Approaches to editing

Editors working on memoirs often adapt several patterns of spoken language for written narratives

I've enjoyed editing some good memoirs, and with time I've started to look for certain patterns that often show up in conversational English but that need trimming or revising for a print narrative. This means editing for the eye and a linear reading process, rather than for the ear. Our hearing is less efficient at taking in detailed information, so spoken language becomes redundant, or even repetitious, in order to be effective.

These patterns stand out most dramatically when the memoir writer has dictated material or given an oral history to an interviewer. But, Since many of us try to "write like we talk," these patterns show up in early written drafts, too. Some of the patterns aid memory, as they provide prompts and restate central ideas. An editor doesn't need to remove all instances of repetition, but the ones remaining should support the writer's voice and style, without needlessly boring or frustrating the reader who experiences the memoir as text. Here are some key points I look for, when editing:

Circularity. When we tell stories verbally, we tend to make elaborations of a point and then return to that key point before adding more details. The image may be like the spokes of a wheel, with a return to the hub after each minor anecdote. Because written English is more linear; it isn't necessary to keep restating the key starting point. Instead, relationships are shown through added phrases and clauses.

Repetition. Words and phrases are often repeated in oral storytelling for humorous effect or to build toward a dramatic point. An editor needs to be cautious that eliminating repeated words or phrases won't dull the humor or steal the color from a writer's unique voice. On the other hand, speakers often use filler words that are omitted for print, such as "Well," “you know,” “just,” “and then he, like, …”

Nested stories. Retelling a story often prompts the memory, and a speaker will digress to add short tales about related events. With verbal storytelling, these often appear outside of a chronological order, but we understand them because they draw on a common theme, or character, or event. These kinds of added anecdotes can become confusing in print, however, because reading is a more linear process. An editor may decide to rearrange sections of the narrative so the related minor stories follow their actual order in time. This will be less confusing to readers, who have been conditioned to expect narrative flow.

Grammar. Spoken English is much more casual than written, and we often use incomplete sentences, cliché’s, and idiomatic expressions. While some of these can be retained to preserve the narrator’s voice and style, others, like minor grammatical errors, need to be corrected simply because written English is more formal.

Language evolution. When editing a memoir, it's very helpful to have a dictionary from the writer's or narrator's time period. Usages change, such as the intentions denoted by "shall" and "will." Certain words fall into disuse, such as "betwixt" and "a league of land." The editor has to decide whether to let the original term stand, whether to add a definition for it, or whether to substitute a more current term. In any case, it is crucial to know exactly what the writer meant to say.

Editing book takes multimedia, conceptual approach

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Fearless Editing is available through Routledge Publishing: Focal Press


When Tim Pilgrim and I started writing an editing book, we wanted it to reflect the way editors work by applying key concepts across a range of media. An editor may move from working on a website to a public relations release, to a print magazine article or newsletter, and then a book chapter, all in a day’s work.
The goals and purpose may change as the audience changes, but editors carry some common approaches and professional practices as they move among tasks. Just as for writing, underlying principles guide professional editing, and our work and research evolved to identify six key concepts that apply even when the job at hand shifts from news to public relations, or from social media to a book.- Carolyn Dale