Writing Tips

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Writing Memoir and Family History 

The story of your own or your family's history is likely to be the most personal, emotionally satisfying, and potentially overwhelming writing project you'll ever undertake. After you've collected all the oral history, personal memories, journal entries, photographs, letters and countless other documents, you have to make some big decisions. Why do you want to write this, who are you writing it for, what time span do you want to cover, and what do you want the story/book to do for you? This determines your goal. If you answer those questions before you begin, you will find it easier to write.

Writing tips:

*    Brainstorming – For family history: make a list of what stories you want to include, and how that fits into your goal. For memoir: make a list of everything that comes to mind from your past to the present that is a good memory, or that helped you become the person you are. As you write it down, those memories expand into more. 

*    Write first, edit later. It's tempting to keep revising your work as you go, but this approach makes the work difficult to finish. Write your story from beginning to end without stopping to edit or re-write. Write fast so your left brain cannot criticize. Then when you have told the story, go back and clean up the grammar and cut unnecessary words if the story is too long. Try to get an entire rough draft before you make any major edits. I like to give each story a title so it is easy to find. These separate stories may also be submitted for publication to suitable markets or for contest.

*    Write in first person point of view. Although your English teacher may have discouraged this when you were in high school, this writing is about you and your family. The reader expects you to tell a memoir from your point of view.

*    Give the reader a sense of place. Where and when is this event happening? What else was going on in the rest of the world that may have influenced your family’s actions? Remember that the people reading your work were not there when the events took place so those “inside jokes” must be explained. 

*    Collect memories. I like to work with a collection of “memories” or short stories, giving them each a separate title so they are easy to locate. I encourage you to start each little "memory" story on a new page, print the stories out and keep all in the same folder.  Don't worry about trying to tie the stories together. That will happen naturally later. Always start the title and story about halfway down the first page, double-spaced, because that way you can add notes as they come to you. Choose an easy-to-read font like Times or Helvetica or similar, at least size 12.  Manuscripts should be submitted in that format. Focus on one event for each story. Don't include unnecessary details or go off “rabbit chasing.” Keep the story on track so the reader won’t become bored or overwhelmed by too much information.

*    Edit. In your editing phase, spell out abbreviations, use complete sentences, watch your grammar and avoid hyphenation. Break the story into paragraphs to make it easier to read. You might ask someone who is good in English to proofread your story. Computer spell-check can’t determine if you are using the right homophone such as (further/farther, male/mail, there/their, too/two/to; etc) so watch for those.

    *    Be sensitive to your readers. Keep in mind that what you say will affect other people, especially if your memoir ends up being published. If something is particularly controversial, you may wish to change the person's name in your memoir. As long as you put a disclaimer in the front of your book stating that some names and identifying details have been changed, this is perfectly ethical.

*    Be Inspiring. When writing memoir if you need to talk about tragedies or terrible times you went through, try to focus on the things or the people that helped you get through that horrible event. Your readers already know about pain and sorrow. Take their hand and show them the way to recovery. Give them hope. Talk about the lessons you learned, the mistakes you made, what cheered you. Remember that sometimes humor is the best medicine. That is inspirational. Whatever you do, don’t be preachy even if this is for a religious market.

*    Read aloud. When you are happy with your work, print it out and read it into a tape recorder if you have one. There is something about hearing the story aloud that helps you be able to describe the smells, sights and sounds, and the further you go everything you write down brings up even more memories. Keep on going.  Write a little bit everyday. With family history it is very hard to know when to stop. There is always more to learn, more to share.

Editing notes:

1. Compose your story setting with the four Ws: Who What Where and When, in the first paragraph 

2. Grab your reader in the first sentence. Start with action.

3. Watch for repetitions of the same word.

4. Omit needless words like the, that, had and the lazy “to be” words.

5. Never use a big impressive word when a little one will do.

6. Be consistent with point of view, verb tense, and narrator voice throughout.

7. Grammar and punctuation are important, so review those rules.

8. Remember all stories and books must have a beginning, a middle and an ending. 

9. Use lots of ACTION verbs.

    10. The more you read, the better you will write.  Study the writers you like to read.