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self-editing tips

Self-Editing Tips for Memoir Writers

The self-editing tips I’m sharing with you in this post will save you a lot of time and mistakes! Whether you are self-editing as you write or are going through your manuscript one last time before sending it to a professional editor, you’ll find these tips to be super helpful for better self-editing.

While I am offering you the steps in a linear way—mentioning one thing and then another—in practice as you go through your manuscript, you’ll do well to be aware of all of these steps at one time. That is, you are looking to edit everything.

Of course, you will on various occasions perhaps slight one element of self-editing or another, but when you realize this, you can go back and re-edit.

Going through each of these self-editing tips on your manuscript will take a while. I even recommend that you do it several times and even perhaps a month or two in between times. What this does is distance you emotionally from your manuscript. When you return to it, you’ll read it as the reader rather than as the writer.

Self-Editing Tips

Tip Number One—Theme

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Before you do a memoir edit, spend a moment to ask yourself—what is the theme of your book? What are you trying to say? Your life has been full and complicated. There are many, many things that you can write about, but when you write a memoir generally you are aiming to make a specific point. This point is your theme.

As you reread your memoir, ask if you have really chosen the right theme. Perhaps you have chosen a theme which you feel is acceptable to the public— yes, my clients, do this very thing. They want to make nice. What often happens when this is the case is the writer will unconsciously insert many passages, vignettes and stories that are in support of what they really want to write about as opposed to what they believed they wanted to write about. These two strains—the conflict between what they really want to write about and what they permit themselves to write about—are confusing to the reader.

When you realize you’re developing the wrong theme, it is time to rework your story.

Ouch! I know this is perhaps not what you want to do after having spent a long time writing, but it is what you must do. Often, it is a professional editor who spots the discrepancy and helps you to arrive at this insight.

As you review your book for theme, question every element in your manuscript: does each part support your theme? Keep asking yourself: “What is essential to leave in to support my theme and what can I leave out as it is tangential?”

What is tangential is often called fluff. Fluff is perhaps even very interesting but in the end it doesn’t really add impact to your story. You can make your point without these fluff vignettes.

Tip Number Two—Character, Action, and Setting

Here I am going to call upon Robert Louis Stevenson. He said that all stories must have character, action and setting. In this second tip, I will have you look at all three of these elements.

Character. Have you described your character in sufficient detail to make that character vivid to the reader? Did you include dialogue so that we can hear the characters speaking? Have you described the character in sense detail: the sense details are sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. If you have not, go back and develop these details. Then, ask yourself if you have described your character with consistency?

It happens that a writer will speak about a character in the way that he or she thinks is a polite way or an acceptable way to speak about that character but subsequently he or she will write about the character differently.

I have often heard or read clients describe their mother, let’s say, as a kind and generous person, and then later they will write about how she was stinting either in her praise or in her cooperation and I will ask how can this person you have just described be a kind and generous person?

Obviously, the writer is conflicted about how to portray their mother.

As you do your self-editing, look for consistency in the portrayal. If there is no consistency, which element of the portrayal do you want and need to keep and which must be changed?

Action. Have you selected enough elements of your plot, of your action, to support your theme generally? Stating something once is usually not sufficient to make a point. If you want to show that somebody was belligerent, stating so once will likely not suffice. You must show this belligerence over several scenes for the reader to “get it.”

Have you used foreshadowing and suspense in the creation of your plot? Both of these elements are drawn from fiction but they are important in emphasizing and enhancing the interest of your story.

Setting. Setting is where your story takes place. Setting can tell us a lot about a person’s social and economic condition, about a person’s psychology.

In one memoir that I was coaching, the writer wrote about how going from one locale to another made her feel so much better and how happy she was to be in a different environment. And that was all she wrote! A lot of telling and no showing.

When I asked her to describe the difference between where she had been and where she had moved to, she was able to add elements such as the climate, the temperature, the flora, the landscape—so many elements that created a place that was pleasant to be in as opposed to a place that was really unpleasant and had to be endured.

So much for Robert Louis Stevenson’s three points of every story. As you self-edit, be sure to turn on your spell check and go through your entire manuscript. Remember that spellcheck does not pick up homonyms that are spelled correctly.

Tip Number Three—Be Concise and Complete

I’d like to leave you with the concept of concise and complete. You must say everything you need to say and not say anything more. People will often ask me if they have to write paragraphs and paragraphs to be complete. Well that certainly would not be concise.

What I am advocating is both to be complete and to be concise.

Let me give you an example of complete and concise. When my children were little, I always let them serve themselves. I did not believe in loading their plates and giving them too much food. I didn’t want chubby kids! I used to say to them, “You can take as much food as you want but no more. If you want more food than you have already eaten from your plate, you are welcome to serve yourself more food. And you must eat all that you put on your plate as a second helping.” They were really good about this, too.

This is an example of complete and concise. They took as much food as they wanted —complete—and no more—concise. Your story, too, needs to be complete and concise.

In Conclusion

Utilizing these self-editing tips will save you time and mistakes before sending it on to a professional editor. Let your manuscript ‘rest’ a month or two in between self-edits to distance yourself emotionally from your writing. This distance will make it easier to see where changes need to be made.

If you would like to watch our video on self-editing, click here.

And remember: “inch by inch, it’s a cinch; yard by yard it’s hard.”

Good luck writing your stories!

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