Memoir Writing Tip: Avoid Parentheses

Meme about use of parentheses

No matter how you’re structuring your memoir, I can predict one thing about it: you don’t need parentheses to write a good memoir.

Now, I’m not talking about brackets, which look like this: [ ]. In academic writing and for other reasons, you may need to use brackets. Let’s say you’re quoting a note someone wrote to you, and you want the reader to know that the word spelled incorrectly is from the original note rather than your typo. To indicate that, after the word you can use: [sic].

But ordinary parentheses look like this: ( ). They come in handy when you’re trying to give the reader information pertinent enough to include at that moment of reading but extraneous enough that it sort of interrupts the flow. Enclosing that information within parentheses lets the reader know that you are aware it’s not directly related to what they just read.

Why Writers Use Parentheses

Memoir authors and other writers use parentheses for one of three bad reasons:

  1. The information is essential, but the writer is trying to wedge it into the wrong spot. This is lazy writing. As you’re writing, something has come to mind that is tangentially related to the topic at hand, but it would work much better somewhere else.
  2. The information is so non-essential that it doesn’t belong in the book at all. You’re indulging yourself with something you want to include that has little to do with the narrower memoir topic.
  3. The writer is just a parentheses person, and the parentheses serve as a crutch. We all tend to have our go-to punctuation, whether it’s an em dash, a semicolon, a comma, or parentheses. By relying heavily on em dashes and parentheses to set off phrases and clauses, you’re just revealing that you don’t know how to use commas. I admit to being a fan of what these days has become the hardworking em dash; I also like mixing it up and not relying on the same punctuation all the time. But so often parentheses and em dashes are the writer’s way of not having to figure out where commas would go.

Examples of Parentheses

When I google examples of parentheses use, I see sentences that I would edit to drop the parentheses. So let’s do that exercise together. I’m taking these examples either verbatim or edited from grammar.monster.com and grammar.yourdictionary.com. I have nothing against these websites; they’re just two that came up in my search.

Here’s a justified use of parentheses for some audiences, although it can be condescending if the target reader already knows the explanation. The information contained within the parentheses gives a quick explanation without taking up its own sentence:
Sometimes numerals (1, 2, 3) are used instead of writing out the numbers (one, two, three).

Often, you can’t express the thought as succinctly without the parentheses. Still, unless you’re under a restrictive word count, I don’t consider that a good enough reason to use the parentheses.
I got a great deal on a used camper (just $500).
I would rewrite it:
At just $500, the used camper I bought was a great deal.
Or:
I got a great deal on a used camper, which cost me just $500.
Even the em dash works better, I think:
I got a great deal on a used camper—just $500.

Take this quote from H.L. Mencken:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
This is the use I see the most. All it does is avoid commas or using two sentences instead of one. Why? I have no idea. Mencken sticks “hence” in there, which connects the parenthetical to the rest of the sentence. Why also set it off so dramatically? Another problem is that “hence” should be enclosed in commas. I would edit it to be:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and, hence, clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

One last example:
This month’s sales figures are sure to wow you. (Chances are, you’ll be really impressed.)
Oh, come on! Repeating what you just said in a new way is the worst reason to use parentheses. The parentheses mean you’re admitting that the sentence is completely unnecessary.

I urge you to look over your memoir and see whether you can eliminated any parentheses. I bet you’ll find at least a few instances.

Like these tips? You’ll love our grammar course. Just $39.

5 Ways to Motivate Yourself This Year to Write Your Memoir

New year, new writing project, right? Or the same old writing project—probably your memoir—that maybe this year you will finally start, continue, or finish. Let this be that year. Choose your motivation among these five!

1. Get inspired by other memoir authors who are just like you

You are no different from the tons of people who decide to document their lives. Some are professional writers, but many are not. Some are celebrities with built-in followers, but most are not. Some want to sell their books, while others want to tell their story just for their family to have. Some are skilled at language, but many need editors to smooth out the rough edges.

The important thing is that you are just as worthy of having a memoir as they are.

