Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Editing Your Memoir for Word Choice: Part II

Editing for word choice photo of glasses, pen and book

Give your memoir a professional touch by avoiding too much word repetition.

My last post focused on editing your memoir to fix any incorrect word usage and also to take the effort to find the most precise word to convey your thought. What else goes into editing your memoir for word choice? Repetition is a big concern.

Word Choice Using a Thesaurus or Digital Equivalent

It’s not a terrible error to unnecessarily use the same word twice in one paragraph or to use one expression frequently throughout your memoir, but it makes your memoir a little less interesting. Don’t permit laziness to keep your memoir from being the best piece of writing you’ve ever done. There are countless ways to say nearly everything, so give each sentence some thought.

As I advised in Part 1 on this topic, don’t be too proud to rely on searching Google for synonyms. Or if you still have some thesaurus you once received as a gift from a grandparent, this might be the time to dust it off and keep it on your desk at easy reach.

The funny thing about checking for word repetition is that you’re looking for opposite problems—super-common words and extremely distinctive words.

Vary the “Verys”—Common Verbs and Adjectives

On your first draft, when you’re just trying to get your story into some sort of narrative form, you might have a paragraph like this:

“I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I was mostly very interested in having him stay away from me. I knew that if I stayed home, I’d have the fear that he’d have the nerve to come back. If I went out, I knew I’d have all sorts of worries that he’d follow me. I would have been interested in going to Mom’s house, where I knew he wouldn’t dare show up, if I hadn’t had to deal with all of her questions. I thought about having a bite of food to eat, but I had no hunger and the thought of food had me feeling very sick.”

That’s an extreme example, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration in a first draft. Verbs like “have/had,” “do/did,” “go/went,” “feel/felt,” “know/knew” and all of the “be” verbs—is, are, were, have been, etc.—can roll off your fingers and onto your keyboard with no effort at all. An adjective like “interested” can sneak in there almost without your consent! And even one or two mentions of “very” is probably too many. A good edit cleans it all up.

This problem isn’t about finding synonyms. You can’t just replace “have” with “own” or “possess,” as in, “I’d possess the fear” instead of “I’d have the fear.” Sometimes you can swap out “interested” for “intrigued,” but more often you just need a different construction and will probably rewrite many sentences. A full edit takes time, but it’s still not as hard as getting your thoughts written down to begin with.

A rewrite of that paragraph could turn out like this:

“I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I focused on keeping him away from me. If I stayed home, I’d shake in fear that he’d have the nerve to come back, but if I went out, I’d worry that he’d follow me. I could have driven over to Mom’s house, where he wouldn’t dare show up, but she’d throw a barrage of questions at me. I thought about making soup, but just the thought of food turned my stomach.”

I wouldn’t call that rewrite a masterpiece, but I hope it gives you an idea of ways you can rework the presentation of your thoughts while retaining the message.

Use Distinctive Words Exactly Once

Whereas those common words are bound to be repeated throughout your memoir, unusual words merit mention only once. You may not realize how much you like a certain adjective or how little anyone else uses some word that you use a lot.

Maybe you’ve always referred to your son as “cantankerous,” so the adjective makes it into your memoir as you describe your little boy. But then three chapters later, you tell readers about your “cantankerous” boss. No. Find a different word. Your boss was crusty or argumentative or ill-tempered, or just tell a couple of stories about your boss and let readers fill in their own adjectival impressions.

This guideline is good for phrases, too. If early in your memoir you describe the meatloaf in your school cafeteria as “hard as a rock,” don’t repeat that description for the tumor you find in your neck later in your book. Or if you prefer it for the tumor, then go back and try a new idea for the meatloaf. You could say, “I practically broke a tooth when I bit into the meatloaf.” Again, language is so rich. You don’t have to find a synonym for “hard,” a different word for “rock,” or another phrase that means the same thing. You can restructure the sentence altogether.

Avoid Repetition of Names

The people you introduce in your memoir typically come with a relationship identifier, such as “mother,” “boss,” “friend” or “teacher.” That gives you two different ways to refer to each of them, so right there you’re breaking up the procession of using the same name or word over and over. With “my mother” and “my father,” you also have “Mom” and “Dad,” and here or there you also can refer to them with their given names, such as: “But James Turner was not one to back down from a challenge”—that sort of thing.

What else can you do? As an example, let’s say you’re writing about your sister Sara, and it goes on for a few paragraphs. You toggle between saying “Sara” and “my sister,” supported by “she” when you feel you don’t have to remind the reader who “she” is. That’s all fine, but with a little attention you can do better. Look at this paragraph:

“With her wholesome good looks and radiant smile, Sara was the quintessential ‘girl next door,’ so it only made sense for her to date the boy next door throughout high school. As the younger sister, I played the important role of covering for them when they’d sneak out of their respective houses to spend time together. I can’t count the number of times I told one parent or the other that the scamp had gone to the store after running out of tampons or notebook paper or her favorite gum. When Ronnie signed up with the US Army, he asked his girlfriend to follow the tradition of waiting for him, but the diminutive blonde cheerleader would have none of that. She’d already applied to work for a cruise line to see Caribbean ports in whatever capacity the employer chose for her. As it turned out, my mother’s first-born had inherited all of Mom’s charm and within a year went from making beds in the cabins to managing the food service. It was enough to spin my head around when we all took a cruise on her ship and saw the former boss of me bossing around everyone else.

I used “Sara” only once. The other mentions were “she” and “her,” “the scamp,” “his girlfriend,” “the little blonde cheerleader,” “my mother’s first-born,” and “the former boss of me.” I didn’t even use “my sister.” In addition to keeping the reader engaged, varying your terms like that provides the opportunity to supply more information. I needed no separate sentence to reveal that my sister was small, blonde, a cheerleader, or the oldest in the family.

More Next Time

We’ve still covered only a piece of the editing you can do concerning word choice. In my next post, I’ll talk about other ways to prevent your memoir from lulling readers to sleep with the same words over and over. And over and over.

Editing Your Memoir for Word Choice: Part 1

Editing your memoir for word choice requires you to choose your words wisely

Now that you’ve written your story, make sure you’ve worded it for impact.

If you’re like me, you go over your manuscript countless times—literally so often you lost count long ago—and one thing this process covers is editing your memoir for word choice. For your first draft, you likely followed the advice to just write and not worry about the quality of the writing. Get your story down, and you can fuss with it later.

Guess what—it’s later! And you’re probably fussing. I think it’s a good idea to do one read-through with just the storytelling in mind. Does it tell the story you want to tell in the order that works best for the reader? Are there holes, is there repetition, or is there extraneous information that distracts the reader from the main theme of your memoir?

