I am a developmental editor who works primarily with authors of memoirs, and I have lost a few potential clients because I don’t do “sample edits.” It’s not that I’m incapable or lazy or even that I don’t work for free (although, would you ask a plumber to unclog a sample toilet for free before deciding to hire them?). It’s just that editing a few pages out of context won’t reveal much about the way I work as an editor. How do I work with authors? Let’s back up first and let me explain what a developmental editor does.
I should add that this is what I do as an editor. Others might have different methods altogether. But, to me, a developmental editor isn’t the one who’s going to focus on your punctuation, spelling, and grammar (although I often cannot help it and will correct those things as I go along). Instead, we play the part of the “average reader.” My job as an editor is to make sure there is no disconnect between the author’s intentions and reader perceptions. Often, that includes not only critiquing and editing what the author has written but what they didn’t write.
I first talk to the author to discover their goals in writing the book and to get their “voice.” We discuss the themes that are covered. I find that for first-time memoirists, and in many first drafts, much of the interesting detail has not yet been written. I try to challenge them to dig deeper. Part of my job as a memoir editor is to help jog the author’s memory by asking questions. “How did it feel?” “What did you say?” “How did others react?” “Who else was there?” Then they sit down to write their second draft. The result is a better sensory experience for the readers and something that more accurately recreates the author’s experiences. Often, it takes a developmental editor to help authors achieve this. And I can’t do that in a one-chapter “sample edit.”
So, how does that work in practice? As I advise my clients, it’s better to show rather than tell, so let me break it down into some specific categories.
Breaking the Spell
Don’t make readers think of a writer sitting down after the fact and writing her story. When writing your memoir, don’t interrupt the story with the story of how you wrote the memoir. Too often, I read manuscripts that detour into how the author corroborated some facts. Don’t break the spell for the reader. Just tell the story. Phrases like, “As I write this story …” or “Even today I can see myself …” break the spell for the reader in your memoir. It’s more powerful if they experience events with you in real-time, growing with you, without your more-mature voice interrupting the narrative. Don’t make readers jump forward in time and think of an older writer looking back on events. Instead, stay in the moment and take readers with you.
An example of this is when an author writes, “I would” do this and “I would” do that. That does not have the same impact as describing exactly what you did and how. I work with authors to purge the pages of these interruptions to the narrative, and the result is an immersive experience for readers.
Make a Scene
Pages and pages of expository writing can grow dull after a little while. Instead, create a scene with dialogue. Rather than cruise along at 40,000 feet over the past, there are places where you need to dive in even closer and bring readers with you. Are there snippets of dialogue you can recall or recreate? What did you see? Smell? Taste? Say? Bring readers there, in the moment, with you. Think of your manuscript as Google Earth. There are times when you show the entire landscape and cover vast distances and periods of time, but there are times when you dive into the street level and bring readers with you. Let personality come across organically in your writing. You can say a character is rebellious, curious, shy, or reckless, but those words do not mean much unless you show us how.
I urge authors to close their eyes, think back to the time they’re writing about, and recall the entire sensory experience. It is possible, however, to go a little too far. Sometimes, it’s better to let readers infer emotion from context than to lay it all out there and describe everything a character is feeling. Keep it a little sparse. Subconsciously, it’s a way for readers to become a part of the process of imagining the scene. As an editor, I help authors navigate the waters between too much and too little information. A scene should be organic, easy, and pleasurable.
Autobiography vs. Memoir
It is important to understand the distinction between autobiography and memoir. An autobiography tells your entire life story, from birth to the present day. Often, autobiographies are best written by celebrities or politicians because readers are interested in the minutiae of their lives. A memoir focuses on a moment in time, a specific experience, or themes that play out over a stretch of time. In a memoir, you get to pick and choose parts of your life that have specific meaning to you and are representative of a thought or a theme you are trying to get across to readers. In a personal memoir, you begin in one place, change during your experiences, and end up in another place. One thing a good developmental editor can do is help authors determine what themes to tackle. Sometimes, the themes aren’t clear until after the first draft is written.
A Story Only You Can Tell
Many of my clients have gone through experiences that are already well-documented in history. For example, my Baby Boomer clients often write about their feelings about the Vietnam War or how they felt when they saw the Beatles or the moon landing on TV. Others have already written about those subjects, but I tell them not to let that deter them. Nobody else has their specific story and what these events meant in their lives. Nobody else has their unique voice. I work with authors to help them find their voice.
A potential client recently asked me what gives me the greatest joy in my work. I said it’s working with manuscripts from first-time authors and helping them transform their words into a published book. Many never thought they could ever be an author. With the guidance of a good developmental editor, it is possible to tell your story to a wide readership. And, if readers forget they’re reading and become immersed in the story, then you and your editor have achieved your goals.
Howard Lovy is a developmental book editor, podcaster, and journalist. You can learn more about his work at howardlovy.com/bookeditor. If you’re interested in working with Howard, you can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Howard Lovy is a book editor, podcaster, and journalist with more than thirty-five years of experience at newspapers and magazines. He’s spent the past decade guiding coverage of independent publishing, first as executive editor of Foreword Reviews and then as news and podcast producer for the Alliance of Independent Authors. He freelances for many publications, including Publishers Weekly. As a developmental book editor, he specializes in memoirs and enjoys working with authors to get their work ready for publication. You can find links to the full breadth of his journalism, audio, and book editing work at howardlovy.com.