There’s only one difference between you and those authors: they sat down and wrote. All you have to do is that. Make the time today. Make the time tomorrow. A half-hour or whatever you can spare. Soon you’ll have a chapter, and maybe by the end of the year you’ll have a full manuscript to submit to an editor, run by an agent, or self-publish as is.

2. Get inspired by people who are more challenged than you.

I compete in track meets so I have to train regularly to continue to do that, but I don’t really enjoy running. Sometimes I just want to give up—the way you probably want to just give up on your writing project. How do I turn myself around?

The best way for me is to see someone around my age who can’t walk or has cognitive impairment or faces depression or some other challenge. I’m in my late 60s and can still run. That makes me grateful enough to take advantage of it. At any time I might sustain an injury or be diagnosed with an illness. As long as I can function, I should make the most of that.

You can do the same. Maybe you’re not the greatest writer in the world, but there are people who can’t sit at a keyboard. We had one client who’d had a brain injury and couldn’t get his memories and thoughts straight, and it was so frustrating for him. If you CAN write, DO write. It’s a gratitude thing.

3. Get inspired by your own story in your own voice.

If you don’t write your story, who will? It’s such a powerful life statement to say, “Yes, my life is worth documenting.” Whether it’s ordinary or unusual, it’s your unique life. Friends and family will remember you, but their memories will be shaped by their own perceptions. Only you can provide the “inside story” of how your life was lived.

It’s special. Do it!

4. Get inspired by the people you’re leaving behind.

Do you wish you’d asked your parents or grandparents more questions about their lives? Maybe you’d like to know how it was to live before all of our 21st century technology, or what their city was like when they were growing up. Perhaps you are not sure how the family relationships played out or maybe even how you’re related to some of your family.

Your children and grandchildren, or maybe nieces and nephews or friends’ children, will have the same questions. You can give them all the details, the backstories, your impressions of your time and place. They will be so happy to have all of that. Draw motivation simply from the love you feel for the people around you.

5. Get inspired by the feeling of achievement.

Maybe your memoir will become a best-selling book or your life story will be turned into an iconic movie. It can happen!

Even if the only people who read your book are you and your family, the achievement of writing a book, being an author, having a hard copy to hand out to people—it’s priceless. Find out what it feels like to BE AN AUTHOR!

Bonus motivation

One more thing: we’ll help you. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and ask questions in our Facebook Write My Memoirs Group. We would love to get to know you, receive your feedback, and have you join the Write My Memoirs community of authors just like you.

How Does an Editor Improve a Memoir?

What does an editor do

Memoir authors wonder whether they need an editor. What do editors even do?

Whether you’re a first-time author or a seasoned, published, top-notch writer, another pair of expert eyes should go over your manuscript for more than a simple proofreading. No matter what your skill level, an editor can polish your work.

Many of our members here at Write My Memoirs are not looking to sell their books. They just want to document their lives and share their perspective of their own experiences in their own voice. Often, it’s just for their family. They can be talented writers, but they’re not professionals, and an editor’s touch can make the difference between an easy, compelling read and a book that just doesn’t sound quite right.

Content facts and flow

An editor reads the manuscript in two ways. The first is as a reader. Does the content make sense? Is there too much? Sometimes authors leave in extraneous information that doesn’t move the story along. Or maybe is there too little? Some things need to be explained. The author can forget that the reader has no information before reading the book. Even if the book is just for family, you should write it for strangers.

If you decide to write your story out of chronological order, can the reader still follow what happened when? Often, the work is generally in chronological order, but the author will go off on tangents that stray into the future in order to finish up about a certain topic. That structure is fine if it’s done skillfully, and an editor will fill in any of that skill gap.

Inexperienced writers can be repetitive, not trusting the reader to remember information that came a few chapters earlier. An editor knows how to remind the reader without retelling. Let’s say a friend from an earlier period of your life shows up again in a much later chapter. Some authors will just give the full name all over again, or “my friend Joe,” without acknowledging that the reader already has been introduced to Joe. An editor will finesse that to remind the reader of the earlier mention.