To discern all of that, you’ll want to read your book as if you were your target reader. But it’s a topic for another day. The edit I’m referring to now is the one you do to check out everything else—punctuation, grammar and that devilish word choice issue. Let’s tackle two aspects of word choice—accuracy and precision—and in my next installment I’ll finish off the rest.

Correcting Outright Word Choice Errors

Between homophones, closely related words and word mixups unique to you, it’s easy to make errors as you focus on telling your story. Closely examine every word to ensure it’s the best word for its spot in all of English!

Sometimes we say something automatically that is flat-out incorrect, and we write it the same way because no one has ever corrected us. You may think conflate means the same as confuse, but take the time to make sure. When you look it up, you’ll discover that conflate means to mash together two or more ideas into one. So it relates to confuse, because conflating two things can create confusion, but the two words still are not synonyms.

Other times, since homophones sound the same, we write down the wrong one if they have different spellings. You can know the difference between your and you’re perfectly well but still absentmindedly write the error, “You know your heading for trouble when you start out that way.” It happens. During one of our phone chats, the author of a memoir I’m ghostwriting used the word gait, which I wrote as gate. It’s not that I don’t know the difference, but I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word gait myself, and the correct spelling just didn’t hit my brain as I was writing.

Choosing the Most Precise Word

Editing for precision is a task that might not come until you’ve read your manuscript multiple times. At that point, you have your story as you want it to read, but is every word chosen wisely?

English is such a rich language; don’t settle for a general word when a specific word is available. The replacement word doesn’t have to be esoteric; it’s often an ordinary word but still provides your reader with a clearer picture of the scene. This is not the easier route, since when you replace a word you may have to change other parts of the sentence so that it all works grammatically. Let’s try an example.

Maybe you start out with, “Dad put me on his shoulders so that I could see the parade better as it passed by.” Meh, right? So you change it to, “Dad put me on his shoulders so that I could view the parade better as it passed by.” View is a bit more specialized than see.

On your next read, you decide to try, “Dad put me on his shoulders to give me a better vantage point from which to view the parade.” You like that, but on reviewing later you get stopped by all of the from which wordiness, so you make another edit to combine the best of both: “Dad put me on his shoulders to give me a better vantage point as the parade passed by.” With vantage point, you eliminate the need to tell the reader that being on his shoulders helped you view the parade, so you have to let go of the word view you worked so hard to find.

On yet another read, the word put glares at you. It’s such a general word, so you change it to, “Dad lifted me on his shoulders to give me a better vantage point as the parade passed by.” Well, you lift people, but then you still put, not lift, them on your shoulders.

Now you have a decision to make. You decide to elaborate. “Dad lifted me by my waist and quickly raised me high, plopping me on his shoulders to give me a better vantage point as the parade passed by while he kept his safety hold on my waist.” Now you have the more colorful, distinct verb plopping to replace putting. But you’ve added a lot. Is it necessary? Is it better than the original? I think it helps readers create a visual in their mind’s eye.

Rely on the Simple Search for Synonyms

Often, I look at some general word I’ve written and I think, “I know there’s a word that means exactly what I’m getting at.” I google for synonyms all the time, and eventually I usually find the word I was trying to think of—or an even more suitable word.

Let’s say you’ve written, “Mother was good at making people feel bad.” Here, good works as wordplay with bad. But good is a general adjective, and in other cases your narrative can usually benefit from replacing it.

Let’s say your mother was good at something else. You might say, “Mother was adept at making every person in the family feel valued.” Or, “Mother was effective in using her icy stare to let me know I’d crossed the line.” Or, “Mother was skilled at all outdoor jobs, from mowing and planting to washing windows and patching the roof.” Or, “Mother was useful to have around when Dad would drink too much.” You could have used good in each of those cases, but in no case would good have been as good, er, successful, as the replacement.

On my first draft of two paragraphs up, I wrote that good was a general word. When I read it over, I replaced word with adjective. That’s exactly what I mean—find the most precise word available.

Next time, I’ll help you spot more areas for improvement in word choice to make your copy compelling for the reader. As always, if you need help editing, our editors at Write My Memoirs would be honored to help polish your memoir.

How to Include Life Lessons in Your Memoir

Without turning your memoir into a self-help book

 

Like many memoir authors, you may be aiming to include life lessons in your memoir. You’ve overcome addiction, escaped domestic violence, triumphed over an illness or condition, healed from an injury or grown in some other way, and one major goal in writing your memoir is to help readers replicate your success. It’s partly a self-help book.

Still, you don’t want to cross genres. Even though you want to be pretty explicit in stating the lessons, you envision your book listed in the memoir category, not as another self-help manual. Can you incorporate a bit of how-to in your memoir? Sure. As I always say, it’s your memoir, so write the book you want to write. I have some ideas for ways you can offer suggestions while staying in the memoir space.

Make Lessons Part of Your Writer’s Voice

Your book’s theme—or maybe just one chapter’s theme—is succeeding despite a setback or life circumstance. By definition, you’ll be writing about the initiatives that changed your life. The reader will pick up on this, but you still can give it an extra boost.

If you wanted to revolve life lessons on a knee replacement, for example—which I realize is unlikely but it will demonstrate my points—it might look something like this:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. I knew all too well. The doctor had laid it all out, I was googling “knee replacement” night and day and, of course, Robbie was constantly giving me the blow-by-blow on his own surgery and recovery. I’d already stocked my kitchen with inflammation-fighting foods, popping blueberries like gumdrops and vowing to find recipes that made kale taste less like a rubber glove. I made sure my freezer’s icemaker was churning out cubes.

There was more. I completely dropped out of my golf group so that I wouldn’t be tempted to tee up before my knee was ready to accommodate my distinctively twisty swing. I borrowed a footstool from my neighbor Debra, who also insisted on lending me four perfectly sized pillows to pile on the stool in order to create the required elevation when I sat on my couch. I lipsticked the word “REST” on mirrors in both my bedroom and my bathroom. One day I even let myself into a church, quickly whispered, “Dear God, please don’t let me die on the table,” and slipped out before any official saw me.

Here’s another idea for introducing these lessons using your voice within the text of the memoir. This would come later in the story:

I got to thinking about how I’d gotten this far while other people were struggling even though they’d had surgery at about the same time that I had and, for the most part, were quite a bit younger than I was. I decided that, along with some luck plus proximity to an excellent hospital and medical staff, my simple determination played a big role. Since I’d always been a good student, it was natural for me to be a good patient. I dutifully followed doctors’ orders while also doing some of my own online research. I stocked my kitchen….. And then go into the steps but in first person and past tense.

