Joe Sedgwick, Head of Writing Services, The Literary Consultancy
So, you’ve written your memoir. Firstly, congratulations! It’s always an achievement completing any piece of writing, especially recounting a personal experience from your life. Now you want to edit it, ready for sharing with your friends and family, or perhaps you’re thinking of self-publishing. Maybe, you want to send it out to an agent or publisher to see if it might be able to reach a wider audience… Whoever your intended audience for your memoir, you’ll still want to make sure it reads as well as possible and does your story justice. I’ve compiled a list of five editing tips that apply specifically to memoir writers.
1. Think like a novelist
There are many good reasons for approaching a memoir as a fiction writer would approach a novel, but for me, remembering that you’re telling a story is crucial. Often, a memoir will focus on one significant event or central theme (I’ll talk more about this later), which means that you can be creative with the telling of the story, and the passage of time for example, as you would if you were writing a novel. Keeping the reader in suspense, not giving away too much too early and maintaining narrative tension are not necessarily story elements one would immediately associate with memoir, but moments of light and shade can keep your reader gripped to your story.
This is not so that your memoir reads exactly like a novel. But by ordering the fragments of time that you’ve experienced yourself into a coherent structure, you can build a framework that you’re able to then play within. By structuring the narrative in the way that a novelist would, you can create a story that is cogent, readable, and enjoyable for your reader – whether they be family, friends or an agent or publisher.
It’s not an autobiography
It’s also worth keeping in mind that when writing a memoir, you’re not writing an autobiography. You don’t need to cover every detail of everything, in order, exactly as it happened. I won’t go as far as to say, ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’, because a) it’s a cliché and b) finding the essence of truth is key to the success of all good writing, as Hemingway believed. But I do think that you don’t always have to rigorously stick to the exact details of everything that has happened, and often, in reality this can hinder the flow of the narrative.
It is of course important not to embellish what happened to the point of complete invention, but it’s important to keep in mind how engagingly something reads on the page. In fact, it’s often the case that even if the reality is outlandish, dramatic or surreal – something that might make you think ‘this is like something out of a movie!’ in real life, can actually feel forced or trite when it’s on the page.
2. Establish your narrative voice early on
This is true of all writing, but especially in memoir, where you need the reader to be on your side and really know you (the character of ‘you’) as early as possible in the book. You’re taking them on a journey and leading them by the hand through some of the most personal moments of your life, so making sure that they are familiar with your voice from the first page is crucial. Your reader needs to trust you, not necessarily because you need to be a trustworthy narrator (we all love an unreliable narrator, don’t we?), but because they need to understand your perspective, and I think the best way to do this is to settle them into the timbre of your voice on the page from the beginning.
On a technical level, you might do this by incorporating some of your dialect, the patterns of your accent, or particulars of your idiom into the writing (I always think of Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as an incredible example of strong voice in a memoir). A good exercise for honing this might be reading your first page aloud, recording it, and listening back to it or playing the recording to a loved one (if, like me you can’t stand the sound of your own voice). If it sounds like you – you’re on track. If it sounds like someone else – keep editing.
3. Treat each person like a character not someone you know
This is a hard one, because similarly to the previous tip about establishing yourself in the narrative, it’s so personal. You might be writing about your mother, father, brother, sister, child, or teacher – people who have shaped who you are. Doing them justice on the page, when they are a living, breathing person is a real challenge, but it’s also very important for making the reader feel part of the experience of your story.
I’d argue that the best way to do this is to take a step back from the real-world version of ‘the person’ that you know and think of them as a novelist might think of a character they’re creating in a fiction. What are their hopes, desires, fears, dreams? What’s their favourite food or drink? Do they have any unusual habits? This not only provides you with a valuable level of objectivity, but also means you can really flesh them out on the page, by showing your reader who they are, rather than just telling them, based on your relation to them.
Readers don’t know your Uncle Jack, Shaz or your Mum
It’s also tempting (not to mention very easy) to assume that all your readers will know your Uncle Jack, or your friend Shaz, your Mum, brother, daughter etc. Especially when these are people that are integral to your life and story. But you must remember that if you’re writing for a wider, general audience, it’s unlikely they’ll know anything about these people, and so it’s your job to bring them to life on the page. And sometimes, in memoir, you might find that you don’t need all of the sub-characters of your life, instead choosing to amalgamate some into one character that supports the progression of the story.
Think about consent, privacy, legal issues
Do also remember, if you are describing people who are still alive, that you might need to think about consent, privacy, and any legal issues around disclosure.
4. Let the reader make their own judgement
Following on from this point, while you’re undoubtedly writing the memoir to share your experience, I also think it’s key to not lead the reader too much with your descriptions of certain events, so that they don’t feel that they’re able to make their own mind up about. One of the reasons memoir can be difficult to edit – as opposed to fiction where the building blocks of the story are fluid and moveable, or general non-fiction where ‘facts are facts’ (hopefully!) – is that everything in the narrative is viewed through the lens of your experience.
Leave or create space for the reader
By sharing your writing with a reader, you obviously want to make sure that you’re getting your views and opinions across, but you also need to acknowledge that once it’s out in the world, a memoir is open to interpretation and the opinions of others. In my experience, manipulating readers too much in one way or another on topics such as politics, or whether you feel someone or something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, can take away from their experience of enjoyment in the book. First and foremost, tell the story, and let people take away from your experience what resonates most with them. Make sure when editing that you have left – or create – enough space for the reader.
5. Remember your central theme as you edit
As I’ve already touched on, it’s common for memoirs to centre around a theme or moment in someone’s life, rather than being a chronological retelling of an entire life. This has been true of many of the more successful commercial memoirs in the last few years (think ‘This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen McDonald, or ‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner), and it can be an incredibly useful device for keeping you on track when you’re telling the story of your life.
Focus and limit distress
While it can be good to have more material to hone down, rather than be struggling to think of new things to write, the problem with getting carried away in the re-telling is that you can set yourself an insurmountable task when it comes to editing. And especially if you’re writing about any form of trauma or painful life event, sticking to a theme can help you focus, and limit distress. It will also help you decide what to cut, and what to keep; and you will need to make a distinction between what’s important to you, and what is important to the story, and your reader. Whether you’re writing for a wider audience, for your friends or family, or even as a form of catharsis for yourself, keeping the purpose of what you’re writing, and importantly, why you’re writing in mind can help you create a piece of personal, powerful life writing.
Joe Sedgwick has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and American Studies from Manchester University and an MA in Publishing from Kingston University. He is head of writing services at The Literary Consultancy.