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 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.

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.

What Matthew Perry Taught Us About the Addiction Memoir Category

Matthew Perry's memoir

As fans continue to struggle with the death of Friends star Matthew Perry, much attention has centered on Perry’s memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, published just about exactly one year ago. The book earned generally favorable reviews, and Perry supported it with a series of televised interviews including, most notably, an hour-long conversation with Diane Sawyer on ABC.

Perry’s memoir could be called an “addiction memoir,” a “redemption memoir” or both. Many of you may be writing or hoping to write a similar type of book that chronicles your journey as you overcame an addiction or triumphed over a different life challenge. You may not be asked to do a lot of TV interviews after your memoir is published, but you can follow some of Perry’s writing concepts to make your book a good read.

What can we learn from Matthew Perry’s memoir? Quite a bit:

  1. Overcoming a huge obstacle makes you want to write a memoir. Beating addiction is necessary in order to live a long and fulfilling life, so you have a lot to celebrate if you’re able to conquer addiction. The natural motivation for many people to chronicle their journey is to help the next addict. In a quote and video clip that’s gone viral since Perry’s death, he tells an interviewer: “The best thing about me, bar none, is if someone comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say, ‘yes,’ and follow up and do it.” He established a clinic for addicted men, but his memoir also was part of that effort to help people.
  2. Perhaps even more than most memoir topics, this one requires utter candor. If you don’t want to feel vulnerable, you probably can’t write an addiction memoir. Perry is brutally honest, not concerned with whether he’s giving “Chandler” a bad name or anything like that. For readers to relate to your saga, you have to come across as baring all and hiding nothing.
  3. Don’t put off writing your memoir. No matter what the topic of your memoir, as soon as the arc of your story is resolved, start writing. You may live much longer than Matthew Perry, who was only 54 when he died. But life goes quickly, and lots of things can get in the way of finding enough time to write a book. While you’re still able to create and the story is fresh in your mind, start writing it. You don’t want to regret letting your life story go untold.
  4. You don’t have to wait for a final ending. No matter what your redemption story involves, you never really know whether you’ve ultimately succeeded in defeating your demons. If you came out of an abusive situation, you don’t know for sure that you won’t find yourself inadvertently stuck in another abusive relationship. If you’ve recovered from a serious illness such as cancer, you can’t be certain that you won’t have to battle it again someday. And if you’ve overcome addiction, there’s no guarantee that you won’t experience a relapse. Matthew Perry continued to have medical problems related to his previous drug and alcohol use. If you have a redemption story to tell, what you do know is that you landed on the other side of something frightening.
  5. When you talk about other people, keep the negativity confined to the facts. One big concern for many memoir authors is how much they can divulge about someone else’s bad behavior. As long as you stick to the truth as you remember it, you can write about someone else. Matthew Perry wrote about his childhood marked by his parents’ divorce. It didn’t make his parents look great, but that’s part of the creative freedom an author gets. However, he also made an unfunny, unnecessary and hurtful joke about Keanu Reeves that had nothing to do with the story he was telling. He received so much blowback from this throwaway line that he removed it from the book in subsequent printings. You don’t have to reveal every opinion you have about everyone you mention. You’re better off complimenting people if you choose, rolling out the facts, and letting your description of the action speak for itself rather than specifically trashing the people who make it into your memoir.
  6. Readers, including friends and family, may be more supportive than you think. Today, addiction doesn’t have the stigma it used to carry. If you feel compelled to tell your story, don’t be afraid to admit what you went through. Don’t feel embarrassed that you stayed with an abusive partner or gave into the temptation of alcohol or drugs. Remember that much of your audience is looking to you for guidance; they’re not out to criticize you. Complete honesty wins over a lot of people.

For many memoir authors, the catharsis gained from writing their story serves as some of the best therapy for getting on with their lives. You want people to know how you faced that challenge and what worked for you to reclaim your own life. Having that book as a reaffirmation that you didn’t back down, didn’t give up, is a reassuring reminder of how strong you are.

When and How to End Each Chapter of Your Memoir

Woman sitting on library floor with book

Different Writing Devices Produce Different Effects

How do you know at what point one chapter of your memoir ends and the next begins? Should you have sub-chapters within chapters? As with everything relating to memoir, you can make your own rules. But let’s take the second question first.

Be Disciplined and Edit

I’m not a fan of separating a memoir into three or four parts and then doing chapters within each part—or worse, letting each part go on and on without dividing it into chapters. If you’re writing a history of the world, maybe you want to split that up a bit, devoting Part I to the prehistoric world and subdividing that into the stone age, the bronze age and the iron age. But look, your memoir is not the history of the world. It’s a close look at a shorter time frame. Subcategories within categories can have the reader picturing your outline or storyboard, and listing Parts I, II and III can be kind of a spoiler, because readers see how your life divides up.

