The Power of Personal Storytelling: How to Write a Memoir that Resonates

A memoir is a powerful tool for self-discovery and understanding and a way to share one’s life story with others. It is a deeply personal and often emotional journey that requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to be honest with oneself and one’s readers. But what makes a memoir genuinely great? In this article, we will explore the critical elements of a well-written memoir and how to craft a story that is both engaging and meaningful.

A woman writing a memoir that resonates.

At its heart, a memoir is a story, and like all good stories, it needs a clear and compelling narrative structure. The author should have a clear sense of the story they want to tell and then guide the reader through the events of their life in an engaging and logical way. The author can organize events chronologically or thematically. This structure builds tension and creates a sense of momentum that carries the reader through the story.

The next important element of a memoir is honest and self-reflective prose. A memoir is a deeply personal endeavor, and the author should be willing to reveal their thoughts, feelings, and motivations to their readers. Depending on the type of memoir, this implies being open and honest about one’s mistakes, regrets, and vulnerabilities. It also means being willing to explore the deeper meaning behind the events of one’s life. The author should ask themselves why certain things happened and what they learned from those experiences. This self-reflection will not only make the memoir more authentic, but it will also make it more meaningful to the reader.

Along with authenticity, vivid details and sensory descriptions are crucial to bringing the story to life. The author should make the reader feel like they are right there with them, experiencing the story’s events. To accomplish this, use descriptive language that evokes the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the places and moments in the story. These descriptions will help the reader to connect with the author’s experiences on a deeper level and make the story more real and relatable.

The author’s voice and personality are also key elements in a memoir. The author should make their story unique and engaging by infusing it with their voice and perspective. Be true to yourself and write in a way that feels authentic and natural. The author’s voice should be consistent throughout the book and reflect their personality and the story’s tone.

Another aspect of a memoir is the sense of resolution or closure that ties the story together and provides a satisfying conclusion for the reader. The author should bring their narrative to a close in a satisfying and meaningful way. To do this, the author could reach a new understanding of themselves or their life, or they could come to a place of peace and acceptance. The conclusion should be a natural outgrowth of the story.

In addition to the personal narrative, a sense of balance between the author’s story and the larger historical, cultural, or social context in which the story takes place can add depth to the memoir. The author should connect their story to the world and show how their experiences relate to the issues and trends of the day. The goal is to help the reader understand and connect with the memoir beyond the author’s tale.

Lastly, a sense of authenticity is crucial in a memoir. The author should be able to support and verify their story, and they should handle sensitive material with tact and sensitivity. The author should be willing to fact-check their story and ensure that it is accurate. Even though memoirs are personal accounts, authors should still be mindful of the people and events mentioned in their book and respect other people’s privacy.

A well-written memoir is a powerful and personal account of an individual’s life experiences and reflections. It allows the reader to gain insight into the author’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations while also providing a glimpse into the larger historical, cultural, or social context in which the story takes place. To craft an engaging memoir, the author should include a clear and compelling narrative structure, honest and self-reflective prose, specific details and sensory descriptions, a strong sense of voice and personality, a sense of resolution or closure, balance between the personal story and the larger context, and a sense of authenticity.

To sum it up, when working on your memoir, consider these ten components:

  1. A clear and compelling narrative structure
  2. Honest and self-reflective prose
  3. Specific details and sensory descriptions
  4. A strong sense of voice and personality
  5. A sense of resolution or closure
  6. Balance between personal story and broader context
  7. A sense of authenticity and fact-checking
  8. Use of descriptive language
  9. Emotional depth and vulnerability
  10. Tact and sensitivity when handling sensitive material

Once you have written your personal story, it is time to start the editing process. Of course, that is another post.

A guide to the book editing process

You just finished your manuscript. Congratulations! Maybe there are a few typos, but in your heart, you know that the writing is perfect. There is no need for a long, painful book editing process. You enlist your partner, your best friend, your mom, or your dad to “proofread” it—for free. And then it’s time to hit publish! But wait! Let this guide to the book editing process help you put the finishing touches that make a book great.