Authors can rely on their memory and neglect to fact-check. A good editor will look up the spelling of that street in Baltimore or check the date of the eclipse in Minneapolis. If you say in chapter 1 that your sister was born in 1967, and then in chapter 5 you mention that she was 24 when she served as your bridesmaid in 1991, the editor’s mental calculator will check your math.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation

The picky details are probably what you think of when you think of an editor. This is the second way an editor reads your manuscript—more word by word than the sum of the parts. If you believe that your computer’s grammar check and spell check take care of this aspect, any editor will tell you the technology is not as good as a person.

For example, you’ve probably seen a spell-check program underline a person’s unusual name. You ignore it. But if you make a typo in the name the next time you use it, you’ll just see that same underline and ignore that one, too. An editor will spot the inconsistency and ask you which is the correct spelling.

Other considerations like paragraphing and word usage also come under the editor’s discretion. If you use the word “happy” three times in the same paragraph, your editor will change at least one of them. If you use “find” when the better word is “identify,” the editor will fix that. And if your sentences fall into too much passive voice, the editor will suggest ways to turn that into the more interesting active voice.

A good first draft

You are your first editor. Write your draft, and then do your own polishing. You may work on some passages dozens of times before you feel you’ve gotten it right. And we always advise brushing up on the basics and the fine points with our affordable ($39) writing course.

Then, when you feel you’ve done as much with your book as you can, turn it over to an editor. A good editor will make sure to keep your “writer’s voice,” and you’ll be surprised how professional your thoughts, and your voice, can sound.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Wrap Your Memoir in its Perfect Cover

I hang out a lot in Facebook’s various groups for memoir writers. One thing people come there seeking is a “hive mind” opinion on the cover art they’re considering for their memoir.

Should you buy an image?

One time an author on one of those Facebook pages floated a cover with a really cool image, but I did a quick search and found it online illustrating all sorts of things. My short answer for whether you should purchase an image or use one that you find on a free site like Unsplash is simply: no. If you like the image, I can pretty much guarantee that other people have liked it, bought it and used it as well.

This is your memoir about the unique you. Certainly you can come up with a unique cover.

What’s trending?

Choosing your cover is one of the more fun things you do when you publish—not nearly as difficult as writing the whole thing! So let’s look at the trends right now for book covers in general.

There’s a broad range of looks for covers, which gives you license to accommodate your own esthetic. The variety also lets you reflect the theme of your memoir. Your cover is the first introduction to get your reader in the mood to read your book, so use the cover to represent a little of what’s inside.

Bold, vivid, colorful

If “bold” describes you, then now is your time to showcase yourself. Display the boldness through dramatic contrasts, colors that aren’t often paired or heavy fonts. Don’t forget your background—a pattern or bright solid can give your book a distinct look.

    

Understated

This is the opposite of bold and probably not very colorful, but it’s not dull. It’s still profound. If your memoir is quietly powerful, this could be the choice for you.

  

Your photo

There simply is no more powerful way to draw people in than to look straight at them. If you’re a celebrity, this is an obviously good choice because you’re recognizable. But all human faces are a little irresistible. Use your image from present day or from years ago. Either way, you can be sure when you slap your own face on your book, no other book will look like yours.

   

Illustration

Original art can be very effective. If you draw, go through your work to see whether anything connects to the topics in your memoir. Perhaps you’ve painted your self-portrait or your house growing up—anything like that could be perfect. But you may have something in mind like a soaring eagle, hovering butterfly, empty chair—a creature or object that you identify with. It might be worth your time to pay a decent artist to draw your vision.

  

More ideas

You can always use an image of a mountain, beach, field, lake or bustling city. If some natural surrounding complements your book’s theme, this can work well enough. Perhaps pair it with a distinct font for your title.

You can use an object that plays an important role in your memoir, or you can just try to be clever in some way. I think this fails more than it succeeds, but when it works it can be amazing.

