Larry Cunningham: Edit Your Memoir for Maximum Reader Interest

Larry Cunningham
Guest article by Larry Cunningham

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.


  1. These are such great tips! It's everything I do rolled into one blog post. Very nice. I am like you, I edit and then edit some more. But there can be a danger in that. Over-editing is not good either. I noticed a few times while writing my book, that in my most recent edit, I was adding in things I'd taken out earlier. In other words, I was rewriting what I'd taken out so that it looked just like, or was very similar to an earlier version. Weird, I know. So, I do think you can edit too much. That's when taking a week or two away from it is a great idea. This is great information. Looking forward to reading more! ~Karen

  2. Thanks, Karen. I had a similar experience with my first memoir book. That's why it's so important to have another pair of eyes, or even several pairs, review a manuscript.

  3. Thanks for these tips, Wayne. I have been asked to edit the memoirs of a senior minister in our church, now deceased, and I don't know quite how far to take it. (They're calling the book memoirs, but I suggest it's more an autobiography!) His story has been a significant part of our church history in this country, so the church is going to publish it. Every octogenarian in the church is checking it and putting in his two cents worth! I feel I need to preserve his writing style, but while it is quite gripping it doesn't always flow. I've offered to do the work in the company of his widow so that she can make suggestions where necessary. She is a close friend of mine, which is why she particularly wants me involved. I have a little editing experience in magazines and educational books, but it's not my field and I don't know enough about the principles involved, so am feeling somewhat out of my depth. Help!

  4. Anonymous: I understand your frustration, especially since lots of people are involved. Memoir usually covers a short period of time with a specific theme. Autobiography usually covers a lifetime. Take a look at My Editing, Coaching, and Writing Services page in this blog. Then send me an email and we will develop a plan. My first 30 minutes of telephone consultation is free.

  5. Many thanks for your response, Wayne. I am still waiting for the revised draft with all the various comments and contributions, which will hopefully be coming through to me quite soon. Once I fully know what I am dealing with, I will be only too glad to have some assistance and will contact you to see what can arranged.