Tag Archives: life writing

Editing memoir, life writing and creative non-fiction

At this year’s SfEP conference, writer Emma Darwin led a workshop that was mainly focused on non-fiction authors, but the many questions discussed are relevant to both authors and editors. Loulou Brown summarises Emma’s key things to consider when working through a text.

Creative life-writing/creative non-fiction uses the techniques of fiction to write real, non-fictional stories. Non-fiction work presents real life. It informs, summarises and reports, and separates facts from inferences and guesses. It is explicitly factually ‘true’, including uncertainties and gaps, and it acknowledges influences and assumptions.

The author should consider why they want to write about a particular subject, and what is at stake. It is then necessary to think about the project to be worked on.

  • What is important?
  • What will the project contain?
  • Whose story is it?
  • Who are the important people?
  • Where are the important places?
  • When do the important historical events take place?
  • What gets told and how?
  • Is there more than one story; if so, how are they related?
  • What might the ‘spine’ or ‘backbone’ of the narrative be?
  • What will the ‘vertebrae’ be?
  • Where does the author start?
  • Where does the author finish?

The author needs to decide the following:

  • What will their personal rule-book be for when to do what?
  • How will fictional techniques help to make the non-fiction material compelling?
  • Where are the gaps and ‘awkwardnesses’: in facts, causes and motivation; in thoughts, feelings and physical experiences? How will these be filled or bridged?
  • How will discrepancies be acknowledged and resolved, or discrepancies be acknowledged and left to lie?
  • How will explicit inferences, guesses and explanations be made?
  • How will they imagine, reinvent or alter?

The narrative is very important and the following issues need to be considered:

  • Who is doing the narrating?
  • How will the narrative put flesh on the spine?
  • Who or what is the narrative centred on?
  • How will the narrator draw the reader along the spine?
  • Where is the narrator ‘standing’, relative to the events?
  • What will the narrative evoke, dramatise, show?
  • Where will the narrative inform, summarise, tell?

Narrative techniques:

  • Using a narrator or storyteller and actors in the story.
  • Interweaving different timelines.
  • Working with point-of-view.
  • Showing versus telling (evoking/telling the reader; informing/explaining).
  • Working with voice and tone.
  • Working with psychic distance.

The author needs to think about his or her readers and consider the following questions:

  • Who is going to read what is written?
  • Will the journey be worth the reader’s time and money?
  • What is at stake for the reader?
  • How will the writer engage the reader?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • How is the reader convinced by what the writer is saying?

Emma listed a number of features that can go wrong with the manuscript. Editors should carefully take note of these potential problems.

  • The voice is not compelling enough.
  • The reader doesn’t care about what is being said.
  • The text is confusing, irritating, or too quiet, too noisy, too slow, too long, or too short, or too rushed.
  • The storytelling is jerky.
  • There is a ‘soggy’ middle.
  • The story fizzles out.
  • Although competent, the story is dull.
  • The text is over-written.
  • The text is under-written.
  • There are repetitions.
  • There is too much description.
  • There is too much introspection.

Emma ended her workshop with a list of potential problems that might arise between authors and publishers.

  • The publisher says that the author’s voice is dull and clunky.
  • The publisher gets frustrated because the author cannot remember what the publisher considers to be important incidents.
  • The publisher is irritated that the author won’t tell the ‘best’ bits.
  • The publisher is annoyed that the author finds it very difficult to write about important incidents.
  • The publisher is bored because the author feels it necessary to write about incidents in great detail.
  • The publisher is cross because the author over-explains events.
  • The publisher is peeved because the author doesn’t put in enough detail.
  • The publisher is upset because the author resists any restructuring.
  • The publisher is furious because the author balks at fairly drastic changes.
  • The publisher gives up when the author resists all changes to the text.
  • The author becomes paranoid when the publisher wants the text to be sexier.
  • The author is upset that the publisher does not appear to understand what they are writing about, given the changes the publisher wants to make to the text.
  • The author hates major restructuring of the text that they have worked on for years.
  • The author is disgusted that the publisher appears to be interested only in how much money the book will make and does not appear to be interested in the content of what has been written.
  • The author has a seizure when the publisher pushes hard for delivery of the text.

Loulou Brown is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. She has an MA in women’s studies and an MA in English literature. She specialises in editing academic work in the humanities and social sciences and has also edited a lot of biographies and autobiographies. Her major interest is in editing fiction and she has recently become an associate editor at Bloodhound Books, a crime fiction publisher.

Emma Darwin has published four books: two novels, The Mathematics of Love, and A Secret Alchemy; and a ‘how to’ manual, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. Her latest work, published this year, is a memoir about her family: This Is Not a Book about Charles Darwin. She has an MPhil in writing at the University of South Wales and has completed a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Read more conference session summaries in the November/December edition of Editing Matters (free to members).


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Photo credits: Light bulbs  Skye Studios on Unsplash; Pen on book Aaron Burden on Unsplash.