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Part 4: Revise, revise, revise to make it your best work
Incorporate these 15 steps into your writing process to ensure that you are producing your best work.
Writing memoir is an intimate and often emotional endeavor. Writing about an accidental mentor often brings you back to a different time in your life. Don’t be surprised by the emotions it generates in you. Let yourself feel them. Give yourself time away from your first draft to let the piece settle into your body, heart, mind, and spirit.
Then, after you’ve poured yourself a nice cup of tea (or other preferred beverage), sit in your most comfortable chair, and begin the revision process.
I like to revise in layers focusing on one of the following fifteen elements at a time, and then going through again with the second layer, and so on. You might prefer tackling several at once. The key is to take your time to make your piece the best you possibly can.
Let me emphasize though that at some point, it’s OK to declare it done. I recently heard a literary agent say that you can’t publish a book, if you don’t finish writing the book! The same is true here. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be you!
So let’s dig in!
1. Revisit Your Purpose
Before diving into revision, remind yourself of the purpose behind your essay. In the case of Accidental Mentors, you’re lifting up the life and actions of another, but ultimately, you’re still the subject. It’s about how this woman affected your life. Clarify your purpose to maintain focus during the revision process.
2. Capture Authentic Emotions
One of the most compelling aspects of memoir is its ability to convey genuine emotions. In your revision, ensure that your essay captures the raw and authentic feelings associated with the events you're describing. Be willing to revisit the pain, joy, or uncertainty that fueled your writing. That’s key to writing that moves others.
3. Voice and Perspective
Memoir often benefits from a distinctive voice and perspective. It's the unique lens through which you view your life and share it with your readers. Don’t be afraid to let your writing sound like you. During revision, make sure your voice remains consistent throughout the essay.
4. Show, Don't Tell
In creative nonfiction, the "show, don't tell" principle is paramount. Rather than telling your readers how you felt or what you experienced, aim to show those emotions and experiences through vivid descriptions, dialogue, and sensory details (read more about Sensory Details in Part 2 and Crafting Unforgettable Moments in Part 3 of this series). If your essay includes conversations or interactions, ensure that the dialogue is natural and serves a purpose. Conversations should reveal character traits, advance the plot, or contribute to the emotional depth of the essay.
5. Structure and Flow
Memoir can be nonlinear, but it should still have a coherent structure that guides readers through your narrative. Revise your piece to verify that your storytelling flows logically and that transitions between past and present and different themes are clear. I’ll admit this isn’t a strength of mine. My editor (wife) is constantly reminding me to strengthen my transitions. It takes practice, at least for me!
6. Beginnings and Endings
The introduction and conclusion are crucial elements. The introduction should grab your readers' attention and set the stage for the story you’re about to tell. However, don’t be afraid to dive right into the action through the use of a dramatic scene. Then you can take a step back to provide necessary background. The conclusion should provide closure or a meaningful reflection. In this case, it’s helpful to focus on the lesson you learned from your accidental mentor.
7. Character Development
In Accidental Mentor stories, give us enough about your character and her background so readers can come to know and understand her, at least so that readers believe what you’re sharing about the lesson she taught you. And don’t forget, readers also have to see you, too, so they can appreciate why this lesson mattered. Help us see you and your subject as clearly as possible.
8. Themes and Symbols
Reflect on the overarching themes and symbols that run through your story. Even in a short piece, symbols and recurring motifs can add depth and layers of meaning to your narrative. During revision, emphasize or refine these elements if they contribute to your story's richness.
9. Timeline, Chronology, and Setting
An Accidental Mentors story often involves a different time in your life. Invite your readers into the year and season when the story takes place and offer other cues to help your readers navigate any shifts in time. And then make sure you place your subject into a particular place. Readers want to know where you are, so don’t be afraid to describe the setting and place you and your subject there.
10. Honesty and Authenticity
During revision, ask yourself if you're being fully authentic in your storytelling. Tell your truth as you know it. Sometimes, it's necessary to share vulnerabilities and admit uncertainties. An exercise I often use and sometimes include in my writing is “I don’t remember, but I imagine…” It’s perfectly fine to not remember everything and still write about it, but let your readers know if you’re using what my writing mentor, Anne-Marie, refers to as “likely details.”
11. Conflict and Resolution
Memoir often features internal and external conflicts. Revisit these conflicts to make sure they are well-defined and that their resolution (or lack thereof) is clear and meaningful to the narrative. In other words, don’t leave your readers hanging. If you introduce conflict, let the reader experience resolution.
12. Invite Feedback
As with any writing, feedback is invaluable. Share your piece with family, friends, or a writing group, and seek their insights. Other perspectives can help you identify areas that might require revision or clarification.
13. Ethical and Privacy Considerations
Memoir may involve portraying real individuals in potentially negative or controversial ways. That’s of course, not the intention of Accidental Mentors, where we’re honoring women for their contributions to our lives. However, if your subject is living and you know how to reach them, I encourage you to share your story with your mentor before submitting it. Tell them what your goals are in writing the piece, ask them if you got anything wrong, and ask if they’re comfortable with your sharing it publicly. Let them know that Accidental Mentors only uses first names of living subjects unless they are already public figures.
14. Title and Opening Hook
A well-chosen title and opening hook grab your readers' attention. Revisit these elements to make sure they effectively draw readers into your story.
15. Grammar and Structure
As with any form of writing, your piece should be free of grammatical and structural errors before you submit it. Proofread carefully to ensure that your essay is polished in terms of spelling, punctuation, and syntax.
The revision process for memoir is a deeply personal experience. It's where your own life becomes art, where raw experiences are transformed into evocative stories. By revisiting your essay with these guidelines in mind, you can craft a story that resonates with authenticity, emotion, and lasting impact.
That is, after all, the ultimate goal of Accidental Mentors. We want to publish stories about women that will inform future generations that everyday women in the 20th and 21st centuries led impactful lives. You and I know they did. Through solid writing and careful revision, you can ensure that your Accidental Mentors feel appreciated, honored, and recognized.
Today’s is the last in a series of four posts designed to give you tips to help you craft your own Accidental Mentor (and other) stories. Here are the topics I’ve covered:
Time to submit!
Now it’s time to write, revise, and then submit! I’ll be accepting submissions through at least December 31, 2023, but please submit sooner than that if you can, so I can begin sharing them.
Have a joy-filled week,
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P. S. Thanks to ChatGPT for guidance in creating this post. It didn’t write it, but it pointed me in the direction I wanted to go.