Writers in the Storm

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June 30, 2021

Memoir Writing 101: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started - Part 3

By Linda Ruggeri

Earlier this month, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 2. Today's Part 3: different ways we can revise our memoir once we’ve finished writing it. (In case you missed it, here's Part 1.)

Somewhere along your memoir writing path, you probably asked yourself “Why am I writing this?” As an editor, I like to follow that question with: What is your goal with writing this? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who is this really for?

Knowing your “Why?” is key to discovering if you’re accomplishing your goal when you start revising your work. The answer to that question (which you should tape to the bottom of your screen) becomes the “bar” you return to again and again during the revision process, when other questions come up, such as Does this part make sense? or Do I really need this story?

Once you know your purpose, and have that guideline, then you can move on to developing a revision checklist and a schedule. Below is what I use, and by no means is it exhaustive or exclusive but it’s a roadmap of what you can do to make the process easier. Feel free to add your own revision pit stops as you work and new things come to mind.

Organize your revision

  • Set a revision schedule. Establish a block of time to revise your manuscript every day. Long blocks of time might actually not be productive. Be realistic about your attention span and plan accordingly. I like working into the late-night hours, but I also know from experience that my end-of-day work is going to have more errors in it, so I can’t do long hours after dinner for example.
  • Avoid revising your manuscript by reading it from beginning to end. Instead, pick an item from your revision checklist and review that one item only throughout the whole work. (I.e. Do a pass where you revise for overused words only).
  • Set up lifelines. Let a few trusted friends know you’re starting your revision work and that you might need to reach out to them to vent, ask questions, help you make decisions. And do that when the going gets tough. Talking with a trusted friend or colleague when you fall into manuscript quicksand can be uplifting and enlightening and will keep you moving forward with your work.
  • Choose beta readers (not friends and family) or writing groups where you can read your work and get objective feedback and send them your manuscript once you’re done revising.
  • Consider if your manuscript will need a sensitivity read, a copyedit, or a proofread down the line and start evaluating the cost and options.

“Revision is a natural consequence of growth.”

- Elizabeth Jarret Andrew, Living Revision

10 Point Revision Checklist for a Successful Memoir Writing Experience

Once you’ve addressed the organizational part of the revision, then it’s time to turn on the magnifying glass and discover the parts that aren’t helping our work or moving our story forward.

Each one of these items on the list should be done as a separate manuscript pass. I don’t recommend doing them together because each one needs your full attention and focusing just on one item at a time is actually a more efficient way of revising and going through your work than trying to do them all at once with a read.

Start with these below and don’t forget to save each pass with an updated version name.

  1. Is anything in my manuscript untrue? If so, then remove.
  2. Am I unsure about the truth of any event/person/situation that I’ve written about? If so, can I fact-check it? If not, can I alert the reader this is how “I remember it”?
  3. Do I need permission to share any images, quotes, anecdotes, names, stories? Make a list of the permissions I need and start getting them in writing. You just need to share the section of the manuscript that involves that person.
  4. Are the themes of my memoir clear and identifiable?
  5. Do I locate the reader in space and time at the beginning of every chapter?
  6. Do I have a character arc? Am I a different person at the end of my story than I was at the beginning?
  7. Can I replace overused words? Grammarly has a great tool for pointing this out, but you can also download this handy list I keep here.
  8. Is my voice sincere? Will the reader trust me? (this will require reading sections/chapters at a time).
  9. Where am I “telling” that I could be “showing”?

Janice Hardy has a terrific book on this where she reminds us that “showing brings a scene to life.” Keywords she recommends looking out for that often indicate “telling” are:

  • As…
  • In + emotion…
  • Could see…
  • The sound of…
  • Realized…
  • When…then

10. Have I spell-checked and proofread my work?

“Revision is messy.”

- Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Living Revision

Once you’ve completed your checklist, your manuscript should be pretty tight, error free, and ready for another set of eyes. Sharing it with your beta readers or a writing group is an excellent way to get the honest feedback you need and will benefit from, as well as polish any areas you might have overlooked. In memoir specifically, revision is akin to a spiritual practice. Be kind to yourself, and to the feedback of others, and only take in what is useful to you.

Now it’s your turn. Are you revising your memoir (or any book)? What has your experience been like? I’d love to hear what works best for you during the revision process.

* * * * * *

About Linda

Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles. She co-authored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram. Her new book Networking for Editors will be released this summer.

11 comments on “Memoir Writing 101: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started - Part 3”

  1. Hi Linda,
    I love this!

    Having a list of action items helps me focus on the revision process without getting bogged down. Your list of words-to-watch-for will be helpful in my endless summer of editing, too! Hyperbole aside, I appreciate your timely post - thanks!


    1. Thank you Kris! I am a "list" person, so I've found that going by a list lets me focus more on what I need to get done on each pass w/o getting distracted or tempted to re-write when I'm actually revising.

    1. Thank you Jenny! For me, working with a list also helps me make the revision process more streamlined. And it's a "living" list, meaning that with each project I'll add items and take off items as needed, so I can customize it to each client. Everyone appreciates a customized list for their project!

  2. Great tips, Linda. I'll second the value of a critique group. I was fortunate to find such a group of all memoirists, and they really "get" what it takes to write a memoir. The group has been the single most influential factor on improving the quality of my writing. They're a goldmine!

    1. Wow, that group sounds amazing! You are lucky! Treasure them like unicorns! 🙂 Yes, critique groups are an excellent way to grow as writers and learn the craft of revision. Good luck on your project!

    1. Great to hear you found it useful Ellen! I appreciate the feedaback!

  3. Great advice Linda - big thank you for sharing this, and the tips on overused words.

    I second what you say about a critique group - I am in one with two other writers, both writing very different genres of fiction. This benefits us, as we each bring a different perspective to our reading.

    Many thanks for your generosity.


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