Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

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.

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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!