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Writing to Young Teens

My daughter, who is nearly 12, received a notice about a summer camp. It said:

Become immersed in a week of adventure, peer bonding, and community building. Challenges include orienteering, rock climbing, sea kayaking, and camping. Mobile camps–every day is a field day! Small group sizes–14 campers max! Ages 11-14. Rite of Passage!

Was that description written for her, or her parents?

I asked my daughter whether the camp sounded good. She gave a thumbs up (that is how she shows she likes something) to orienteering, rock climbing, and sea kayaking. She frowned at camping. She was not sure what mobile camps were, but she did not like the sound of them. She did not know what “rite of passage” meant. I asked what she thought of the idea of “peer bonding.” She said, “It’s okay if it’s with your friends.” Community building? Ho hum.

As a communication with a young teen, this notice failed. As a message for a parent, it is passable.

How can you write successfully to young teens? Ask some young teens. Find out what appeals to them, what does not appeal, and what language they use.

The Seattle Public Library has a summer teen program that speaks a teen’s language. First off, programs focus on food. Events at the library are called “Doughnut Drop-In,” “Cupcake Break,” and “Pizza Finale,” each featuring a teen’s favorites:

Celebrate the end of summer with pizza, books and fun! Drop off a book review. Haven’t been up to see the roof lately? Join the tour after the program.

Even “Movie Madness” focuses on food, with this description:

Enjoy snacks and an assortment of interesting documentary and anime movies throughout the summer!

There is no peer bonding or community building at the library–it’s all online gaming, urban legends, and book discussions with root beer floats.

When you write to teens, write to teens. Send their parents a different message.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “Writing to Young Teens”

  • Last year I was involved in writing the copy for a major public-facing website in the UK. Part of the site was aimed at pre-teens and another part at young teenagers.

    Let me put it like this: there is nothing more depressing and ghastly than a room full of middle aged white people trying to talk the language of ‘yoof’ and thinking they know what young people want to hear.

    What you suggest – ask some young teens – seems absolutely spot on. Exactly what we didn’t do last year and what we should be doing this year.

  • Matthew, thanks for that “depressing and ghastly” image. It may be easy for a group of middle-aged people to think they know what their teen readers want. But if you asked them if a group of teens could write successfully for them (for the old folks), they might see how presumptuous that approach is.

    The rule: Know your reader, whoever it is.

  • Some aspects of this (in my opinion) are dead on. But, I don’t agree with asking teens about “how they speak/how to write to them”. My friends and I have had someone approach us about this and my friends just laughed in their faces. And, quite honestly, it was hilarious. Picture it: a middle-aged person walks up to a bunch of fifteen year olds and questions them about how they speak. I mean, come on. And, another thing to think about: the fact that teens don’t want to be seen talking to an adult, because in most teen’s minds, adults are weird and annoying. Most of us don’t even want to be seen with their parents. But, thanks for this. It was quite the entertaining read. 😉

  • Sorry, forgot to add one thing. Also, even if you’re not actually going up to a teen and asking them, it’s still annoying. To us, it’s annoying when adults try mimic us. And, it’s even more annoying when they actually do it. Like, when I get an ad in the mail that says something like: “Come chillax at Camp [insert stupid, ridiculous camp name here]! Eat pizza, chill out, relax with your “homies”! Don’t miss out on all the fun!” Now THAT pisses us off. It’s degrading. It makes us feel like you believe us to be… inferior to you and that how we talk to eachother is a stupid phase or that it’s ridiculous, when to us, it’s not. It’s like, a way of life.

  • Hi, Melissa. I enjoyed reading your comments. It was fun to look at what I wrote nearly two years ago and learn what you think about it. My daughter is older now, and I believe she would agree with you.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

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