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Who We Are
Youth Communication helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing, so that they can succeed in school and at work and contribute to their communities. [more]
Our Magazines
YCteen (teen magazine)
Represent
(foster teen magazine)
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Writing Program

Writing Program FAQs:

How to Create Writing that Makes a Difference

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Youth Communication’s award-winning articles are created in intensive, year-round writing workshops that are directed by full-time adult professional editors. These FAQs provide answers to the most common questions about the writing program.

How Your Teens Can Write for Us
New York City teens can write for YCteen, our high school magazine. Teens in foster care can write for Represent .

If your New York City school or program offers internships, please include Youth Communication as a resource for teens who like to write. Contact lchan@youthcomm.org for more information.

How do you select editors?

Good editors must be capable of consistently developing articles that are well-written, informative, engaging, accurate, and fair—all while working with teens who have widely varying skills. Our editors must be among the best in the field (most have master’s degrees in journalism or related subjects and/or significant writing and reporting experience) while also being able to fill the roles of teacher, social worker, college counselor, and mentor.

Our hiring process includes an extensive editing test, a group interview, and a hands-on activity, like leading an editorial meeting. Teens participate and have votes on the hiring committee.

How many teens can an editor work with at one time?

As a rule of thumb, an editor can work intensively with about six to 12 writers at a time. During our summer workshops, when teens are here full-time for six weeks or more, each editor works with a maximum of six teens.

During the school year, when teens are not here full time, an editor may be working with as many as a dozen youth at a time. Some of the teens may be working on complex reported stories or difficult personal essays that may require 10 or 20 drafts over several months of writing, while others may be writing movie reviews that require only three drafts written over two or three days.

Videos - The Writing Process
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Reaching and Helping Teen Readers: The Writing Process

Youth Communication helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing, so that they can succeed in school and at work and contribute to their communities.

The reason for the low student/editor ratio is that helping teens develop writing that is good enough to move a reader is essentially a tutorial process. In addition, our editors need to get a deep understanding of their writers’ lives and challenges. That takes a lot of time. Finally, editing student work requires thinking deeply about it. As a rule of thumb, editors spend several hours in background research, preparing mini-lessons, and reading and reflecting on teen copy, for every hour they spend in face-to-face time with each writer. In a program where teens come in from 1 to 6 p.m., the editors are hard pressed to read and develop thoughtful responses to all of their copy between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. We try to keep Fridays as a “no student” day to catch up on reading copy.

Why do young people participate? How do you recruit them?

Each young person has his or her own reasons for joining our program, but we have noticed that the most common reason teens give for working here is to help their peers. That’s probably because the guiding ethos of the program is self-help and youth empowerment. Of course the teens also want to learn skills, meet interesting peers from other parts of the city, get school credit, be heard, and see their names in print. But their primary motivation is the opportunity to help their peers by writing about issues that are important to them.

There are subtleties to the selection and self-selection process. Many young people, of course, want to have their voices heard. And some of those teens are also interested in writing. We want to attract teens who want to write and who want to be heard. Conversely, because we have limited time and resources, we discourage teens from applying who merely want to be heard, but don’t want to write. They get frustrated here. We have found that those kids are happier in leadership programs built around public speaking or other kinds of performance rather than spending hours doing research and working in front of a computer screen. We also discourage kids who love to write but aren’t passionate about making a difference. Those young people are happier in programs which focus on creative writing or poetry. Nonetheless, we do attract a fair number of young people who want to be heard but have poor writing skills. That doesn’t matter as long as they are willing to do the hard work of learning how to write. In fact, their passion to be heard and make a difference provides great motivation to improve their skills.

Our best recruitment device is the stories themselves. They vividly show prospective writers the kinds of self-help stories that are most important to us. An important recruitment source is schools that offer external learning opportunities. Many alternative schools, schools for new immigrants, and the like are eager to find substantive community placements for their students. We also recruit by visiting foster care agencies to talk about our work and sending notices to agencies that work with teens whose experiences would make good stories for our magazines.

What do the writers learn? How are they trained?

The teen staff members work under the direction of full-time, professional adult editors in Youth Communication’s Manhattan newsroom. Many of the students have uneven skills as a result of poor education, living under extremely stressful conditions, or coming from homes where English is a second language.

Youth Communication is a holistic, project-based program where teens learn more than we teach. To complete their stories, students must successfully perform a wide range of activities, including writing and rewriting, reading, discussion, reflection, research, interviewing, and typing. They work as members of a team and they must accept a great deal of individual responsibility. They learn to evaluate information from the Internet and other sources, verify facts, cope with rejection, and meet deadlines. It would be impossible to teach these skills and dispositions as separate, disconnected topics such as grammar, ethics, or assertiveness. However, we have found that students make rapid progress when they are learning skills by initiating an inquiry that is personally significant to them—and that will benefit their peers.

Are the writers paid?

We have tried many pay schemes (hourly, weekly, stipends, payment by the story, etc.). Our teen payment policies are based on one factor: pragmatism. If it works, we use it. Here’s what works for us.

Writers for YCteen are not paid. Represent writers are paid a small fee per published article unless they are getting school credit, in which case they are not paid. On occasion, recent alumni writers are paid a stipend to work on a special project.

We pay a stipend to writers on our foster care magazine for participating in our summer workshop, and occasionally pay stipends for other activities, such as public speaking. In general, we find that it is best if the stipend is less than what the writer would have been paid if the writer were getting minimum wage for the same task.