 

Write My Memoirs can help

Typically, our Write My Memoirs authors are less interested in selling their book than in leaving something for their family. They tend to choose a photo of themselves from the prime of their life, the way people remember them. But we can work with you on any cover of your choice. Just as every story is unique and crafted with thoughtfulness, so should every cover have exactly the perfect look.

Examples of “Show, Don’t Tell” in Memoir

Open book to show, don't tell

In our last blog post, we talked about why that old saw, “Show, don’t tell,” still applies in memoir and in good writing in general. Now let’s look at some examples.

Clarity: Chekhov + do tell

  1. First, let’s clear up two misconceptions.
    The origin of the “show, don’t tell” concept is credited to writer Anton Chekhov, and that is correct. However, the quote attributed to Chekhov is: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That’s someone’s pithier interpretation of what Chekhov factually wrote to his brother, but it represents Chekhov’s meaning well enough.
  2. We don’t really mean not to tell. Of course your memoir is telling all sorts of things. “Show, don’t tell” just means that when you convey the feelings of the character—in a memoir that’s often your own feelings—the most effective method is to show with a vivid description rather than to tell with subjective words, typically adjectives, like sad, happy, angry and all the rest.

“Show, don’t tell” examples

In The Yellow House, author Sarah M. Brown skillfully uses her location for changing buses as a way to let the reader know how she felt about her place in society. She trusts readers to picture this location and her demeanor even though they may not be familiar with the businesses she identifies in the passage:

I was deposited at the corner of Downman and Chef Menteur where I waited to transfer to another bus. The stop, an uncovered bench the size of a love seat, was just in front of Banner Chevrolet car dealership’s lot full of buffed to shining cars, prices on yellow bubble numbers plastered to windshields, deals none of us could afford. We who were waiting for the always-late bus stood still in our places while others flew by—off the Danziger Bridge, off the interstate onto Chef Menteur, heightening the reality of our immobility.

When you show, you get to write detail the way you would if you were writing fiction. Do it well, and the reader will see exactly what you’re seeing—details the reader probably wouldn’t even notice in real life. William Finnegan is a master in his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life:

I passed a graveyard. In the cemeteries in Tonga, late in the day, there always seemed to be old women tending the graves of their parents—combing the coral-sand mounds into the proper coffin-top shape, sweeping away leaves, hand washing faded wreaths of plastic flowers, rearranging the haunting patterns of tropical peppercorns, orange and green on bleached white sand.

It’s okay to blend show and tell

Don’t feel that you have to “fix” every sentence that veers out of show and into tell. Judge your writing on the merits of the whole. The better you learn the rule, the more you’re permitted to break it. From Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids:

When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly twenty-two-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems.

There’s a lot of telling in that paragraph. Smith tells you that she felt a sense of kinship; she doesn’t describe a scene that illustrates that sense. She candidly says that she couldn’t explain that feeling and never could have predicted it; she doesn’t show you any of that bafflement through dialogue or action. But look at that last sentence—it’s all show. She describes who she was at that moment. As the reader, you put yourself in her place. You understand the distance Patti Smith feels from the established rock stars she just encountered, and simultaneously you sense the meeting of the minds because she’s a poet, perhaps a lyricist. You also have the advantage of knowing the level of success Smith eventually attains. This is a good example of effectively blending telling and showing.

Giving yourself permission to blend show and tell instead of limiting yourself to showing will help you to keep your writing momentum going. You don’t want to get so attentive to the writing process that it interrupts the flow.

Is “Show, Don’t Tell” in Memoir Good Advice?

reader demonstrating show don't tell reaction

If you’re a writer or trying to be a memoir author, you’ve heard the advice to “show, don’t tell.” It’s easy to think you know what it means until you sit down and try to put it into practice. But as with most writing, it is important to “show, don’t tell” in memoir.

Too many adjectives

Especially in a memoir, we want the reader to know our deepest feelings about the experiences we’re describing. The natural way to convey our reactions is to use adjectives—it made us sad or happy; we felt afraid or angry; we were surprised or baffled. It’s okay to pepper your work with adjectives like these, but it’s just not that effective. When you spoonfeed the reader your emotional intent, the reader doesn’t become as engaged as when the reader organically experiences the same emotions.

