Memoir editing: the balance between heart and mind

Does the idea of having someone else change your memoir worry you? Though the popular saying that all writing is autobiographical is not entirely untrue, there is something truly special about the memoir. This is true for readers, but even more so for a book editor. In many ways, the memoir is the most personal of genres, and therefore, editing memoirs always results in a special kind of relationship. But for you, a memoirist, that actually causes a problem! This story is so personal, how can you trust anyone else with it? And how can anyone else possibly make your personal story better? Why would you even need memoir editing at all?

I’ll tell you all about that later, but first, let’s talk about what memoir actually is. 

The difference between memoir and autobiography

There are basically two main types of books you can write to tell your story: the autobiography and the memoir. Both types are written by a person about their own life and experience. Both fall in the category narrative nonfiction. But there can be big differences. An autobiography usually tries to stay true to the chronological order of actual events. Meanwhile, a memoir takes one theme and addresses only those events and experiences that are relevant to the theme. Therefore, memoir is often the best genre for those people who aren’t famous (yet) but feel like others can learn from their experiences.

And this makes sense! Whilst we might want to know every little detail about our idols and heroes, no one cares about how the parents of a random person met. The basic rule is: if you are not famous: write a memoir. A memoir, then, needs to have a clear theme and, more often than not, a clear message or lesson you want to communicate through your personal story. 

What goes on in memoir editing

As copy, content and developmental editor, I’ve done memoir editing for many different authors. And it always strikes me how unique that experience is. Though all writing is personal, none is more so than an autobiographical book. And that means that I’m not just editing someone’s thoughts: I’m polishing someone’s inner life!

The editor’s heart in memoir editing

When I’m editing memoirs, I dive deep into someone’s past, their thoughts and their feelings. I get to know them on a deeply intimate level. I learn about their fears, their pain and their insecurities. Some of these authors I get to know better than I know some of my friends! And I start to care for them like they are my friends. I am right there with them during the most impactful life experiences. I touch these experiences and reframe them. And I end up feeling incredibly close to them. 

It is these relationships and this intimacy that I live for. For me, that is what makes memoir editing such a valuable experience. It’s why I love this job. And it’s this love, this heart, that makes me a great memoir editor. You see, because I care about you and your story, it becomes easier for me to bring out exactly those aspects that you need to communicate the value of your experiences. 

The editor’s mind in memoir editing

But even though I will be right there beside you, of course, I’m still one step further from your story than you are. And that gives me exactly the distance I need to see what to cut, what to downplay, and what to give more space in your book. 

Did you know that for my own book – Writing Traps: The ADHD Writer’s Map to a Finished Book – I hired an external editor myself? That is not because I think she’s better than I am. It’s because every writer needs a third party, someone who did not write the original version, to edit their book. If you want to make your memoir as powerful as it can be, you will need an external editor. (After you’ve spent plenty of time self-editing, of course.)

So what can an editor do for you?

My memoir editing philosophy

I truly believe that every piece of writing has merit and everyone’s experiences and views are valuable. Consequently, as a memoir editor I aim to stay as close to the author’s voice and goals as possible. Especially when memoir editing, it is extremely important that every suggestion I make is only designed to more clearly bring out the author’s voice. 

Yes, I did just say “bring out the author’s voice.” I know that many authors fear that an editor will impose their own voice on the text. But that is the exact opposite of what a good memoir editor does! Neither my heart (who is always on your side), nor my mind (which analyzes how to make your story shine) believes that my own voice has anything to do with it. Imposing my own views is not my job. So what is my job while memoir editing? 

My job while memoir editing

For me, editing is dynamic. I may push the author on some points, and subtly try to redirect them on others. But I’m only there to guide and support. I may make suggestions that make complete sense from a reader’s point of view. But a critique of your memoir might feel like a critique of your person. If you put your heart and soul into your book, a critique of your book feels like a critique of your heart and soul. My job as a memoir editor is to take that into account. 

The value of empathy in memoir editing

And that is why the best memoir editors are empathetic. This intimate relationship I feel when editing memoirs, is needed in the editing process. My affection for the memoirists, and my understanding of them, which grow with every chapter of theirs I read and work on, allow me to give not only the feedback that would make their book stronger, but also to phrase it in such a way that it resonates with them, that it feels like support rather than critique.

That is one reason why, when editing, I always work in tracked changes (so you can either accept or reject every change) and never use the color red (I prefer more friendly colors). 

The result of my editing services

Now I hear you think: does this balance between heart and mind in memoir editing actually pay off? Well, it has certainly worked out for the amazing authors I had the opportunity to work with in the past few years! These are only some of the books I’ve edited that were subsequently published. 

Do you want to read more about specific experiences I had whilst editing memoirs? I wrote two blog posts on the subject: about a Black Police memoir here and A Personal History here. 

Memoir editing – concluding thoughts

I absolutely love working on memoirs. Not only have I enjoyed memoir editing, I’ve also offered ghostwriting, coaching and book proposal services to some amazing memoirists.

The memoir genre allows for unique, personal and intimate experiences. More than any other kind of book, therefore, the memoir requires the book editor to provide clarity, empathy and support. And that is where I shine! 

If you are currently working on your memoir and can use some guidance, just use the form below to schedule a free video call with me. I’d love to meet you and discuss how I can help!