Use a Device Such as Dialogue or Written/Watched Instructions

Sticking with your knee replacement memoir—again, an unlikely topic I’m using only for its applicability to neutral examples—you can put the advice into the mouth of your mom, friend, doctor, clergy or whomever. In that case, it changes to something like this:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. I knew all too well. The doctor had laid it all out, I was googling “knee replacement” night and day and, of course, Robbie was constantly giving me the blow-by-blow on his own surgery and recovery. Other than the repetition, “Robbie’s Rules” as I came to call them were actually pretty helpful:

  • Stock your kitchen with inflammation-fighting foods like berries and greens. Robbie assured me that I’d get used to the taste of kale, but I figured I’d find recipes to disguise it instead.
  • Keep plenty of ice on hand.
  • Drop out of leagues. Golf, tennis, running clubs—officially drop out, even if only temporarily, so you won’t be tempted to tee up, serve a ball or lace up your running shoes before your knee is ready to accommodate the sport.
  • Place a footstool in front of your couch, and pile three to four pillows on it to create the required elevation.
  • Make signs with the word “REST” that you can tack up everywhere. Then you have no excuse that you forgot to be patient.
  • Don’t be afraid to use whatever shred of spirituality you have left. Praying might just work.

Memoir authors tend to be concerned about the truth. If no one gave you advice, you don’t have to invent the story. Instead, you can have a lead-in as vague as “I remember reading somewhere that…,” or something like this:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. I knew all too well. The doctor had laid it all out, I was googling “knee replacement” night and day, and when I mentioned my upcoming surgery in passing conversation, absolutely everyone had a piece of advice to share. I don’t remember where or from whom I learned what, but I decided to be patient and follow some common-sense guidelines.

Set Aside a Chapter for Your Acquired Wisdom

You can devote a chapter or two to come off as a more obviously specific advice column. This can be your epilogue or last chapter, or it can be somewhere in the middle if it feels more suitable at that point. This can serve as a handy guide for the reader, especially if the suggestions you’re passing along are very different from those found elsewhere or if they concern a very unusual condition.

In this chapter, you can write as if you’re speaking with someone who has asked you to share what you’ve learned from your experience. It’s okay if it sounds a little drier than the rest of the book, but don’t abandon your writer’s voice completely. Keep in mind it’s still part of your memoir, part of your story, and not an op-ed or essay.

Break Up Your Advice to Create a Pattern

In his 2024 memoir, Hits, Flops and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood, director Ed Zwick tacks a “postscript” addendum, in the form of a list, onto the end of every chapter. They’re rosters of filmmaking tips, Hollywood secrets or observations—literally life lessons in some cases.

While I’d say this works well enough for Zwick in a memoir about a long career, I’ll also say that I can picture Zwick teaching a college course in filmmaking. If you can picture yourself teaching a course in the topic of your memoir, then this approach could be for you, with lists that could just as easily go up on a blackboard during a class session. Otherwise, I think it’s a stretch on an ordinary memoir.

Save It for Another Book or Other Project

After you include your life lessons, when you edit your book you may admit to yourself that they’re out of place and just don’t fit. In that case, keep what you’ve written and consider writing a second book that truly would fall into the self-help category. Or it can be the starting point for a workbook, a podcast or a chapter in a later book with life lessons from all aspects of your life. Maybe you have advice on marriage, parenthood, politics, living long, travel—the piece you’ve already written would be one of those chapters.

If you never use that portion at all, you still took the opportunity to write it all out. The process of memoir writing is part of the magic. Never feel that you wasted time on paragraphs just because they end up on the cutting room floor.

How to Tell Whether You’re a Writer

How to Tell Whether You're a Writer little girl writing in a book

And why you don’t have to be a writer to write a great memoir

When you’re a writer, you write. You can tell whether you’re a writer just by looking at the sheer volume of your work. Do you have notebooks full of essays, poems, stories or even just thoughts? Is your computer filled with files of creative or expository writing?

Writers Write 24/7

When you’re a writer, your mood and the outside world may influence your subject matter, but none of that keeps you from writing. When you’re happy, you write. When you’re angry or sad, you also write. When you’re bored, you write, but when you’re so busy you don’t have a minute to spare, you still write. You don’t have to be an avid reader or a student of writing to be a writer. Some writers just have a feel for language without all that much example to follow.

Sometimes the writing is just in your head. This is when you’re not in the stage of getting it down on paper or into the computer. You’re more in the gathering stage—observing life in a way that writers do, with chapter titles or lines from a movie scene script scrolling across your mind.

Parents sometimes seek my advice. “My kid wants to be a writer,” they’ll say. “Is it easy to make a living from writing? Should my kid major in writing in college?”

I have only one response. “A writer writes,” I say. “Whether writing as a living or doing it as a hobby, if your kid is a writer, your kid will write.”

I think you might as well try to make money from what you love to do, but if you have another calling you’d rather pursue professionally, writing will still be there. Kids like that can become lawyers, and then the part of the job they love most is writing the brief. They can graduate with a major in business and still find lots of writing opportunities in marketing and other aspects of their job description. And if it does just end up as a hobby, it can be a very satisfying one.

Skill Level Is No Measure for Whether You’re a Writer

You can be a writer and yet not write very well. You may have an amateur hand at poetry or grammar errors in your essays or poorly constructed transitions in your short stories. Still, you get joy from the process of putting your thoughts into words, the words into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, and you see where I’m going with this.

The opposite is true as well: you may write very well but not be a writer. Your boss may ask you to do a lot of writing in your job because you’re good at it. Maybe you’re able to knock off a speech for your sister’s wedding in an hour, and perhaps grammar and spelling come naturally to you. But you don’t choose to write for pleasure. You’re out doing other things. If you’re that person, you are not a writer.

Think about a natural athlete. How many of those have fallen by the wayside? The star high school basketball player, the gifted Little League pitcher, the promising tennis prodigy. Something else catches their interest, and the sport fades because, while they have more talent than everyone around them, their heart is not in the sport. If your heart is not in writing, you’re not a writer. But you still can write.

What skill level can determine is how much validation you receive about your writing. Typically, gifted writers receive a lot of encouragement in school, but I worry about writers who have more love than talent. A teacher who gets overzealous in criticizing your writing can kill the passion in you. That’s a real shame.

For one thing, you can improve in time. But mostly, if you love to write you should be encouraged even though you won’t be writing for a living or maybe even sharing your writing at all. The process of writing can be healing, so don’t give it up just because some teacher didn’t nourish your desire to write.

Both Writers and Non-writers Can Write a Memoir

If you’re trying to write a memoir, don’t worry about whether you’re a writer. Just keep at it until you finish your memoir. It may be your only completed written work or the only writing you’ve ever taken on voluntarily. Writing a memoir may be important to you for a lot of reasons; enjoying the writing process doesn’t have to be one of them.

And if you’re a writer in your heart and soul, a memoir may just be another format you feel like trying out. You may believe that you’ve lived an ordinary life, but you find it an exciting project to describe in writing the world that is uniquely yours.