As you get better at “showing, not telling,” you’ll find that you rely on adjectives less frequently. You’ll describe everything that occurred, but you’re not an objective observer. You’re you. It was your eyes that saw the event take place, your ears that heard the accompanying sounds and conversation, your heart that took it all in. And then it all gets filtered through your memory. So telling the story in itself lets the reader know how you felt about it.

Trust the memoir reader; don’t authorsplain

The product that comes out of all that is a biased and detailed account. The emotions you felt are exactly the same that the reader is likely to experience. You don’t have to “authorsplain” how the events made you feel. Readers are smart. Did the joke strike you as funny? The reader already knows this, because you described the way you laughed uncontrollably. Were you feeling jealous of someone? The reader senses that when you mention that in your mind you were picturing yourself strangling the person. Did you feel ashamed of yourself about an incident? The reader feels your shame because, after all, who wouldn’t be ashamed of doing what you so vividly just described?

Your reaction is important

The other clue is what happens next in your story. Instead of telling the reader about your shame, maybe you reported that you slouched, turned and left the room without saying a word. If you were afraid, you could describe your hand shaking. Even a simple “a huge smile crossed my face” is better than “I was so happy to hear this.”

The role of the confidante

Dialogue can be useful, too, in letting the reader know what’s going on in your mind. Relating an experience to your friend can let the reader in on your thoughts that might not be as obvious. It’s still tricky. Telling a friend “I’m so happy” is no more compelling than saying it directly to the reader. But in skilled hands, dialogue can be a useful device.

Watch this space for more “show, don’t tell” in memoir!

Check back soon, and we’ll give examples of passages that show vs. those that tell. That will make everything crystal clear!

Your Memoir Resolution for the New Year

Be an author on Write My Memoirs

Every year around this time, Write My Memoirs lights up with a rush of new members. I always love seeing that.

Of course, it’s not difficult to figure out what’s going on. In the first few days of the new year, people are signing up because their New Year’s resolution is to finally, finally write that memoir they’ve been promising themselves. It’s a great resolution! If you’ve made it, we are here to help you fulfill the goal.

How will you make sure you won’t let yourself off the hook and abandon this resolution? Polls show that many resolutions have gone by the wayside by as soon as February and more by halfway through the year. Your resolution to write a memoir does not have to be one of those statistics.

It’s that “one bite at a time” approach that will probably work best for you. Write up one story. Your chapter doesn’t need to have a name; in fact, you don’t even need to assign the story to a chapter yet. Write up the easiest story in your life. Then you will have that written!

The next step will feel easier – just another story from your life, or you can go chronologically and write up whatever happened after the story you just wrote. You can wait until the next day or the day after, but don’t wait a full week. Make writing your memoir part of your routine at least 3 days a week.

You can keep yourself accountable by sharing your goals or your writing on our Write My Memoirs Facebook page. We would love to hear how your memoir is coming along.

Good Reaction to Our Grammar Course!

Thumbnail images of Grammar Course lessons

If you’ve been a member of Write My Memoirs for a while, you know that we don’t do any hard-selling. The site is free to use, and we’re not constantly emailing you to push our writing, editing and self-publishing services. But our new Grammar and Writing Course can really help you, at such an affordable price, so we’re tooting our own horn here!

People who have taken the course, consisting of eight video lessons plus a free intro lesson, say it has helped them identify their weaknesses in sentence structure, punctuation and word usage. The practice materials are yours to review any time you forget a point, and you also can rewatch the videos.

Who benefits most from our course? The course is designed for native speakers of American English, so residents of the U.S. will probably get the most out of it. The content aims at people of all ages who have a middle to advanced level of English knowledge but still aren’t writing in a polished, professional manner. Can non-native speakers learn something? How about native speakers whose grasp of English is closer to the beginning stage? The short answer is yes! If you want to improve your writing, no matter where you’re starting, the course is worth taking. It’s just $39!

