Memoir and Family History: Part 5—Writing

Memoirists and family historians are not necessarily experienced writers, and they often don’t realize how many drafts it takes to achieve a finished product. The first draft will be “pure green dreck.” Start writing, and expect that you will re-write … and re-write … and re-write. But get the first draft written first.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Write in a natural style. You’re not writing an academic paper; you’re writing a story that you want people to read and enjoy. Write the way you talk, not the way you think will impress people. Readers shouldn’t pay attention to the writing; they should be wrapped up in the story and not thinking about what a great writer you are.
  • In family history, you may consider it important to include facts such as birth and death dates. If you put these facts in the story itself, weave the facts into the narrative. If you find it difficult to fit in all the facts you want without interrupting the flow of the story, include these details in an appendix rather than in the story itself.
  • You may be writing history, but you’re also telling a story. The facts are the basis of the story, but the people—their thoughts and emotions— make the story real and meaningful to the reader. Details and everyday occurrences turn dry history into exciting story. The story doesn’t have to start at the beginning. Open the book with a hook, action or dialogue that will immediately catch the readers’ attention and make them want to keep reading.
  • Although you aren’t preaching or teaching, you can certainly share your and your family’s beliefs and values. Your story is about people and what is important to them; spiritual, social, and political beliefs and activities are important to most people. Let your readers know which beliefs and activities are integral parts of your life or your family’s history.
  • Choose appropriate photographs whenever possible to make ancestors more real and memories more vivid to readers. How many pictures you include and how you arrange them will depend in part on the format you choose.

Every writer has her own way of writing. There is no formula or set of steps that you must follow in order to write your book. Use the following as guidelines, and adapt them to your own working style.

  • Get the words on paper in the way you prefer—longhand, typing, recording—see Part 4: Getting Started.
  • Write in an organized fashion—chronologically or categorically—if that works for you. Otherwise, write stories or chapters or scenes as you think of them.
  • Correct spelling and punctuation errors as Spell and Grammar Check point them out to you, but ignore grammar errors because they are often wrong.
  • Don’t edit or revise until you’ve finished the first draft unless you realize you got something wrong or you change your mind about what you want to say.
  • If you have written piecemeal, assemble the stories into one document. You may organize your book into chapters or sections either by date (chronological order) or by topic, depending on your personal preference and the nature of your story.
  • Edit the manuscript—see my series of posts on editing.  Check first for content and continuity. Did you leave out something important? Did you spend too many words on a particular topic? Does the order makes sense or does the story seem disjointed? Do you need to add any information to make another part of the story understandable? You may need to add, delete, or re-write material.
  • Edit again for consistency. Are there any inconsistencies in names, places, character traits, and spellings? If you have fictionalized the story, do the characters demonstrate consistent values or behaviors, or if not, is the reason for any change clear?
  • Edit again for factual and grammar errors. Especially in a family history, verify events and dates—anything that can be checked.
  • Repeat editing the manuscript until you are satisfied that it is the best you can reasonably make it, realizing that you will never have a perfect book and that too much editing can wipe the life and passion out of your story.
  • Get input from other readers. Ask one or more people to read your manuscript and give you feedback. For family histories, other family members familiar with some or all of the history can be very helpful. Someone without knowledge of your family or personal story may be in the best position to tell you if they understand what you’ve written. A professional editor will not only catch grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors but can also improve clarity and readability.
  • Evaluate the feedback and use what you find helpful and ignore what you don’t. Note, however, that if several people mention the same thing, you probably need to revise it even if you are happy with what you have written.
  • Read the manuscript again to ensure that no errors have crept in and continuity and flow haven’t been disrupted during revisions.

Note that a memoir or family history doesn’t have to be written on paper. In this digital age, video is becoming a popular way to record memories. I am not qualified to give any advice about creating a video of your personal or family story. However, you can use many of the tips in this series to gather and prepare the information for your video.

In the final installment of the series, we will cover publishing and distribution.

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