Editing: A Love Letter to Your Manuscript

For the past month or so (there was a short break in the middle), I've been editing a memoir. (It's part of what inspired me to discuss genres a couple of weeks ago in my post "Writing 101: Details - and Facts - Matter.")

It's an interesting blend of fact and sort-of fact, as most memoirs are, detailing some family history, some personal history, and a bit of American cultural history, as well.

A (relatively) quick side discussion to point out the first adjective in that last sentence: "interesting."

If you're writing a memoir, you have to pay attention to what your intended readers will find interesting. For instance, if you only plan to give the book to your kids, family stories will probably be fairly interesting to them. But if you plan to try to market your book to a wider audience you're going to have to find something that you can write about that truly will interest that audience.

Hollywood tell-all biographies sell well because people are (often) interested in celebrities. That audience may - or may not - also read biographies of sports stars, or of people who overcame great odds to fulfill greater destinies

If you want to have big sales, you need to be able to explain to a wide audience what makes your personal story bigger than just a family story - even if it is simply that your attention to detail sheds light on a very specific aspect of life.

This memoir, however, had been written out "conversationally" - for lack of any better way to describe it. The author's voice was practically audible as I read through the pages, and it quickly became obvious that her stories had been put to paper as if she were telling them to friends over coffee. They bounced around in time. They connected via the tiniest of threads. They blended personal memories and hearsay as you would when chatting in a coffee klatch.

It was - to put it bluntly - kind of painful. One moment, we were in the middle of World War II, the next it was 1956, and that was followed by a jaunt into the 1920s focused on another relative. The details were all there, but they hadn't been given much care.

Luckily, she decided to bring it to an editor for some TLC. And I spent the past couple of weeks (after meeting with her and getting her okay to do so) untangling the manuscript so that I could weave it back together, trying to create a sunburst quilt out of a patchwork blanket.

This is what developmental editors do. We take what's on the page, do our best to fall in love with its hidden quirky brilliance, and then nurture it so that it can live up to that potential. (For a whole post on potential, you can jump back to last September.)

And, while we're at it, we make sure that the language still sounds like you - because there's nothing worse than a personal memoir that sounds like it was written by someone else. (Because, well, that would probably make it a biography - as we discussed a few weeks ago.)

So... If you truly love your work - whether it's memoir, fiction, non-fiction, or something in between genres - prove it to yourself (and your text) by keeping the Valentine's box of chocolates for yourself and hiring an editor.

I promise you, your manuscript, and your readers will all be happier in the long run.

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