Take a look at the free Introductory Lesson. You’ll see me, the instructor, and I’m a little goofy and nervous in that first lesson, which covers parts of speech and parts of a sentence. As you proceed through the other eight lessons, the topics get a lot less dry. You’ll have a chance to practice everything and access the answers to the quizzes. When you finish, you can email us a few paragraphs of your writing, and we’ll send you back our edits and suggestions. What a deal! Sign up for the course today!

Take This Quiz to Find Out Whether You’re Writing a Memoir or an Autobiography

Woman wondering what to call her book.

A common question authors have about memoir is whether they’re writing a true memoir or an autobiography. At Write My Memoirs, we don’t make much of a distinction. If you’re writing about your life, you’re writing about your life. Call it a memoir, autobiography, life history—we don’t think it matters much.

But authors continue to want to know how to label their book, so here’s a little quiz for you to take to reveal whether, according to conventional thinking, you’re writing a memoir or an autobiography.

Answer TRUE or FALSE:

  1. My story begins with my birth and continues to present day.
  2. My primary goal in writing my book is to provide information for my children and grandchildren to “know where they come from.”
  3. I would like generations in the future to have a reliable record of what life was like growing up when and where I grew up, as well as what adulthood was like during my lifetime.
  4. Even though my life hasn’t been that unusual, I want to get all the facts down.
  5. I want to tell all about my life in my own voice.
  6. The hurdles I overcame in my life holds lessons for other people.
  7. Even though I am not yet 50 years old, I want to write my book now.
  8. I will devote much of my book to one part of my life that was very unusual.
  9. Something happened to me that I feel compelled to write about.
  10. Everyone asks me about one episode in my life, so I decided to write about that.

As you may have figured out, this list of 10 questions starts heavy on autobiography and progresses incrementally to memoir.

Give yourself 1 point for each time you answered TRUE to questions 1 through 4.
Give yourself 2 points for each time you answered TRUE to questions 5 and 6.
Give yourself 3 points for each time you answered TRUE to questions 7 through 10.

Scores

1-8: Your book is an autobiography.

9-16: Your book is more of a memoir.

17-20: Your book may not have enough of a theme. Rethink whether you want to focus on one part of your life or write a comprehensive book that gives relatively equal treatment to all parts of your life.

Hope this helps! At Write My Memoirs, we want to help you write and publish the best book you can have to represent your perspective of your life.

Memoirs of Summer 2020 Have a Familiar Ring

Cover of Loni Love memoir

What do Jessica Simpson, Madeleine Albright, Ihlan Omar, Colin Jost and a whole lot of people you’ve never heard of have in common? They’re all authors of memoirs published this summer. Coming out of one of the strangest summers we’ve ever experienced, what’s different about these memoirs compared with previous ones?

Nothing.

People write about themselves for many reasons, but by the time you publish a memoir it’s because you think someone may be interested in reading about how you solved a problem, came out the other side of a challenge, managed a particular situation or just plain lived as you. That’s as true in summer 2020 as in any other time.

For celebrity authors, the book will sell well if there’s a big reveal. Hey, Jessica Simpson, what was it like to date John Mayer? André Leon Talley, what’s it like to be a Black, gay fashion editor at Vogue?

No matter how fascinating the life, for a memoir to be a good read it still must be written well. As a comedian, Loni Love has an easy time making I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To entertaining. TV and movie director Barry Sonnenfeld knows how to stage a scene, so it’s not much of a leap to exercise a flair for description while writing Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother. It’s right in journalist Eilene Zimmerman’s wheelhouse to report on her husband’s addiction in Smacked.

Google “memoirs summer 2020,” and you’ll pull up a long list of autobiographical tales that all sound tempting to take a look at. Many of the authors are first-timers, and one summer you may find yourself on one of those lists. Meanwhile, keep writing! And keep reading. These memoirs will inspire you to craft your story as candidly and compellingly as you can.