We are also strict on the payment of stipends. They are not for “time served,” but for work produced. Students who are scheduled to receive stipends but who are often late, have too many absences, or who fail to complete their stories are docked.

Paying teen writers by the hour has never worked for us. Students who are otherwise productive become clock-watchers. It may seem paradoxical or perverse, but our experience is that there is a major difference in effort and quality of work between a teen who participates in our program mainly to help others, and a teen who participates mainly to be paid. The real value that a teen gets from our program is learning how to write and the other skills associated with participating as a staff member on a professional magazine.

How do you choose which topics to write about?

Story ideas are carefully selected and tailored to resonate with peers—especially teens from distressed neighborhoods, recent immigrants, teens in foster care, and others who may have relatively low reading skills. Most Youth Communication writers are growing up in similar circumstances, so the experiences they write about resonate with the audience.

At weekly editorial meetings, the teen writers identify the most important issues in their lives. They then determine what angles on those stories compel teens to read them.

However, before deciding what to write, we first decide which stories we’re not going to publish, such as stories easily available on the web or in other media. So, for example, we are unlikely to write about makeup tips, a new diet, or professional sports, unless our writers have an angle that is different from stories on Seventeen.com or ESPN. We also avoid stories that our teens don’t know much about, such as foreign policy, unless we have a writer with special knowledge or expertise and a clear idea about how to make the topic relevant for our readers.

We aim for stories about which our teen writers are experts. Those are almost always stories that are close to their own lives. From among those stories we then select the ones that we think will have the most impact on our teen readers. Early in our story discussion process, each story gets the “So what?” or “Who cares?” question. We need to know readers should care about the topic and how they will benefit from our story. Sometimes a writer is passionate about a topic, but cannot express that passion in writing. Other times a writer may express passion about an idea, but we later find out that the real passion was for another aspect of the topic which the teen had been initially unwilling to share. Identifying the heart of a story can take a long time and lots of skillful prodding from the adult editor. But we find it’s better to take our time than to rush a half-baked story into print.

What kind of mix do you have between personal and reported stories?

The reporting we’ve done from the start of the program has always had a personal angle, but over the years we’ve shifted more emphasis to various forms of the personal essay. The mix now is probably 70/30, personal to reported.

This shift happened because we realized that the best way of fulfilling our mission, of helping both writer and reader, was through the lens of individual experience. For example, it is very hard for teens to conduct interviews and return with quotes that are more than generalities, and it is very hard to turn those generalities into an interesting article. Reporting necessarily means writing convincingly about something that is secondhand, once removed from immediate experience. It takes especially strong skills to write convincingly about someone else’s experience.

Adult reporters become mini-experts in the subject matter of their beats. They also hone the ability to gather information and present it clearly and accurately. Teens rarely have this combination of knowledge and skills, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, for them to acquire that background during the short time they are with us.

But teens are experts on their own lives. When guided by skilled editors, they can describe their experiences, reflect upon them and analyze them. Most teen writers can do this much more effectively than they can access and convey the reality of other people’s experiences. If we want readers to make thoughtful choices (and take thoughtful action), one of the strongest ways to do that is to model that behavior through the specific example of a young person who has done the same in her own life—especially when taking that action was a struggle. The personal story is the most effective way to do that.

We also include quality reporting in our magazines. But the personal essay is generally a more effective genre for both writers and readers.

Why are the stories so compelling for teens?

After story selection, the editors work intensively one-on-one with teen writers. Most stories go through 10 or more drafts as they are honed to include some or all of the following qualities:

Choice, change, reflection: Adult editors work with teens to develop stories that model an iterative pattern of choice, change, and reflection. Youth Communication editors prompt teen writers to describe situations or events they have experienced, how they responded to the events, (i.e., their choices), how life changed as a result of those choices; and their reflection on their choices and the subsequent consequences.

Reframing: When teens join the Youth Communication writing program they frequently express feelings of victimization—from poverty, bad schools, abuse and neglect, or other traumatic life experiences. Through the writing and editing process, editors encourage teen writers to identify the ways in which they responded to victimization. This process helps writers begin to reframe their stories from a focus on victimization to a focus on creative responses to hardship—and from a focus on the past to a focus on the future.

Strengths-Based/Resilience: During the writing process, editors elicit the skills and strategies the teens used and actions they took to maintain persistence in the face of adversity. As a result, their stories often model resilient, pro-social responses to difficult situations.

Throughout the editorial process, editors insure that all story subject matter is addressed in a respectful, affirming, pro-active tone, which makes the stories appealing and functional for teens and teachers.

In addition, stories typically have these qualities:

Relevance: Story topics are relevant to teens, and are especially relevant to youth who are facing the kinds of significant challenges described in many of the stories.

Familiarity: Stories describe situations familiar to teens growing up in distressed areas.

Candor/Honesty: Teens write about hard issues: abuse, sexuality, drug use, relations with parents in ways that ring true with their peers.

Accessibility: The stories are typically written in simple, declarative prose at the 6th grade level. They are accessible to students with much lower reading levels because students bring relevant background knowledge to the stories. They interest students with much higher reading levels because they address their most important concerns.

Credible models of positive decision-making: Stories show decision-making processes that include choice, change, reflection, reframing, and plausible examples of strength and resilience.

Respectful, affirming tone: The stories provide models of teens who are capable, reflective, knowledgeable, and sympathetic to the challenges facing the target audience.


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