Writing Tips: How to Develop Empathy in Your Memoir

Empathy Sign

You probably want people who read your memoir to root for you. Even if the main topic of your memoir does not address something like overcoming hardship, facing tragedy or triumphing over opposition, you most likely want to encourage empathy for yourself. Unless you’re unusually self-critical, telling your story from your point of view will naturally point readers in that direction.

But there also are writing devices you can use. Here are three.

1. Writing Tone: Be Intimate, Raw, Honest, Humble, Authentic

Eliciting empathy from readers is really no different from trying to make new friends. Why do people want to spend time with someone?

You earn empathy from readers not only by the story you tell but also by the way you tell it. Write intimately, as if you’re sitting with just one person and “spilling your guts” to a degree.

Like new friends, readers like nice people. Show your heart! If your journey takes you from being not very nice to becoming a much better person, start your memoir at a more recent period and then jump backwards. That way you’ll let readers know that sticking with your story will pay off, because eventually they’ll like you.

Readers sense authenticity; if they feel phoniness, they’ll doubt your story. If they think you’re outright lying at all? You’re toast.

If readers hear arrogance in your writer’s voice, they’ll turn against you. If you blame others or just bad luck for what you’ve done, they’ll abandon you. Readers will be turned off by a flippant attitude that treats your sins as if they’re less significant than the sins of others. So take accountability for mistakes you’ve made and your own contribution to your troubles.

Expressing true contrition and raw honesty will keep readers on your side. Your tone must demonstrate that you don’t think you’re always right or better than other people.

Writing at the average reader’s level is a good way to get them to relate to your storytelling. If you write down to them, that condescending attitude will probably not sit well with readers. At the other end, writing in highly scholarly language can be tough to slog through and also indicate that you’re not easily relatable to ordinary people.

2. Writing Content: Give Evidence for Empathy

Be careful if your memoir positions you against the world, because the world might just win in your readers’ minds. To encourage empathy, show empathy. Roll out incidents that demonstrate how you empathized with other people.

Include, as well, episodes that show people empathizing with you. Give some play to other people who agreed with you, friends who had your back, relatives who came to the rescue. Explain your reasons behind your actions. Include any “aha” moments you had so that readers can take that ride along with you.

3. Writing Quality: No Sloppiness

Smart readers like smart writing—your memoir must be well-written. Readers do not have to be English professors to spot typos, bad grammar, repetition, hard-to-follow narratives and other errors that indicate poor writing. Even just unsophisticated writing can undermine a good story, because readers might not be able to follow your thoughts.

While you don’t have to be a professional writer, you should have a professional editor look over your work. Little things like paragraph transitions make a big difference in keeping the story flowing and the reader turning pages.

If your writing is poor, readers may feel sorry for you—but sympathy is not empathy. You don’t want readers to pity you; you want them to respect you for the way you handled tough situations and your good times, too. Ultimately, you want readers to enjoy your book—through your challenges, your decisions and your survival. Put them right by your side, and they’ll get it.

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!

Attracting a Publisher: Advice from a Memoir Author Who Did It

Linda Strader was getting nothing but rejections when she pitched her memoir to agents and publishers. But a couple of rejection letters became her saving grace when she took their advice:

  • “Memoirs need to be universal—they need to resonate with the reader.”
  • “A memoir must read like a novel.”

After a total rewrite based on that information, Strader’s memoir, Summers of Fire, is now on bookstore shelves, thanks to an acceptance from publisher Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company. At editingpen.net, Strader shares tips for making it happen:

  1. Give the publishers what they want. They know what sells. Go to publishers’ websites and read best-selling memoirs by people who are not famous.
  2. Make your memoir a story. It’s not an essay. You need a beginning, middle and end. And, of course, show, don’t tell. You’ve heard this before, but Strader provides the contrast. Telling, she writes, sounds like: “I walked into the hospital to see my sick mother. She lay in bed, unable to speak. I never did like hospitals, so it was hard for me to be there.” But showing lights up all the senses: “The minute I walked into the hospital, the smell of disinfectant about knocked me over. That odor always made me remember the day my dad died, and now it looked like my mom would follow. When I entered her room, I detected the odor of urine and medicine. Her face was gray, her eyelids closed, but her hair had been carefully combed into her favorite style. A heart monitor bleeped steadily; the oxygen tank whooshed. My mom was leaving me and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it—and I was angry.”
  3. Specify what was at stake, the choices you made and how they changed you. Everyone makes decisions, and facing those forks in the road are what can make readers relate to your experiences.
  4. Be yourself. Write from your heart, reveal your true self, show your vulnerability, expose your fears.

