It’s my belief that if you think you can write, or you have the urge to write, you should never worry about whether you are good or not—you should simply pick up pen and paper or turn on your computer and start.
Of course some writers are better than others, and some stories are better than others, but don’t worry about that right now. Writers often are self-deprecating, vastly underestimating their talent. But the pendulum of self-awareness swings the other way as well, judging by the mounds of awful books to be found on Kindle, B&N, Smashwords and elsewhere, simply because it’s so easy to self-publish these days, especially electronically. The main saving grace of some eBooks is that they at least haven’t killed any trees.
But back to the person who thinks he or she has a good story, such as a memoir: What are you waiting for? Just write the darn thing! Get a proofreader before you publish; that’s a given. But much earlier in the process, it’s just as important to have a copyeditor, or a developmental editor if you can swing it (the fee will be a little higher than for a copyeditor.)
A good editor does way more than catch typos. She can help point out a disjointed story line, or suggest from a neutral distance that certain scenes or characters don’t fit in. Your aunt may have been a fascinating person, full of crazy adventures, but unless you shared in those adventures or they affected your life, they probably don’t belong in your memoir.
Beyond the actual story, an editor can help a writer by spotting repetition or cliches or ill-fitting metaphors. The existence of any of these things does not make someone a bad writer. If you have a 300+ page manuscript and you’ve already read it multiple times, it can be easy to overlook something.
Most writers know they need someone else to check their spelling and grammar, but I think many assume that the editor will send the manuscript back with one or two misspelled words every ten pages. They seem a bit shell-shocked when there are a lot more corrections than they expected. On the one hand, it’s good to catch these things before presenting the book to the public, but on the other hand—”Jeez, I thought I had read this a lot more closely and caught everything!”
First of all, as I said, a misspelled word or a misplaced apostrophe does not equal bad writing. The story is what is most important. And I do try to remind writers that I am not the final decision-maker. A lot of my comments are simply suggestions or queries. I may say, “Do you think your audience will understand this?” or (in fiction) “Do you think this character would do that?” In a memoir it may be, “You might need to make your motivation more clear here.”
The writer may very well respond, “I think my audience will understand this” or, “Yes, I do think this character would do that.” And the writer knows this best. Even with grammar rules, it is up to the writer to decide to break them, or to decide that adherence to certain rules may take away from the voice of the book. I will be extra assertive only in cases where it’s probably going to make the writer look bad if I don’t. (Yes, you really do need an apostrophe there.)
I’ve read a couple memoirs lately that I felt were terrific stories. Some only needed minor tweaking, others more guidance. Several of these authors told me, “I’m not really a writer”—as I was staring at their finished manuscript.
So, what’s your story?