you have mastered a particular field, there are always opportunities for venturing into other teen topics.
Break in with fillers: The competition is fierce, especially when it comes to more popular, national magazines. Editors often use in-house staff for features and columns, and only a handful of articles are written by freelancers. There is, however, plenty of room for "fillers": quizzes, games and puzzles, factoids and other short pieces. Fillers may be fun or educational, depending on the tone of the magazine and editorial preferences. For example, a crossword puzzle could focus on world history or popular music. An added bonus to writing fillers: once an editor accepts several pieces from a writer, she may be more likely to accept that writer's queries and article ideas.
Don't ignore the "sell factor": Keep in mind that while your writing must appeal to teens, it must also interest the grown-up clientele. The teen market has gained a tremendous reputation for its spending powers. Teenagers are not only making more money than ever, they often have two other "deep pockets" to turn to -- their parents. Thus, writers must make sure their articles are sellable in a market that's concentrated and competitive. "Even though we all master what teens want or like, there is still this major challenge on selling the concept to the adults, [such as] advertisers or sponsors, or even a hard-nosed editor," says Amana. Be sure to write clear, concise and well-researched pieces that are marketable to a universal audience and appeal to adults as well as teens. Editors are always looking for positive articles that promote the well-being and advancement of teens.
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Copyright © 2004 Ursula Furi-Perry
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.