So let’s assume you go with ordinary chapters. According to Scribe Media, an average nonfiction book of 50,000 words typically has 12 chapters. The math of that comes to 4,166 words per chapter, or let’s call it 4,000 words per chapter. I think that’s a fair guideline but nothing you should consider carved in stone. If one chapter feels complete at 2,500 words and another not until 7,500 words, rely on your sense of what works.

Of course, you still should always look at your work with a critical eye. Will the reader want to slog through that longer-than-average chapter? Let’s say you devote a whole chapter to high school. Does it feel longer than the four years of high school seemed to last? If you didn’t get along with any of your teachers, maybe five examples are one too many and you can cut the weakest of them.

If you have an exceptionally short chapter, make sure the content justifies its own space. Perhaps the information can be woven throughout a few other chapters. Or for a simpler solution, maybe you can tack it onto the end of the previous chapter or the beginning of the next.

Organic Timing for a Chapter’s End

I haven’t experienced much of a struggle in determining when it’s time to end a chapter. As you get used to writing, your writer’s voice will just grow quiet when you’ve finished what you have to say about that segment of your memoir.

Endings are pretty obvious especially when you write your memoir in chronological order. If, again, the chapter is about high school, graduation or prom will pretty much cap it off. If the chapter is more of a theme that spans several time periods, such as your difficulties getting along with your sister, you will know when you’ve shared all the important points of that relationship.

Be Deliberate When Ending Each Chapter

It’s so helpful to read memoirs even as you write yours. When we read as readers, we’re interested in following the story. But when we read as writers, we’re also observing all the techniques that hook the reader, make the story flow, keep the information clear. So be mindful of the various ways a skilled author ends a chapter. You’ll discover that you have a choice at the end of each chapter. To take one of the common approaches to ending a chapter, you might:

  • Build suspense. This is probably the most common device. It doesn’t have to be a big cliffhanger, but you always want your reader to have trouble putting the book down. A chapter’s last sentence can easily make the reader curious about what will happen next. Try something like: “When I shoved the diploma into my jacket pocket, I felt the key I’d dropped into the pocket hours earlier and knew I had to figure out what door that key would open.”
  • Foreshadow. Similar to developing suspense, foreshadowing gives the reader a glimmer of what’s coming next but offers a bigger hint. You can foreshadow what’s coming immediately in the following chapter or in an episode that occurs several or more chapters later. In either case, try something like: “Even as I watched him drive away and my breathing finally returned to a normal pace, I had a feeling our paths would someday cross again.”
  • Review/reflect. Like a short story, a chapter can be its own vignette that circles back to a theme or message. Just be careful not to be preachy or “authorsplain.” If you’ve made your point through the narrative, you don’t have to boil down that point for the reader. But you still can drive it home a bit: “That quaint town helped me see beauty in nature and appreciate the value of every individual who entered my life, but it wasn’t going to hold me back from discovering what else was out there for me.”
  • Increase the reader’s emotional connection to you. A memoir can reveal your darker side, so you have to make sure you don’t turn the reader against you. Consider ending a particularly brutal chapter on an emotional note: “His reassuring nod nearly brought me to tears. It was all I needed to be sure that I was making the right decision—owning up to my mistakes while still following my heart.”
  • Put the reader in your shoes. To some extent, your entire memoir is intended to resonate with the reader. Support this by ending a chapter here and there with a sort of invitation to readers to consider what they would do in that position. You can combine this with building suspense: “The three options would lead me down completely different paths, and I knew I could choose only one of them.”
  • Summarize. I wouldn’t use this technique often, because you shouldn’t have to repeat what you’re trying to get across. But it does add variety to your chapters’ endings. It can be something like: “So that was it. I’d tried everything the doctors had recommended. I did the hard work in therapy, had the MRI to check for physical problems, propped myself up with a supportive community and even changed jobs. Nothing worked, and at this point I wanted to just give up.”

You can probably think of more types of chapter endings on your own. Keep in mind that in a first draft you don’t even need to be concerned with this. It comes with the polishing—that’s the great thing about a second draft! And once you get the hang of ending a chapter, it will flow for you. Writing is like anything else—practice improves your outcome.

When Chronology Gets in the Way of Your Memoir Narrative

Sign has arrows pointing to "Future" and Past"

How to take readers down rabbit holes they’ll follow and enjoy

Memoir authors are often concerned with how much to prioritize chronology. Should you roll out the events of your life in the order that they happened—chronologically? Is that too amateur a structure?

