When I wrote The Power of Memoir and my own memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I spent more time editing than writing! For some writers, editing is fun, creative and mind-stretching. Finding the right word, feeling out the best tone for the mood of a piece is like polishing the piece, much the same way as a carpenter puts on the final finishes of a handmade table. For others, editing is a chore, something that has to be done. Writers who want to improve their work—whose first draft is truly ready for the eyes of others?— need to edit for style and accuracy of usage as well as subtleties of meaning and language.
I’m asked to be a judge of memoir writing contests from time to time. As I sort through the pages, I notice certain patterns and bad habits that lead me to put a manuscript in the “no” pile. Let’s look at some of the ways that a contest judge views the early pages of a manuscript. Note: if you have a lot of errors on the first or second page, your judge will not read on.
- Misspelled words and incorrect grammar suggest carelessness or ignorance, suggested that you are not ready to be a professional.
- Incorrect placement of periods and quotes, and the framing of dialogue means the person was either careless or doesn’t know correct usage. “My mother loved the new dress,” Betty said, taking off her hat. Note that the comma is just in front of the quote, and the attribution is simple, using the word “said.” “Screamed, shouted, muttered”—are almost never necessary in creating believable dialogue, and it shows that you’re a beginner.
- Misuse of “it’s” and “its,” ‘your” and “you’re” “there” and “their” are my pet peeves. These mistakes show up all over the internet and even in newspapers—shocking! But just because it is everywhere doesn’t make it right.
- Flat language, such as using “there is, there were, there are”—too much of the verb form “to be” leaves the work listless. Nothing is happening when things are just “being.” Find active verbs, work on reconstructing sentences so they are moving along and interesting.
- Dangling participles that don’t modify correctly show the person doesn’t understand how to diagram a sentence. Remember, in the old days, you had to know how things hooked together and you knew what modified what! “Driving in the car, the dog hung his head out the window.” Here, the dog hopefully was not driving! Correction: “As I drove the car, the dog hung his head.”
- At the beginning of a shorter essay or vignette, it’s best to bring in the action, characters and situation early in the story. Long rambling explanations of the back story or hard to follow pieces of history confuse the reader. What is the through line of the story? Where does it begin and end through the character’s eyes and experience?
- What growth, change, insight, or new revelations does the main character—in a memoir it’s you!—have by the end of the vignette? Too often stories meander unfocused to the last page, and the reader does not get the point.
Final suggestions: As you write your first draft, allow yourself time to add in details and ask yourself questions: did I use scenes and sensual detail? Does the reader, who does not know me, see and experience my world through their senses? Does spell check give the correct answer for every word—often it’s incorrect for the default setting in grammar and spelling, and you have to check each word yourself.
Think of your work as having layers, each encounter with your manuscript leading to a more polished story. And, don’t forget to enjoy the process!