A typewriter writing the guide to the book publishing process.

Publishing a piece of long-form writing can be done this way, but it really shouldn’t. But why? Real writers don’t need editors. Editors are just gatekeepers holding writers back.

Somewhere in school, I don’t remember if it was in grade school or high school, I was taught a terrible myth. I was told that when Ernest Hemingway was ready to write a book, he walked up to his typewriter and started typing. What came out the other end was literary gold and didn’t need a single word edited—such was his prowess as an author.

This was a lie.

I have a copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms sitting on my shelf. At the back of the book, the publisher included several of the over sixty different endings. And guess what? Many of the alternate endings were heavily edited.

Everyone needs an editor, even Hemingway.

First, some realities

To kick off this guide to the book editing process, the author must acknowledge a few fundamental truths:

  1. Writing is easy, editing is hard.
  2. There is no room for ego while editing.
  3. The author still owns the car, but someone else is driving.
  4. Not all editors can edit all writing.

Editing can be really easy. Or it can be absolutely brutal. This depends on the type of writing and the author’s goals.

When I start a project, I strive to ask tough questions, for example:

  1. What is the goal of the writing?
  2. Who is the writing for, the author or the audience?
  3. Why should readers care?
  4. Does the market really need another book on [fill in the blank]? And what is unique about this book?
  5. If non-fiction, where is the data/science to back up claims in the book?
  6. Is the author avoiding an uncomfortable or unflattering series of facts?
  7. Is the author actually open to being edited? (Remember that bit about editing being hard? Not all authors are into that).

The answers to these questions guide how the editing process should unfold.

Sometimes the goal of the writing is the personal enjoyment or questing of the author. For example, a family legacy book. In this case, the goal is typically to collect, archive, and pass on an eloquent piece of family history. Editing a book like this is easier than say a revolutionary idea aimed at mass audiences. And editing scholarly work involves opening up an entirely different tool chest.

The Process

Running a book through the complete book editing process is rigorous and time-consuming. However, it is worth the labor, every single time. Authors pour an incredible amount of physical and emotional energy into writing a book or article or even a poem. So it makes sense to run the book through the finishing touches to get a high-quality workpiece.

Developmental/ Conceptual Editing (1-2 editors plus the author)

The first stage of editing is the Developmental or Conceptual stage. (I prefer Developmental Edit). Here, we focus on the big picture: the story and the style. We do not worry about grammar or typos at this point (if we see something, we’ll fix it, but we’re not implementing the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook at this point.

These are a few of the things we focus on in Developmental Editing:

  • The author’s style and voice
    • Is there a distinct writing style and is it consistent?
    • Is the narrator’s voice clear, distinct, and consistent?
  • What is the plot? The focus of the story?
    • Does the story wander too much or stay on point?
    • Does the plot raise questions that go unanswered?
    • Is there sufficient background information to understand the plot?
  • The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter. And then the first paragraph of every chapter thereafter. And finally the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last sentence.
    • Do they hook the reader?
    • Do they carry the story forward? And at the end resolve something?
    • Are they the essence of the author’s style and the narrator’s voice?
  • Broadly, highlight what works and what doesn’t.
  • What is the Story Arc?
    • To answer this, I create a Story Map on a spreadsheet.
  • Does the story flow?
    • Where are the speed bumps? Are they good or bad?
    • Where are the straightaways that allow the story to go fast?
    • Are the chapters in the best order?
    • How are the chapter transitions?
    • Should some chapters be combined, split, deleted, or added?
  • How is the readability?
    • Are some sentences, paragraphs, or chapters cumbersome, awkward, or difficult to read?
  • Is the verb tense consistent?
  • Is subject-verb agreement correct?
  • What, if any, additional material does the book need?
    • Prologue, Preface, or Introduction?
    • Epilogue, Appendices, Bibliography, Glossary, or Index?
    • Images and Illustrations? Maps and graphs?
    • Footnotes and Endnotes?