No, you can do it and sound professional, but telling your story strictly in order is probably not your best strategy. Even if you generally hold to the chronology, sometimes it feels natural to explain a little more about a topic that comes up. You find yourself going into the past to give the reader some background or jumping ahead to reveal how the situation was resolved. And then you may worry that it will be confusing for the reader.

No Rules, Full Freedom

There’s no one answer. A memoir is successful when it’s tightly written and keeps the reader turning pages. That’s obvious but still not easy to accomplish, and there’s just no rule book you can follow to make sure your memoir is a compelling read. Try to look at that in a positive way: it gives you the freedom to make your own rules for telling your life story.

Currently the trend is to begin your book at a pivotal point in your story. Create drama right away to get the reader invested in what will happen to you. After that, most authors cover ground that came before that pivotal incident, going back as far as childhood, but some write theme-based memoirs that draw from the entire time line as they cover each major point.

No matter what the structure, as you fold out your story you’ll likely find many times when you want to take a side road to focus on a particular topic or person. Stopping to follow the entire arc for that topic will save you from having to bring closure to that segment later on, when the topic itself is not as pertinent. Let’s look at a few examples.

Jumping Ahead

Maybe you’re writing about high school. You talk about a teacher who was helpful to you during a traumatic event or who was just an adult who influenced you in some significant way. Twenty years later, you run into that teacher and, in catching up, you learn that the teacher kept up on your progress by asking various people how you were doing. That encounter isn’t important enough for you to mention it when your narrative reaches that time in your life twenty years later.

But during the high school chapter, when you introduce readers to this teacher, it’s worth taking them down a quick “rabbit hole” to say something like: “After graduation I lost touch with Mrs. Jones and didn’t see her again until I was nearly 40, when I ran into her as I was doing errands in town. She knew all about me. She was candid about telling me she would periodically mention my name to people and ask them if they knew how I was doing. I took that to mean she still cared.”

Another reason to pause the chronology is to give the reader factual information that has little to do with you. Let’s say you talk about moving to a historic section of a city. As the years go on, you visit some of the landmarks and take visitors to the high spots, and each time the historic surroundings give you insight into your personal history. It can be cumbersome to say that as it happens chronologically. Instead, when you tell readers about your move to this new residence, you can go over some of the history, perhaps giving the city’s founding date, population and top tourist attractions. Within that context, you can inform readers of the illuminating effect living there had on your life. You may address a topic like this by both leaping ahead in your life and looking back in history.

Remembering the Past

At some points you’ll probably find the need to explain things about your past. A common topic is heritage. What were your parents like? When you begin your book from the beginning of your life, you can start off with your parents, how they met and some facts about their background. But if you start off at some later point in your life, you still might want readers to have information about your parents and general heritage.

This is when you’ll sharpen your segue skills. An easy way is to just devote a chapter, something like “My Parents,” and then you don’t need much of a segue—but you still need a reason to have that chapter appear. There are a lot of ways to create a segue. Consider:

  • I wanted so badly to break down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. In that way, I guess I’m a lot like my mother. While Mom could be emotional in shifting to anger on a dime, I never saw her get the least bit weepy. I know she felt sadness, but her stoic upbringing taught her that crying indicated weakness. While she didn’t talk about her parents, I found out later that…..
  • I wanted so badly to break down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. In that way, I was nothing like my father. No one else had a dad who cried in front of them. One time I found him sobbing…..
  • One look at that car brought me back to the day I turned 16. My dad had brought home the same type of old clunker, thinking I’d be excited to learn to drive on a car that would be all mine. I thought Dad was so clueless, but my father loved us in his own way. He grew up as an only child in……

It takes some practice to go back and forth in time as you write what probably will be a mostly chronological memoir. You already know that the first draft of your memoir is just the beginning of a work in progress. It won’t take forever to finish your memoir, but it probably will take some rewriting and editing before you get it the way you want it. The chronology is an important piece, so be patient with yourself as you get the hang of flitting here and there in writing about your life.

Writing Dialogue in Your Memoir

Two people sitting on outside steps having dialogue

You don’t have to write very far into your memoir before you realize that dialogue can be a handy tool for you to convey action, emotion, passage of time and more. But even though you’ve read lots of books that have people talking to each other, writing dialogue in your memoir may not come naturally to you.

Sample from F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let’s analyze some dialogue from a classic: The Great Gatsby:

“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”

“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly. “What do people plan?” Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it”

We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen of a—”

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”

“Hulking,” insisted Daisy.

4 Tips in Writing Dialogue

What can we learn from that passage? A lot!

1. When you insert dialogue from a new speaker, start a new paragraph. Sometimes, this applies even when it’s the same speaker. Consider this part:

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly. “What do people plan?” Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it”

Daisy is still the person speaking, but there’s a sentence from the narrator before Daisy’s next line. Also, she changes the subject. Because of those two reasons, Fitzgerald starts a new paragraph for “Look!”

