Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Editing Your Memoir for Word Choice: Part III

Word choice in memoir writing

Originality and a twist on clichés will help make your memoir memorable.

For the third post in this three-part series about editing your memoir for word choice, I want to discuss originality and ways to use clichés to your advantage. I remind you that this is your memoir. It’s not a famous writer’s story, and it’s not a term paper, either. Be authentic but creative; offer something the reader doesn’t ordinarily see.

Dip Into Your Speaking Voice

When you insert yourself fully into this personal storytelling, your speaking voice will blend naturally with your writing voice. Let’s say you’ve always called your mother “Ma.” Most of the memoirs you read refer to “my mother” or “Mom,” but if you’ve never called your mother “Mom,” your memoir is no time to start. Toggle back and forth between “my mother” and “Ma.” That is the best, most authentic word choice for your memoir. The reader will hear you, not some generic, watered-down version of you.

Now let’s say that you swear a lot when you talk. Confine that aspect of your speaking voice to the dialogue you enclose in quotation marks. The rest of the text will be too distracting if every sentence contains profanity.

Include a few Unusual Words or Ways to Describe Something

In a previous post, I gave an example from movie and television director Ed Zwick’s new memoir, and since that book remains fresh in my mind, forgive me if I use it for an example here as well. Zwick mentions that someone in his life luckily had “reservoirs of patience.” While “reservoirs” is a pretty common word, using it to describe someone’s patient nature strikes me as clever writing. She didn’t have “lots” of patience or “endless” patience; she wasn’t “super-patient” or “tremendously patient.” With “reservoirs of patience,” the author not only delivers a word that isn’t typically associated with having patience; he also creates a visual, stopping you just for a slight pause to consider how much he appreciates the person’s patience. And notice that he does not need an adjective such as “deep reservoirs of patience.” The unmodified noun says it precisely.

Now I’ll make up an example. Let’s say you like the word “serendipity.” Instead of calling something a “pleasant coincidence,” in your everyday speech you just tend to use the word “serendipity.” Then give the reader a taste of your unique flavor of language by using that word. However, using it once, or twice at most, will be enough.

What about including words that you never use? Maybe you’ve already described various people as “smart,” “intelligent,” “wise” and “brainy,” and you don’t want to repeat any of those words, but you have a smart friend you still want to write about. So you Google for synonyms of “smart” and come up with “sagacious.” You’ve seen the word and know what it means, but you’ve never used it. Should you write “sagacious” to describe that friend in your memoir? My vote is probably not. If you feel it fits comfortably into the rest of your memoir, then okay, but if you’re using mostly everyday words, I think a word like “sagacious” sounds as if you’re trying too hard to be, well, sagacious.

Remember that synonyms are not the only solution. You can always rework the sentence. Instead of describing your friend with a synonym for “smart,” you can say that your friend seemed to know everything about everything, or your school friend was always tops in your class, or your work friend sat around doing tough crossword puzzles during his coffee break. Again, get creative.

Not All Clichés Are Bad, and Most Clichés Can Be Made Good

You may have been told to avoid clichés, and that’s generally good advice. But lately I’ve felt more kindly toward the much maligned cliché. I think these common phrases can give your memoir a relatable quality.

Let’s consider the reasons you’ve been told to steer clear of clichés as well as overused similes and metaphors. This is a bad sentence: “She was running around putting out fires, busy as a bee, but when I walked in she looked as if she’d seen a ghost.” Not only are three clichés too many for one sentence, but those particular clichés are not the best choices.

But it can be charming to let a few familiar sayings creep in here and there. And you can control your clichés by altering them for effect. I’ll contrive a paragraph for this purpose:

I believed that every cloud had a silver lining, but I couldn’t find even one in the series of storms that rained on all of my parades that June. I’d hoped my graduation would bring my parents together in some sort of peaceful reunion, but Dad never even showed up. I thought moving out of Mom’s house would certify my entry into adulthood, but by August I’d moved back in, unable to juggle enough jobs to have anything left over after paying rent. Most of all, in Alex I thought I’d found my soul mate, my companion for riding into the sunset and leaving all of my anger and disappointment in the dust. Alex took me for a ride, all right, and the sunset did get darker and darker.

It’s not Shakespeare, but I think the clichés prove useful: “every cloud has a silver lining,” “rain on my parade,” “find my soul mate,” “ride into the sunset,” leave something “in the dust,” and take someone “for a ride.” I could see an editor saying, “Ugh!” But I think it all puts the reader at ease. I find that compelling memoirs tend to have a bit of folksiness in them, and common phrases work toward that end.

I’m just saying that when you edit your first draft, don’t automatically delete your clichés. Give a little thought to whether they might be adding something to your narrative.

Word Choice Is Your Choice

When you write a memoir, it’s motivating and inspiring to read other memoirs. But you don’t want to copy another author’s style. Your memoir is about your life, written in your voice. Every word you choose has a piece of you in it. If a sentence sounds as if someone else said it, replace it with words that are either yours alone or yours as representative of ordinary language.

Like this article?


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!