My Own Example

I think I was pretty much born a writer. I wrote a song when I was about twelve, I always wrote my own cards for my parents’ birthdays, and I started writing poetry in high school. None of that came about as a conscious decision. The way a friendly person makes friends from childhood on, I just wrote as part of who I was.

My English literature major in college seemed an obvious choice, since in high school I received good grades on my term papers and enjoyed writing them. But halfway through college, when I took a couple of journalism courses, I had a name for what I really was: a journalist. I was a reporter. I could write up any set of facts. I realized that I enjoyed doing research and conducting interviews more than relying on my imagination to come up with plots and develop characters for creative writing. I never dreamed about writing the next great American novel.

Since then, I’ve been lucky to have been a working journalist, a grammar teacher, and eventually a memoir coach, editor and ghostwriter. But even though I write professionally, I still write for myself. My computer files’ labels tell the story: “old writings,” “miscellaneous writings,” “song lyrics,” “parenting reflections,” “speeches,” “TV pilot,” “poems,” “script ideas,” and dozens of titles of stories.

Even this blog—no one forces me to write it. I just like getting my thoughts down. I’m a writer. Maybe you are, too. Or maybe you’re not. That’s okay, and your memoir may still be amazing.

 

How to Professionalize Your Memoir Writing

Woman sitting on bed with books flying around her because they need to professionalize the memoir writing.

Fun with AI! We asked for some moderately bad prose so you can see what to avoid.

You can write well while still knowing there’s room to professionalize your memoir writing. The amateur quality can be distracting for readers, who pick up on the feeling that it just doesn’t sound like a “real” book even when it more or less keeps their interest.

Two Types of Unprofessional Writing

First-time book authors often have a nice flair for writing. They have an eye for detail, an adeptness at turning a phrase and a rich vocabulary of words that precisely hit the mark in descriptive prose. In school, these writers tended to receive high marks in their creative writing classes.

But it can all become, as they say, “a lot”—too much, in fact. Similes, metaphors, analogies. If one adjective is good, four must be four times better. No character is simply permitted to have “said” something. It has to have been “shouted” or “whispered,” “remarked” or “added,” “said confidently” or “said flippantly.”

You’ve probably heard “it was a dark and stormy night” referred to as a standard cliché for over-dramatic prose, and it’s nothing compared with what a lot of editors receive from inexperienced writers. And to compound the reader’s difficulty in getting through the flowery style, these writers often lack a full grasp of grammar and punctuation. A run-on sentence is hard enough on the reader when it’s not crammed with adjectives requiring that a dictionary be kept on hand.

The opposite category is expository writing, which also won’t serve you well if you’re trying to write a compelling memoir. An expository writer has all of the mechanics down pat and does well when writing essays. When it comes to memoir writing, however, which should more closely resemble a novel than a thesis, there’s no panache and little imagination.

Flowery Writing Samples From AI

I wanted to show you what editors sometimes encounter with first-time book authors, but I’m not good at writing badly. (I realize that brag wasn’t even humble.) So rather than spending hours trying to create authentic sub-par memoir writing, I thought I’d ask speedy ChatGPT for some help. I’ve read enough AI-generated copy that I knew a bad-writing assignment would come naturally to ChatGPT.

When I requested examples of “bad writing” without qualifying how the writing should fail, ChatGPT supplied the first category—the overdone writing that feels as if the author is trying too hard. See whether you can get through this paragraph, which ChatGPT criticizes for its “excessive use of clichés, purple prose, and melodramatic language. It lacks subtlety, coherence, and originality, making it difficult for the reader to engage with the text.” I have to agree:

“The ethereal moon hung in the sky like a silver coin, casting its shimmering light upon the tranquil landscape below. The stars, like diamonds strewn across a velvet canvas, twinkled and danced with a celestial elegance. Sarah gazed up at the heavens, her heart filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of the universe. Suddenly, a chill wind swept through the air, causing her to shiver involuntarily. It was as if the cosmos itself had conspired to send a shiver down her spine, reminding her of the fragility of existence. Lost in the vastness of the night, Sarah felt a profound sense of loneliness wash over her like a tidal wave, engulfing her in its icy embrace.”

ChatGPT’s second attempt earns its own thumbs down because “it suffers from exaggerated and melodramatic language, as well as clichéd descriptions. The imagery is heavy-handed and lacks subtlety, making it difficult for the reader to become immersed in the scene. Additionally, the prose relies on tired metaphors and fails to evoke genuine emotion or intrigue.” Again, the criticism is warranted:

“The old house stood on the hill like a brooding sentinel, its weather-beaten facade telling tales of forgotten yesteryears. Ivy clung to its walls like a lover desperate for affection, while the windows stared out like vacant eyes, haunted by the ghosts of bygone days. Inside, the air was thick with the scent of must and decay, as though time itself had seeped into the very bones of the building. Sarah hesitated at the threshold, her heart pounding like a drum in her chest. She could feel the weight of history pressing down upon her, suffocating her with its oppressive presence. But still, she pressed on, driven by an insatiable curiosity that refused to be quelled.”

You may be thinking that these paragraphs aren’t so bad. I understand that and don’t mean to trash it too much. It’s really hard to know how much metaphor and simile to throw in there. I don’t hate the comparison of an old house to “a brooding sentinel” or the clinging ivy to “a lover desperate for affection.” But by the time it gets to her heart “pounding like a drum in her chest,” I’m pretty tired of reading that stuff.

The first example is more problematic. Its analogies are less original—how many times have you read that something washed over the character like a tidal wave?—and the images are more corny, as in “as if the cosmos itself had conspired to send a shiver down her spine, reminding her of the fragility of existence.”

This is the type of writing that an editor might not even attempt to fix and, instead, send it back for the author to rework, because the embellished, self-conscious style has come to define the author’s voice. An editor does not want to replace the author’s voice. So if your voice tends to sing with melody, harmony and falsetto all competing for the reader’s attention, maybe you should clear your throat and see whether that gives your writer’s voice more clarity. If you noticed that the previous sentence provides my own example of questionable metaphor, you’ve got a keen ear for that sort of thing.

Stiff Writing Sample from AI

Next, I asked ChatGPT for a sample of dry, stiff writing. It devised the type of writing that answers the “what, when, where, why and how”—straight reporting. ChatGPT describes this as “characterized by formal language, lengthy sentences, and a lack of natural flow. It often feels rigid and overly formal, lacking in warmth or personality.”

This isn’t even worthy of being called expository writing, and it certainly will not sell a memoir:

“The meeting commenced promptly at 9:00 a.m. with the chairperson introducing the agenda items sequentially. Each participant was called upon in turn to provide updates on their respective projects. The proceedings proceeded in a systematic manner, with minimal deviation from the predetermined schedule. Discussions were primarily focused on task completion timelines and resource allocation, with little room for extraneous discourse. The meeting adjourned at 10:30 a.m. as scheduled.”

