Is Your Autobiography Compelling?
Granted everyone has stories to tell, but can ordinary people learn the skills and techniques necessary to write meaningful and interesting autobiography?
Yes! Anyone who wants to can learn the tasks necessary to write a memoir to bequeath with pride to their children and grandchildren. Every step in the writing process is important and accessible. Lots of people have done step one: writing down their life stories. Too few take another important step: polishing the stories in the editing process to create a more interesting and complete memoir.
The secret to giving your stories the finishing touch is to read your manuscript as your reader will—with fresh, observant eyes. That’s why, at some point, an outside editor can be so useful, but any writer—even a new one—can learn the basics of editing. Here are some simple points to keep in mind.
1. Be complete.
Have you written everything you need to write about your story to make clear what happened and to whom? Would a stranger understand? If you find yourself ad-libbing as you share your story out loud, you probably have not put everything into the writing. Does your story need additional details of setting, action, or relationships to make it more understandable? Have you provided dates, names and relationships (the who, what, where, when). On a deeper level, have you depicted the inner life (the how and why) that explains so much of what life is all about? Remember, when you’re gone, the story will need to stand on its own—so be clear and answer all possible questions now!
2. Be concise.
This may sound like it’s counter to “be complete” but it needn’t be. Have you eliminated all the extra words you can without changing the meaning of the story? If you find you have restated an idea—even in different words—you are probably being redundant—and that is the opposite of “concise.” Saying it once is enough. Choose the most effective version, and delete the others. Stick to the story. Edit out the material (even if interesting) that does not contribute to the overall impact of your story. (Save it for another story.) This includes all the digressions which, however interesting in themselves, dilute your main account.
3. Use precise language.
Avoid vague adjectives like nice, awful, okay. Replace them with setting, dialogue, or action. “She was poor” is vague but “Her lliving roomhad a linoleum rug, tattered at the edges, that barely reached from the couch to the chairs” shows a setting that gives a strong sense of “poor.” “She was nice” is vague but “She listened with her head turned to catch my every word” portrays a definite nice. Cut out vague adverbs, too, words like angrily and beautifully. They mean different things to different readers. Imprecise words don’t convey much meaning! A useful exercise is to replace half—yes half!—your adjectives and adverbs with setting, dialogue, or action. This almost always makes your text more forceful and informative.
4. Set your manuscript aside for a while.
Time—a month, six months—will provide the emotional distance to evaluate your work more clearly. Time will help you to identify both your strengths and your shortcomings where re-writing is essential. I’m always amazed at how much objectivity I can muster when I reread my own work after a lapse of time. Waiting a while allows me to step out of the role of writer and into those of reader and editor. I can then assess my writing—and edit to improve stories.
5. Show your autobiography manuscript to others for their critiques.
A mix of readers—family and friends—will produce the varied feedback you need to spot problems. Family members will notice missing details and provide important dates and relationships that complete or explain your story. Friends aren’t familiar with your content and so will ask you for information you may have thought irrelevant or obvious. They will ask for cause-and-effect relationships (“so which did you do first?”and for motivation (“now why did your brother do that?”). You’ll be amazed at how their questions reveal what you take for granted and therefore leave unexplained.
Choose readers who will critique the work and not you. Don’t waste your energy justifying to them why you are writing. And don’t write someone else’s version of a family story. Conversely, people who are blindly supportive are not helpful editors (“Anything you do is great by me, dear!”).
You can post a request at a library, a senior center, or a bookstore to form a memoir-writing group whose members will serve as readers and editors for one another.
Don’t be discouraged when you see the need for changes in your autobiography. Most successful writers are persevering re-writers. Always keep your goal in sight: to create a legacy that will enrich the lives of your family for generations to come.