Writing For Age Groups (and why I don’t)

YA… means “Young Adult”, when you’re talking to writers.  There are a lot of other acronyms the book business uses, all to describe and define the ages of their readers.  I understand that and it makes sense, from a business perspective.  A big publisher needs to have a way to look at sales data so it can do better ‘next time’ and keep getting books to readers.  An agent might have a particular knack for pitching and improving children’s books.

Fiction writers shouldn’t.  If a writer is going to write baby books (you know, primarily 3 word sentences and mostly pictures) age groups are fine.  One year olds aren’t much interested in literary content, yet.  Otherwise, age groups should never be a consideration while a writer is in the middle of writing.

child-316510_640Sure, it sounds counterintuitive.  After all, you want to make sure your readers are old enough to ‘handle it’ or that it ‘speaks to their problems and experiences’.  Or do you?

Speaking from experience, the one thing children don’t want is to be tossed into a ‘demographic box’ and told by someone they’ve never met what they should be reading.  (Kids would phrase it VERY differently)  For instance, my younger brother told me last year that the Hardy Boys are ‘badly written’.  At the age of 10, that was his commentary.  Not ‘they’re stupid’, or ‘the writing sounds weird’, or ‘they don’t sound real’, just a short, sweet ‘they’re badly written’.  After which, he proceeded to stick his nose back in the copy of “The Return of the King” he was already 3/4 done with.

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are the textbook ‘age group’ novels.  And you know what?  My brother is right: they’re badly written.  To the point of being painful to read, if you’ve ever read anything like Tolkien, Verne, Sanderson, Butcher, Crichton, or any of the myriad great authors out there.  And yet we’re surprised when a kid tosses down a book in disgust because the author assumed kids aren’t capable of appreciating good literature.

Worse, most ‘age group’ books assume that everyone is the same.  They assume all kids go through the same difficulties; bullying, not fitting in at school, being awkward, not being taken seriously by adults, any of a range of cliched tribulations that are usually the product of some adult not doing his job right.  So, the author takes this assumption and writes a book that he thinks will ‘reach out’ to the chosen audience.

What it usually does?  Insults the chosen audience.  When an author (someone weaving a story) takes the ultimate creative undertaking and turns it into a project aimed at a specific demographic, with the idea of appealing to that demographic’s taste, without exceeding that demographic’s abilities… welcome to the wonderful world of numbers and statistics, people.

The slogan: we break readers down to data points and feed them plot-lines we know they’ll love and phrasing that isn’t hard to chew!  Each book with twice the recommended daily intake of excitement and social lessons, guaranteed not to exceed psychologist-approved difficulty levels for your child!

Uhm… sorry… that got away from me.  It gets the idea across, though, and that’s what I needed it to do.  Unfortunately, this problem doesn’t just extend to children’s literature. It doesn’t stop developing until somewhere around the 20+ age group, and even then, it doesn’t disappear, it just maintains a constant.

For instance, there’s an ugly idea floating around that ‘Young Adult’ books need to deal with ‘mature’ subjects, since that’s what the readers are dealing with in their own lives.  I’m also speaking here as a one-time-young adult; this needs to stop.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve thrown a book I paid good money for away because someone decided it needed a ‘mature’ scene in it.  Just one scenes, and most of the time, the scene doesn’t even fit the book or make sense with the rest of the plot. It’s as if someone said, ‘hey, this needs this sort of content in it, or it doesn’t fit our criteria’.  A friend of mine, Allison Rose, wrote an article about just that sort of thing.

And then it’s taken one step further, when you get to books written for ‘Adults’.  I’m not talking about books that are ‘Adult Fiction’… those are just…. never mind. I’m talking about books marketed towards not-children-readers.  Most thriller fiction, a lot of science fiction, and a lot of urban fantasy is directed towards this crowd.  And you can pretty much bet that the ‘R’ rated content has made it into every one of these books.  Jim Butcher would be my all time favorite author (possibly even outstripping Tolkien) if it weren’t for the unnecessary, distracting, and plot-stupid (new word!) ‘adult’ elements in his books.

But the age-group targeting isn’t just about ‘mature’ content, though.  That’s just the part I find most annoying, since it limits the books I can love and recommend.  Age-group targeting, as I pointed out earlier, requires the writer to make tacit assumptions as to the comparative intelligence of his audience.  That should be a massive, screaming red flag for any author.

Any age-group targeting means you have to make assumptions about that age-group.  You have to make assumptions about their reading level, their interests, their level of societal awareness, their acceptance of one topic or another, assumptions about everything they are.  As a writer, assumptions are the last thing you should be making.

Writing for the ‘older generation’?  Good luck ‘targeting’ them, because you don’t actually know anything about them, just hear-say and records.  Writing for them can succeed, because they can understand that it’s a younger person talking to them.  ‘Targeting’ them?  ‘Appealing’ to them?  You think kids hate being told what to do, wait until you try telling the ‘older generation’ what to do.

elderlyAnd the same goes for every age-group and ‘demographic’. (oh, how I hate that word)  Don’t target them.  They aren’t targets.  They’re readers.  Write for an age-group, if you want to; that’s different.

Personally, I write for readers.  I don’t target them; I’m not writing a book that ‘appeals’ to them.  I’m just writing a book, primarily because I want to write a book.  But I’m also writing it for my readers; every word I write I consider whether or not a child can read it and whether I’d feel embarrassed that that child read my book and quoted it to a friend.  I don’t assume a younger person is an idiot and needs to be talked to in words of less than three syllables at all times.  I don’t assume that my older readers require a ‘mature’ scene every other chapter, or a curse word at ever startling revelation or scary incident.  I don’t assume anything about my readers.

I do my best to write a good book.  Some readers aren’t going to like what I write and that’s okay; I’m not trying to jam it down their throats just because they fit a certain temporal-profile on a spread-sheet.


-Note to readers-

Yes, I know this is a controversial subject.  Yes, I invite discussion on it; I love to talk with people over articles of interest.  No, I will not allow irrational or inflammatory comments to remain on my blog.  Please be polite.

2 thoughts on “Writing For Age Groups (and why I don’t)

  1. aallisong

    Hear, hear! Thank you for putting into words what I have thought for a long time – only from a reader’s point of view.

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