Among other issues, passive tense dominates in that text, which never helps a narrative. I want to caution you not to feel that you have to avoid passive tense altogether, but active tense vs. passive tense is another topic for another time.

Write From the Gut

I’d advise writing from the heart, but your heart is not exactly the best source. Write from your gut. What feels natural to you? How do you speak? What have you written that you’ve reread over and over and still feel good about? Now that you’re aware of the over-embellished or too-formal extremes, how can you aim your voice to avoid both?

Read your work as a reader would. If you have to slow down to catch all of the big words, or if you’re wanting to skip ahead because you’re falling asleep, go back and rewrite that part. As an author, you are most authentic, most compelling and most distinctive when you’re just yourself.

How to Edit Your Memoir’s First Draft

Woman sitting on a couch with a laptop doing the first edit on her memoir manuscript

You are the best person to tackle this project before handing it over to a professional editor.

If your memoir’s first draft is a mess, you’re doing something right. The “something” is that you’re getting it all down without worrying about the mechanics of good writing. You’re not thinking about punctuation and sentence structure and paragraph length. Of course, that means that when you finish that draft, you’ll have a lot of work ahead of you. But that’s true even if you’re careful to place commas properly and pay attention to the spellcheck cues. It’s called a first draft for a reason. It’s meant not to be published but to serve as a foundation for a well-written narrative.

When you complete it, you can do a quick read-through and hand over your manuscript to a professional editor. I don’t recommend it, not when your manuscript is still in its infancy. You won’t be happy, because the editor’s changes will be sweeping, and your writer’s voice will probably get “lost in translation.”

Try This Analogy

Think of a house remodel. You hire an interior designer who directs the work crew, room by room, to paint the walls, swap out the furniture, change the lighting, replace the flooring and update the appliances. You go to a hotel for a few weeks and return to find that the house may be more beautiful than ever, but it no longer feels like your home.

However, if you go through the house first and decide which wall colors, furniture, lights, appliances, rugs and tiling you want to change and how you want those changes to look, you’ll still be comfortable in the house for two reasons. First, you’re making the changes one at a time and not just seeing the shocking result. Second, of course, you’re the one making the big decisions.

You’ll still probably need a professional touch. So then you can have the decorator come in and add window treatments and wall art, reverse some of your less wise choices and suggest furniture placement to improve the flow of the house.

Substituting your memoir for your house, it’s best for you to decide on the early, major revisions. When the manuscript is in the best shape you can get it into, you can ask an editor to check for typical pitfalls and add that professional polish.

Go Through Your Memoir As a Reader Would

Your first post-completion read-through is probably the hardest one. Pick up your finished manuscript as if you’re a reader. You don’t know any back story, you have never visited the hometown described in the book, you have no idea how things will turn out.

Now that you’re not you, can you follow the book? Does it all make sense?

One of the most common mistakes I see memoir authors make is to forget that the reader knows nearly nothing. Authors jump around with a confusing time line, insert people without introducing who they are, reference obscure historical facts without explanation, or set the action against geography that they don’t fully describe. There are holes all over the place, and the book is too hard to follow for the reader to bother sticking with it.

Authors also make the opposite error and assume the reader is totally ignorant. Once you’ve identified Paul as your childhood friend or distinguished your sister Jane from your sister Judy by giving their ages, you can just call them by their names. You don’t have to remind readers every time you mention Paul by calling him your childhood friend Paul or always saying your older sister Jane or your younger sister Judy. If chapters have gone by since the initial identification, then one reminder is enough.

These are the types of big-picture mistakes that an editor can catch but not always correct. Only you have the knowledge to add a “how we got here” explanation that seems to be missing. Only you can spot a description of scenery that lacks the one thing that made you feel safe that day. Without it, the reader doesn’t pick up on your feeling of security. Only you can make a call to your mom’s brother to fill in the details of a pivotal day in her life that ended up impacting her instincts in mothering you.

As an ordinary reader, do you feel that you want to keep turning the pages? A funny thing happens when you read your own book as if you’re coming to the information for the first time. If the writing is good, it doesn’t matter that you know what comes next and how everything turns out. You still feel compelled to keep reading. Even if you’ve read that chapter six times, you want to keep reading it. So stay aware of whether you’re fully engaged throughout the book or you’re getting a little bored and your mind is wandering.

Picture Yourself After Your Memoir Is Published

Whether you’re writing only for friends and family or you want to see your book at the top of the best-seller list, read through it with your best interest in mind. Think about all of the information and personal emotions that you’re sharing. How will you feel when you’ve bared your heart, soul and brain and have to face the people who have read all of that?

Sometimes the writing process is cathartic, and that in itself is good enough. You may feel so much better that you just got it out. Maybe you don’t need the next step of having people read what you wrote. Before you wrote it out, perhaps you had strong feelings of revenge. You’ll tell what happened to you, and the people who harmed you in your life will be shamed. You’ll feel heard for the first time. But then after you write it, those vengeful feelings may subside. You may feel that you don’t want to relive those traumas anymore by having to talk about those sections of your book after it’s published. So you put it away without publishing; it was a writing exercise that helped you find closure.

Or you may want to keep each story intact while still deleting some of the details. That person who hurt you—does it benefit the reader’s experience to include so much background about the toxic person’s life? Instead of the five pages you’ve devoted, maybe you’ll decide to boil it down to a page. You want the reader to relate to you, and that will be less likely if you’re coming across as over-dramatic, whiny or vengeful.

How about all of those romantic details you shared? A romp down memory lane can be fun, but will you cringe when picturing other people reading this intimate information? How effectively do the details further the narrative or illustrate who you are? You might decide to omit some names or group several experiences into one description.

Memoir authors tend to worry that the people they write about will be angry at them. This is the time to really consider that. Do you want to keep those names in there or leave some out as unnamed characters? Or do you want to drop a story or two altogether?

And what about people who will be insulted that they weren’t named in your memoir? Even this is something to consider.

Be Disciplined and, if Necessary, Ruthless

Indulge, indulge, indulge. When you write, you can indulge yourself and write down your every thought, justify every feeling you’ve ever had. But once you put on the editor’s hat, “indulge” turns to “slash.” Just cross out a lot of that indulgence. You can sense it. You know in your heart that your book will be better without this story or that paragraph. Just be ruthless and cut it.

You don’t have to go into full-out destruction mode, though. You’re not in a 1940s movie, sitting at a typewriter and ripping out pages to tear them up and throw them all over the floor. You’re at a computer. Save your old drafts. It’s unlikely you’ll go back and reinsert passages you’ve deleted, but you never know. Writing is hard, and once you’ve done it you don’t want to have to do it over.

