During a book concept consultation this morning, a client shared that her previous writing coach told her to take all names of people out of her memoir and refer to them as “my sister,” “my friend,” “my husband.”
As a writer, you want the people in your book to come to life for your readers–whether writing about a client of yours in a how-to anecdote or a bit character in your memoir. Your readers should see the person and experience them as three dimensional. Now, if you want to preserve someone’s privacy, by all means feel free to give them a pseudonym (but you may want to leave their real name in while you’re writing, so you can keep it real for yourself–just change their name at the end and let readers know you made such changes in a disclaimer at the beginning or end of the book).
This writing coach had also told my client to consistently write in the voice of the younger person experiencing the events at the time, rather than as her current, experienced self. As Richard Hoffman noted when speaking at the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Writing Conference earlier this year, you miss an opportunity for depth when you write solely in the voice of the past. Your current wisdom and experience add nuance and texture to the memory you are writing about. Don’t cheat your readers of that.
Other advice I’ve heard and disagree with:
– Don’t ever use contractions: If you read, “I said, ‘I do not like when you use contractions. Why do you not use the full word?'” you’d probably find it stilted, right? People don’t talk like that. They use contractions when they speak. Don’t clean up your dialogue so it sounds proper. Make it sound real.
– Write the way you speak: Yes, I know I just told you to make it sound the way you speak, but you don’t want to completely emulate a true conversation. In general, leave out words like ‘well’ and ‘so’ in dialogue, even though people use them. And that goes double for the ubiquitous “um.”
– Use passive voice (verbs like is, was, am, has, had) for long stretches in a gentle story: the late Frank Conroy, long-time Director of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, taught me to use active verbs whenever possible. I’m fairly compulsive about this rule because your verbs give energy to the writing. Yes, you can use passive voice (you’ll even find it in this blog post), but be stingy about its use.
– Write for an eighth grade level: Yes, it’s generally better to say things as simply as you can for most audiences, but do think about who your audience is and speak their language. In many cases, you don’t need to dumb it down; just write clearly.
Ever gotten any rotten writing advice? Do tell.
And if you have a question about whether you’ve received sound advice, share your questions here.
And if feel free to disagree with me in your comments as well.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge! I am encouraged to continue to write. I was told by an editor that no one cares about ‘my story’ unless I am famous. That I should remove my story and personal experiences, and rather, turn my book into a ‘how to’ kind of manual. Since receiving this comment, I have been frozen, unsure how to move forward.
Any advice would be much appreciated,
Lisa Tener says
Any time someone gives advice that’s harsh like that it disturbs me. While it’s true that traditional publishing has gotten competitive and it’s harder to sell a memoir if you’re not famous, you always have a shot with great writing and a great story, especially if you’re willing to work on growing your platform (blogging, social media, pr). You can also self-publish. I do advise doing your best with the writing and getting an excellent editor (e-mail me if you want a recommendation). Hope that helps. Don’t let someone’s harsh advice stop you in your tracks. They’re probably just too scared to write their own memoir!
Such sage advice! I was at a writers’ conference this weekend with my friend/client Kevin Hanrahan. We were laughing about the scathing criticism we had once gotten of novels that are now Pushcart award-nominated or with an agent! Always good to get more takes on something you feel strongly is good!