2. Place the attribution either in the middle or at the end of the first sentence. Typically, you mention who’s saying the sentence at the end of it. But you can see in this sentence how you can place the attribution where you might have a comma or force a pause for effect:

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”

When you split the sentence like that, keep the second part lower-case. Another way to create the same feeling is to chop off the second part so that it’s just a sentence fragment. In that case, make the first word uppercase:

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly. “Even in kidding.”

A common error is to go on for two or three sentences before attribution. For example, this does not work:

“Look! I hurt it,” she complained.

You can do:

“Look, I hurt it!” she complained. But you can’t have two separate sentences before attribution.

3.  There are lots of synonyms for “said” as well as words that inherently carry more meaning. Fitzgerald peppers this passage with a “yawned,” a “complained,” an “insisted,” and two uses of “objected,” in addition to going with “said” twice. Here and there he adds a modifier as well—objected Daisy, frowning; she said accusingly; objected Tom crossly. Don’t be afraid to help the reader by describing the way someone says something. Just don’t overdo it. The reader figures it out.

4. You can interrupt the quote with a narrative sentence or two to provide additional facts or description. This passage has three examples—“She snapped them out with her fingers”; “She looked at us all radiantly”; and “She turned to me helplessly.”

Punctuation in Dialogue

In dialogue, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. When you attribute after the first sentence, you end that sentence with comma-close-quote and place the period after the attribution. If the person asks a question or says something excitedly, the question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotes.

This is different from quoting something within a question you’re asking or an exclamatory statement you’re making. Examples:

Can you believe she said, “I don’t remember any of that”?

I can’t believe she said, “I don’t remember any of that”!

Why Include Dialogue in a Memoir

You can avoid all dialogue and convey what people said within an ordinary narrative:

Snapping out the candles, Daisy asked why we needed them when it was so close to the longest day of the year, adding that she always looked forward to the longest day of the year but typically would miss its significance when it arrived. Miss Baker suggested planning something to mark that day this year. Daisy agreed and began a discussion of what to plan when suddenly her attention shifted to her injured finger.

Do you see why that’s not as good as dialogue? It’s more tedious, less lively. You don’t develop the same understanding of the characters as you do when you start hearing their voices in your head. Your memoir isn’t that different from a novel. Use dialogue where appropriate, and know how to use it when you do.

 

Five Punctuation Marks You Won’t Need in Your Memoir

Woman pushing out with hand spread into five fingers

Learning all about punctuation will make you a more skilled writer, and our Write My Memoirs Grammar and Writing Course explains how to use all the punctuation marks. But do you need to have that level of skill to write your memoir? No, you don’t.

Know how to end a sentence. You’ll need either a period, a question mark or an exclamation point, and in a memoir you may never need that exclamation point except in dialogue. Know how to properly use a comma. An em dash like this—and often we use two to enclose a thought fragment—comes in handy, so you might want to find out how to use that. You’ll need hyphens for hyphenated terms like father-in-law and cold-hearted.

You must learn how to use an apostrophe. That one is important, and we cover it thoroughly in our course.

But that’s about it. Here are five punctuation marks you don’t need in order to craft a memoir.

  • Semicolon. A semicolon acts like a period to end a sentence. The distinction is that the semicolon ends a sentence that immediately precedes a second sentence closely related to the first. You’ll be good at this job; your background is perfect. That’s an appropriate use of a semicolon, but you also can just stick a period in there.
  • Colon. A colon introduces a list or a thought. It’s easy to avoid. I packed the following: shorts, a bathing suit, gym shoes, three t-shirts and a pair of jeans. To avoid the colon, just omit “the following:” and write what you packed.
  • Parentheses. You just don’t need parentheses. Anything you want to enclose in parentheses can be enclosed between commas or em dashes instead. Parentheses tend to weaken the impact of writing, and you certainly don’t need them in a memoir.
  • Brackets. This is a rare punctuation mark in general. Brackets serve as parentheses within parentheses, and we already know that we don’t even need the first set, much less the second set within the first set. Brackets also serve to speak directly to the reader, as in [sic], which will never come up in a memoir.
  • Single quotation marks. Although it’s become common to use single quotes to indicate little phrases that writers think don’t warrant actual quotation marks, this is a completely fabricated use. The only use for single quotation marks is to indicate a quote within a quote. In dialogue, it can come up. “I want to see ‘Titanic’ this summer,” she said. So you may need to use single quotation marks, but you probably won’t. Also, you can just italicize a movie title like Titanic instead.

So don’t worry about those five punctuation marks. To learn more, take our online course!

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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!