Now Go for the Small Things

As your own editor, you can take a turn at all of that punctuation and grammar stuff. Sentence fragments can be effective, but have you gone a little overboard on them? While true run-on sentences don’t belong in any published work, even if you make them grammatical by placing a conjunction like “and” or “but” after some comma, does that sentence really need to be five lines long? Chop it up.

Reading chapters at a time in one sitting and considering the book as a whole, you’ll notice things that you might not spot when you’re building the narrative at a rate of an hour or two a day. Maybe you’ll see that all of your sentences have the same structure and get tedious, or that you’ve used passive voice way too much, or that you have two descriptions, chapters apart, of the same location.

Or you fall back to using the same wording over and over. You’re always saying things are “irritating,” never “annoying,” “distracting” or “exasperating.” You end every quote with “said…” and never “remarked,” “commented,” “laughed” or “instructed.” Remember that you’re not a reporter; you’re a memoir author. Mix it up a little.

Make Your Second Draft the Best You Can

There may be many more drafts to come, but your second draft should take care of the big problems. If this is the draft you’ll give to a professional editor, make it as clean as possible. You don’t want your editor wasting time on typos.

You may have ten drafts before the manuscript takes the title of “final document.” Each draft should improve on its predecessor. Once you find that you’re making changes but not improvements, it’s time to pass it along to an editor or send it out to agents or create a pdf to self-publish. That’s a hard moment, but a really exciting one.

New Memoirs for 2024 to Help You Write Yours

Six 2024 memoirs you can read to help you write yours

Memoir continues to be a popular genre as 2024 moves along. Reading memoirs for 2024 can give you a lot of clues to help you write yours.

It’s hard to find time to read books when you’re writing one of your own. But it’s both motivating and instructive to read well-crafted memoirs published about the same time you’re hoping to publish yours. What is selling these days? What type of work do publishers accept?

My tip if you have no time to read is to combine exercise with audiobooks. I listen as I run, which gets me out running and also takes no extra time, since I’m “reading” memoirs during the time slot I’d already set aside for working out. It’s a lot of bang for the buck.

I’ve divided a selected group among this year’s most anticipated memoirs, some just-published and others not yet in print, into categories reflecting types of memoirs and memoir authors I see in my work as a memoir editor and coach. Of course, you can read memoirs that are not in your group, too.

If Your Memoir Recounts a Triumph Over Adversity

Everyone but Myself by Julie Chavez
Was published January 9
An intense panic attack rocks Julie Chavez and motivates her to take better care of her mental health.

Outofshapeworthlessloser: A Memoir of Figure Skating, F*cking Up, and Figuring It Out by Gracie Gold
Was published February 6
Bulimia and suicidal ideation are just two of the challenges 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Gracie Gold discusses in her story of discovering her worth.

A Very Private School by Charles Spencer
Coming March 12
Growing up rich isn’t the same as growing up happy. Princess Diana’s younger brother Charles Spencer may have had a privileged childhood, but he recalls feeling abandoned and encountering nothing but cruelty at the boarding school that educated him when he was a little boy. He had to establish his own sense of self even through the fame that came with his sister’s marriage to British royalty.

If Your Memoir Focuses on Your Minority Group Experiences

What Have We Here? by Billy Dee Williams
Was published February 13
Old-timers know Billy Dee Williams from various TV and movie roles, including his breakout role in 1971’s “Brian’s Song,” while “Star Wars” fans recognize him as the first Black actor in the franchise. There’s a lot before and in-between for Williams to share with readers about being a Black actor back when.

Whiskey Tender: A Memoir by Deborah Taffa
Coming February 27
Deborah Taffa reflects on her 1970s-1980s childhood on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico and incorporates the history of Natives’ relationships with other Americans.

Beautiful People by Melissa Blake
Coming March 5
Here, a viral tweet inspires a book. In 2019, disability activist Melissa Blake tweeted to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, and this memoir goes deeper into her experiences and disability.

The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul
Coming March 5
Highly anticipated, RuPaul’s memoir takes readers into the life of a drag queen who grew up poor, Black and queer. Word is that RuPaul is no less articulate a writer than he is a TV host and personality.

Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir by Zoë Bossiere
Coming April 17
Remembering the time spent in an Arizona trailer park, author Zoë Brossier tells how it was to navigate gender lines with both binary and nonbinary experiences.

Make It Count: My Fight to Become the First Transgender Olympic Runner by CeCé Telfer
Coming June 18
Born in Jamaica, CeCé Telfer became the first openly trans woman to win an NCAA championship, and here she chronicles the path.

If Your Memoir Shares Lessons and Inspiration

Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself by Crystal Hefner
Was published January 23
This tell-all memoir by the third wife of the late Hugh Hefner is getting a lot of buzz. She was just 21 when she married the Playboy magnate and was the widow left when he died in 2017. With a few more years and a broader perspective, Hefner describes the underbelly of life in the mansion.

I Did a New Thing by Tabitha Brown
Was published January 30
Known for her multiple books on her vegan lifestyle, Tabitha Brown links her success to fearlessly trying new things. She traces the way little steps can lead to big changes.

All You’ll See is Sky by Janet A. Wilson
Coming April 16
Wilson explores her relationship with her husband as they embarked upon a 25,000-mile African adventure. She helps the reader learn how a marriage can survive even when unpleasant events and memories surface.

If Your Memoir Incorporates Your Work or Hobby

Get the Picture by Bianca Bosker
Was published February 6
Bianca Bosker worked as a security guard in a museum, only one of the adventures she shares as an appreciative observer of art and artists.

The French Ingredient by Jane Bertch
Coming April 9
In 2009, American Jane Bertch launched La Cuisine Paris, a French cooking school for the non-French. Her memoir tells the challenges of an American trying to open and operate a business in France and describes the delicious dishes she taught.

If You Think You’re Too Young to Write a Memoir

One in a Millennial by Kate Kennedy
Was published January 24
Podcast host Kate Kennedy grew up in the 1990s and 2000s and offers up her first memoir reviewing all that was cool and hip in those decades.

Here After by Amy Lin
Coming March 5
Canadian author Amy Lin not only lost her 32-year-old husband suddenly while the pair were still newlyweds but shortly after faced her own health crisis. Even young people face tragedy and challenges worthy of a memoir.

If Your Memoir Has an Unorthodox Format

Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti
Was published February 6
Sheila Heti’s first book was the novel Pure Colour, while this memoir tackles the creative structure of presenting sentences from Heti’s journal in alphabetical order.

Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer by Joyce Carol Oates, edited by Greg Johnson
Coming March 5
This memoir gathers correspondence between the late novelist Joyce Carol Oates and editor Greg Johnson to fashion a narrative providing insight into Oates’s life and thoughts.

Are You a Memoir Author Looking for a Theme?

Memoir author looking for a theme depicted as a little girl with binoculars

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a memoir is identifying what it’s really about.

