I am an obsessive editor. I will mark up the first few pages of a paperback book just for practice and question how the book ever got published. Effective and unrelenting editing turns mediocre writing into excellent writing.
First things first: Did you set the hook on the first page? That’s right—page one. While memoirs are not novels, you still want someone to read them. Begin with an interesting story that immediately draws the reader into wanting more. The worst way to begin: “I was born July 20, 1936, in Marshall, Missouri, the middle of three boys.” Better: "When I was growing up in Marshall, Missouri our family moved so often from one cheap rental house to another that my two brothers and I attended all of the town's four elementary schools."
Begin editing only after your memoir is written in at least outline form. Editing as you go can easily stop the creative juices.
Edit and Re-edit, Then Edit Again
If you are going to take money for writing, that makes you a professional. Permit no mistakes. Your quest is absolute perfection. Do not settle for anything mediocre. Lay the piece aside after the first edit. Come back a week later and do it again, then again until it is perfect. Read your work aloud and then have someone else read it to you. Did it sound as you intended? If not, rewrite.
Spend as much time on a page of prose as you would a poem. Make every word count—make every word the right word. Check for better words after you finish creating. Look for opportunities to use alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc. Upgrade your prose; polish imagery; use metaphor and simile. Can the reader see and smell and hear, touch and taste what you are attempting to relate?
Convert negatives to positives. Key on the words not and no, then figure out a way to write what is, rather than what is not. In other words, show, don’t tell.
Eliminate expletives. Expletives are not necessarily profanity, like the Nixon tapes (expletives deleted), but any word or phrase used merely to fatten a sentence such as there were, there are, there is, it is, it was, which are, and so forth.
When You Think You Are Finished, Cut Some More
Get rid of weak words. Either use stronger words or write around weak words. Was, had, had been, which, because, so, just, and, this, the, are examples of weak words.
Give your subject more than one level of depth. Add details, examples and highlights to enrich your stories. One highlighting method is dialogue, which keeps the momentum going. Dialogue should sound like you are in a room listening to your subject. Improve tag lines. He said, she said are probably better than any contrived words, except when the identity of the speaker is obvious and no tag is needed. He ejaculated, he spat, she urged harshly, she gasped, are tags the reader can do without. The dialogue should carry its own weight.
Use double spacing and a twelve-point font, preferably Times New Roman. Short sentences add energy. When editing, don’t add commas, add periods.
Fine tune. Keep chronology and characters straight.
Memoir writers are no different than other writers when it comes to good storytelling and grammar. Join a decent critique group—not a support group—to hone your skills.
Finally, when you think you have finished editing, cut the completed product by twenty percent.
Larry Cunningham is an essayist and an award-winning poet. He is president of the Springfield Writers’ Guild, Springfield, Missouri. Photo courtesy Larry Cunningham.
Your Comments Are Welcome
Let us know your experience with editing. Have you self-edited or asked a friend or a professional for help? In what ways did the results make you happy or upset? Click the comments link below.