If you do all of that, Strader concludes, “readers will relate.” And when readers can relate to your book, publishers will want to get your book out there.

The Power of Photos in Your Memoirs

The Power of Photos in Your Memoirs
We were asked recently how to add a photograph to a WriteMyMemoirs writing page. Great question! Visuals aid the reader’s mental picture of the events that took place and the people who played a role, but they also help you, the author.
As you review the many photos you have around the house, you’ll be reminded of off-your-radar episodes and people you may want to consider for topics in your memoir. Also, the combination of visual elements and text will provide you with the most valuable record of your memories. Even when photographs do not make your “final cut” for inclusion, they can jog your memory. Looking at a picture of your childhood home, for example, will enable you to describe the structure with accuracy and enriching detail.
So how do you add a photo to a WriteMyMemoirs page? On the page in your account, just click on the icon at the far right. That will bring up a selection of stock photos, but it also will provide a button marked “upload” that you can click on to take you into your own computer files. Then you need to find the file in which it’s stored, and you should be able to follow directions from there. If your photo is not in digital form, you will have to scan it first in order to store the digital form on your computer.

We were asked recently how to add a photograph to a WriteMyMemoirs writing page. Great question! Visuals aid the reader’s mental picture of the events that took place and the people who played a role, but they also help you, the author.

As you review the many photos you have around the house, you’ll be reminded of off-your-radar episodes and people you may want to consider for topics in your memoir. Also, the combination of visual elements and text will provide you with the most valuable record of your memories. Even when photographs do not make your “final cut” for inclusion, they can jog your memory. Looking at a picture of your childhood home, for example, will enable you to describe the structure with accuracy and enriching detail.

So how do you add a photo to a WriteMyMemoirs page? On the page in your account, just click on the icon at the far right. That will bring up a selection of stock photos, but it also will provide a button marked “upload” that you can click on to take you into your own computer files. Then you need to find the file in which it’s stored, and you should be able to follow directions from there. If your photo is not in digital form, you will have to scan it first in order to store the digital form on your computer.

Forget Your Password? Ask the “Memoirs??? Gang for Help!

From my own online experiences as well as from the email we receive here at WriteMyMemoirs, I understand how easy it is to forget your username or password—sometimes both! We all make mistakes and forget things. When we create a username and password on any website, we try to come up with something simple enough to remember—but also something complex enough that other people won’t be able to figure out. Then if we let even a few days go by without signing onto the account, when we go back to it we may not be able to follow our own trail of thought.

If that happens to you, please just let us know! Click on Contact Us at the top of the page, and ask us to email your username and password. We’re happy to help! Often, the alternative to asking us to retrieve your information is that you just stop coming to the website and give up on writing your memoirs. We certainly don’t want you to do that!

You signed up for a reason: to create a record of your life story. It’s a great goal and something that your children and grandchildren will appreciate. Does it take work? Most things worth having require a commitment and some hard work. Keep your eye on the prize, and don’t let something as simple as forgetting your password stop you from completing this worthwhile achievement. We’re here to help. Just ask us!

How to Use the “Export/Publish??? Button on WriteMyMemoirs

blog14We’re delighted that many of our members write regularly and add to the stories that will ultimately form a complete memoir. However, I’d like to caution you about something that may be confusing a few of you.

To make sure you keep safely in your account each new entry you’ve written, you know to always remember to push the big red SAVE button at the bottom left of the writing box. We offer two other options as well: to transfer your work to your computer, and to share your work with other Write My Memoirs members. To perform either function, push the EXPORT/PUBLISH button. After that, you can identify which stories you want to export or publish. When you push EXPORT, you’ll have a short wait until the story is ready for you to download to your computer. Another link will appear with instructions to click it in order to complete the download. When you push PUBLISH, your work will be eligible for administrative approval (just a formality) to become available for others to view under our VIEW PUBLISHED STORIES tab at the top of the home page.

From time to find we find stories with no content waiting for our approval to publish. Obviously the author has pushed PUBLISH in error. We certainly don’t want to discourage you from choosing to share your life story online with our full membership; we just want to make sure that you truly intended to share the work, so please be careful!

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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 that extra 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. SCHEDULE A CALL TODAY if you’d like to talk about what’s right for you. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!