Most memoir authors fall into one of two groups. They either write their memoir to share a compelling episode in their life that comes with lessons for interested readers, or they want to chronicle their entire life for their children and grandchildren.

In both cases, there’s usually a theme. The theme is obvious in the case of authors rolling out a pivotal period of their life, but even with the older person writing a full autobiography, at least one theme tends to emerge—often the simple, relatable theme of starting out in humble surroundings and pushing through to forge a successful, happy life.

The Third Group of Memoir Authors

The third, probably smallest, category of memoir authors comprises people who are primarily writers by either profession or hobby. They enjoy sharing their thoughts and the process of writing. Driven to write, these authors at some point land upon the idea of writing a memoir. They believe, as we do at Write My Memoirs, that every life has interesting stories worth exploring and publishing. But they believe it just a little less than we do!

Some writers in this third group seek best-seller status or hope the book will inspire a screenplay. So while memoir authors in the second group, seeking only to document their lives, don’t really care whether a cohesive theme becomes apparent, this third group needs that theme for their work to be marketable.

Your “Ordinary” Life

If you identify with the third group, you may find your life’s theme to be an elusive target. Especially if you’re young, you may feel that there’s “no there there” yet to write about. I assure you, there is. But you don’t want to contrive some theme just to write a relevant book.

As with any memoir, the key is to be authentic. Maybe you grew up as the child of a single parent, but you had a large extended family that filled in and you never felt it was a hardship. Perhaps when you were a teenager you recovered from a terrible car accident, but you did recover fully and there wasn’t much drama around the collision—the other driver simply misjudged and crashed into you. Let’s say you’re an immigrant and moved to your current homeland ten years ago, but everything went pretty smoothly.

In all of those examples, you may think nothing unusual happened to you beyond the one pivotal event. So many people grow up in single-parent households, and yours was just one of them. Just about everyone has a car accident story; yours would not add to the literature. And you certainly wouldn’t be the first immigrant to share your tale.

Look Closer with a Little Positive Thinking

I just took you through a lot of negative thinking. So let’s flip that to the positive side.

No other person in the world is having exactly the day you’re having right now. Not your next-door neighbor, not your sibling, not your best friend. If your day is not identical to anyone else’s, how could your entire memoir duplicate another memoir?

Think of the experiences you have in common with other people as a strength of your memoir. This is what will get people to relate to your life. Then layer that with the singular you who faced those experiences. Your circumstances were different from other people’s situations even in a similar event, your personality is yours alone, and everything from your resources and support network to the sights/sounds, news headlines of the moment and your own reaction combines to shape any experience you’ve had into a unique narrative.

Now let’s say that you don’t even have that much—no tricky childhood, illness/accident nor major relocation. All you are is an everyday person with everyday experiences. I’d say look deeper. There’s something about your life that isn’t so “everyday.”

Lean Into Your Message

It’s pretty common for memoir authors in this third group to sit down and start writing with no real theme in mind. Then it happens, sometimes well after they’ve started, that they discover a thread running through the work. Maybe it’s very broad, such as the encounters of a person who makes friends easily, or the perspective on life from someone who has always had vivid nighttime dreams. Or maybe it’s just the opposite—an incident so seemingly minor that you don’t even remember it until you find yourself writing about how that one teacher or supervisor, or a comment by a stranger on the bus, set you on a life path that you never thought you’d be following.

See how that happens? Now you’re no longer a memoir author looking for a theme. You have one.

From that thread, you can drill down and identify a message. Really look inside yourself. What are you trying relate? What wisdom do you hope readers will take from your memoir? Complete this sentence: “I hope you read my memoir because you’ll learn _____.”

Have confidence that your story is different enough. The key is how you tell it.

It’s the Writing

I often use Educated by Tara Westover as an example for memoir authors who do not have a famous name. Raised in a religious cult-type environment, Tara has a compelling story to tell but not a unique one. Plenty of children grow up under the thumb of restrictive and even abusive parents, and many, like Tara, go out on their own and grow away from that limited world.

What made Westover’s book a best-seller for months and months was the writing. The summary on the book jacket may spark enough interest in the story to get someone to pick up the book, but excellent writing is what gets that book passed around and recommended over and over, generating sales. While staying on theme also is important, compelling writing will keep the reader invested even if, at times, you meander away from your theme.

So, really, the theme is not your biggest challenge. Writing isn’t that hard, but writing a tight narrative that keeps the reader turning pages takes some practice. If you’re in that third group, while you may have no obvious theme, you have what many author hopefuls lack—a love of writing. You don’t have to force yourself to sit down and bang out page after page. So keep at it. Write, edit and rewrite. Ask friends to read and give you input. Go back to your desk and write more. Your life has something to say.

How to Find Your Writer’s Voice

Writer's voice woman with microphone

Sound like yourself but only like the writer inside you.

“When did you start writing for that company?”

The question caught me off-guard. Like my colleague who was asking it, I’ve focused much of my career writing in and about the professional beauty salon industry. She was referring to an article I’d written for a beauty product distributor, but I knew that the piece had no byline.

“How did you know I wrote that?” I asked her.

She laughed. “Of course that was you,” she said, taking for granted that I knew I had an identifiable writing style. But until then I did not know that my “writer’s voice” was recognizable. And I wasn’t entirely pleased, because I didn’t want everything I wrote for different clients to sound the same.

It did explain why writing had become so much more effortless as I grew more experienced. I just wrote the way I wrote, evolving over time but always sounding like the writer inside myself. By this time, my writer’s voice had become indistinguishable from my brand.

Start with Confidence and Be Yourself

Every time you receive positive feedback when someone reads what you’ve written, you gain confidence. It’s that confidence that leads you to writing in an authentic way that inherently communicates your perspective on, well, everything. Being yourself when you write is the key to finding your writer’s voice.

Think about the essential you and how you would describe yourself not as a writer but as a person. Place yourself at a point on a continuum between opposites like formal/casual, dramatic/low-key, extravert/introvert, teacher/learner, proper/disrupting, obeying/rebelling, cautious/adventurous, traditional/unconventional—I’m sure you can come up with more. As you get to know yourself in this manner, you’ll let your writing reflect your personality.

There’s No Shortcut—You Must Write a Lot

The more you write, the smoother the process becomes. I think that’s what happened to me. Because writing is my career, I’m always writing. I never consciously developed a writer’s voice, but as my work has taken me into different genres, I’ve brought along the thread of me, so even though each project is different, there’s something about it that sounds consistent.

So write! Even if you’re in the middle of a writing project such as a memoir, take a break and write something else. Catch a friend up on what you’ve been doing by sending a long email. Write some flash fiction or poetry. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor—you don’t have to send it anywhere. Or give yourself an assignment such as writing about the funniest thing that’s happened to you this week.

