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.

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