Copyediting (1-2 editors plus the author)

Next comes copyediting. I love copyediting. Copyediting focuses on clarity, coherence, consistency, and correctness. It is very much a process that focuses on the nuts and bolts of good communication. Here is where I direct my energies during copyediting:

  • Mechanical Editing and Grammar
    • This is all about consistency and often involves the use of a style guide. The guide can be the Chicago Manual of Style (for non-fiction books especially), the AP Stylebook (primarily articles), or an in-house style guide (the Chicago Manual of Style started out as the in-house guide for the University of Chicago Press).
    • Punctuation
    • Spelling
    • Capitalization
    • Numbers and numerals
    • Hyphenation
    • Quotations
    • The list goes on and on…
    • Wrong word usage
    • Pronouns
    • Verb tense
    • Sentence fragments
    • Adverbs and prepositions
    • Parallelism
    • Passive voice
    • Jargon
    • Run on sentences
    • Restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses and commas
    • Scare quotes
    • Apostrophes
  • Fact-checking
  • Permissions (Acquiring permission to use long, copyrighted quotes or copyrighted images)

Proofreading (Minimum 10 readers plus the author)

And finally comes proofreading. This is the last step in the book editing process before moving to publication. Remember that proofreading is not editing, rather it is a detailed reading that looks for errors. While some folks will proofread unformatted manuscripts, I suggest sending the book or publication to the designer after the copyedit but before the proofreading. Why? This way the proofreaders are checking the final typeset workpiece and can catch errors in the design.

For me, proofreading includes checking the following:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Consistent formatting and design

Sometimes a proofreader may offer unsolicited developmental edits. But that is not their job. At this point in the process, we do not want to be rewriting the book. Proofreading is all about finding each and every typo or mechanical hangup and resolving them. There is nothing worse than a book with lots of typos!

Concluding Thoughts

If you read this entire post, you have realized that editing is a process that requires effort. And it is worth the effort! We create polished and professional writing by following this guide to the book editing process.

Thanks for reading!

5 Tips for Editing Your Writing

Writing a rough manuscript or draft is often a solo endeavor. However, getting that draft into a polished piece ready for public distribution is a collaborative effort. Therefore, I do not recommend being both the author and sole editor on a writing project. However, sometimes it has to be done. Here are some basic tips for editing your writing without an extra set of eyes. While it’s not easy, it’s possible.

1. Leave it.

  • Once you are finished with the first draft, set down the pen or close the document for at least a week and forget about it during this time. The longer you can leave it be, the better. This exercise will help to give you a fresh set of eyes when you go back to edit the writing.

2. Use more than 1 round of editing.

  • Good writing requires multiple rounds of editing. First, read through the document quickly. Along the way, resist the urge to edit, but you can fix a few small things or make quick notes if need be. Second, read the document again, but this time go slow and make any big changes to content, style, or structure. This is where you rewrite. And on the third round, fix all of the small spelling, grammar, copyediting mistakes.

3. Cut redundant words, sentences, and paragraphs.

  • You must be vicious. Too much writing contains redundant phrases. Saying something several ways because it can be said several ways will not make the writing stronger, instead, it will distract from what is being said.

4. Invest lots of time in the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter, and last chapter.

  • One of the techniques in speed reading is to read the Table of Contents, the chapter titles and subtitles, the first chapter, the first page of all subsequent chapters, and the last chapter. This is also the way that many readers decide if a book is worth reading. As a writer, dedicate the most editing time to these areas.

5. Use a software editor like Hemingway or Grammarly.

  • Spellcheck has come a long way in recent years. Applications like Hemingway and Grammarly use clever algorithms and machine learning to polish writing. However, these applications are not the end-all-be-all. Rather, they are one tool in the writer’s quiver. Use them to find common mistakes and suggested clarifications.

After all of this, you still need an editor.

Even though self-editing with these tips for editing your writing can get you far, it is not a replacement for having another person read your written work. The more editors that you have, the better and tighter your writing will be. Some editors are good at the big picture, some are great with punctuation, and others will see patterns and ask questions that never crossed your mind.

Editing is typically a collaborative effort, but this article has some tips for editing your writing.