Of Course, Read

Always have something you’re reading. Whether it’s a memoir, a biography, a book of fiction or just a magazine feature article, every piece of writing gives you access to the author’s voice. Maybe you love a particular mystery writer or author of historical fiction. What do you like about the writing?

Try two exercises. First, write a few paragraphs in a style as close as you can to an author you enjoy. Second, take those same paragraphs and “make them your own.” Examine what you’re doing that changes the work to transform it, and that may be your “signature style,” your voice.

Your Voice May be Quiet in the First Draft

My first draft gets the story out, and in that draft specifically I do not consciously write in any voice. Only when I edit and polish and rework the writing do I begin to at least notice some of my own classic writing habits.

For example, I really try not to repeat random words not essential to the topic, or at least not use them close together. So when I read that I wrote, “I stared at him for the longest time,” and three sentences later I say, “She couldn’t stop staring,” you can be sure I will change one or the other. Maybe I glared or she couldn’t stop gazing. The funny thing is that when I do this, I often end up replacing the original word—“stared/staring” in this example—in both instances. I find two preferable words and use those.

So which is my writer’s voice? The first draft when I write to get my ideas down or the more polished version when I’ve put on my editor hat? You may believe that the free-flowing first draft is more representative of my true voice, but I would say it’s the edited second—or tenth—draft. As I read what I’ve written, I hear the cadence and can tell when it’s off. I think about the precision of the words and know when something is not up to my standards. So it’s subsequent drafts that contain the identifying markers of my writer’s voice.

Finally, Don’t Overthink It

Your writer’s voice is already in you. It may not be on paper/screen, but it’s in you. Write frequently and stay aware of signs that you’re developing a recognizable style, but don’t force it. If you keep writing, keep reading and know the essence of who you are, the voice will emerge. As I found out, it may take someone like a friend or colleague to point it out.

Getting Punctuation Correct in Your Memoir

Get grammar correct - write without fear, edit without mercy.

Learn the rules once and use punctuation correctly forever.

Experts will recommend that when you sit down to write, just keep going and don’t worry about grammar or getting punctuation correct in your memoir. That’s good advice. You want the ideas to flow out of you without roadblocks that interrupt you when you’re on a good writing roll.

But that freedom at the beginning doesn’t mean you can neglect the mechanics as you polish your writing. When you go back and read what you’ve written, the editing begins, and you may find that you’re not sure about how to use commas, apostrophes and semicolons. So let’s review. I’ll try really hard to use plain English and not throw in a lot of esoteric grammatical terms.

Commas

There are so many uses of commas, and some are a matter of taste and even custom of the particular English-speaking country. I won’t list every reason to use a comma, but here are the comma’s biggest hits.

Insert a comma between two independent clauses that could be complete sentences themselves but instead are joined by a conjunction. How do you know whether they’re complete sentences? Each has a subject and a verb.
She’s writing a memoir, and she hopes to publish it traditionally through a book publishing company. Each side of that comma could be a complete sentence.

When you delete the second subject “she,” you no longer have two independent clauses and, therefore, no longer use the comma.
She’s writing a memoir and hopes to publish it traditionally through a book publishing company.

Whether you use a comma in a series is up to you. That “Oxford” or “serial” comma goes in and out of fashion. Currently, it’s in fashion.
He’s writing three books—a memoir, a novel, and a guidebook.

I’ll get a little off-topic to mention that a modern way of presenting a series lets you drop the conjunction and.
He’s writing three books—a memoir, a novel, a guidebook—and hopes to finish all of them this year.

Use a comma after a prepositional phrase that comes at the beginning of a sentence.
Before you sit down to write your memoir, make sure you have a comfortable chair and enough time to really focus.

Now I will inject a grammatical term—nonrestrictive parentheticals. That just means words that interrupt a sentence to add a fact. Since they can be deleted without changing the sentence, it makes sense that you would set off nonrestrictive parentheticals with commas.
My friend and colleague, Joe Shmo, is writing a memoir.
My friend Joe, the brother of my former coworker, is writing a memoir.

Apostrophes

The abuse of the apostrophe is well-documented, mostly in social media memes. Apostrophes are used for only two things—in the place of missing letters, which occurs in a contraction, and to indicate possession. The contraction use is the easier of the two, occurring in common words like can’t, weren’t, they’ll, you’d and I’m to shorten cannot, were not, they will, has not and I am. Common occurrences of the contraction apostrophe take the place of the i in is and the ha in has, as in:
She’s planning to throw a party when her brother’s in town, because she’s wanted her friends to meet him.

Possessives give people more trouble, probably because apostrophes are necessary in possessives except where they’re prohibited. So that’s confusing, but at least they’re prohibited only for pronouns. Possessive pronouns take no apostrophe: your, yours, my, mine, his, her, hers, our ours, their, theirs, its, whose. For all other nouns and proper nouns, use an apostrophe to indicate possession. Here’s how it works:
My son’s gloves and my daughter’s scarf are missing, but their coats are right here next to yours and mine.

Two especially confusing words are it and who, which are pronouns and follow the rule of not taking an apostrophe when they’re used as possessives, but remember that they do need the apostrophe when they’re part of the contraction it is, it has, who is or who has:
My memoir’s nearly finished, and it’s [contraction: it has] been a great experience working on each of its [possessive: belonging to it] chapters. Who’s [contraction: who is] going to read it? I hope my memoir will resonate with everyone whose [possessive: belonging to whom] life has had challenges to overcome.

Semicolons

When the semicolon is used incorrectly, the error typically is that it’s used where a comma should be. The only time commas and semicolons are interchangeable is in a long or complex series. You can choose to write this sentence with either commas or semicolons:
I hope to study a variety of subjects, including creative writing, European and Asian history, earth science and biology, sociology, accounting, and Spanish language and culture.
I hope to study a variety of subjects, including: creative writing; European and Asian history; earth science and biology; sociology; accounting; and Spanish language and culture.
Notice that I inserted a colon in the second example, because when you use semicolons in that series it’s traditional to introduce the series with a colon.

The other common use of the semicolon is to replace not a comma but a period. When you have two sentences that relate closely to each other, you can choose to separate them with a semicolon instead of a period:
I’m writing my memoir; I hope to finish by June.
Another option is to connect the two sentences with a comma followed by and. The error people tend to make is to use the semicolon when one of the parts is not a complete sentence—that is, it doesn’t have its own subject and verb.

Feel Like Taking a Course?

Then there are dashes, hyphens, colons, parentheses—let’s save those goodies for another day. Or, hey, I’ll plug our grammar course, available right here on Write My Memoirs. It’s just $59 and covers not only punctuation but verb issues, agreement challenges, word mixups and more.

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Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for other websites’ commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. If you’d like to talk about what’s right for you, schedule a call. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!