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Standards Communication Task Force

Standards at Work: Memoir Editing

Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards (PES) describe the responsibilities of an editor. The scope of PES is broad; this series explores how the standards apply to a variety of editing contexts.

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Paula Sarson, an Atlantic Canadian editor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction, has worked on several award-winning titles during her career. I interviewed her to find out how the PES apply to memoir editing.

If a manuscript has structural and organizational issues, Paula begins there. Standard B2, a structural editing standard, reads,

Reorganize material to achieve a coherent structure and sequence, a logical progression of ideas, and a narrative or expository flow and shape appropriate to the audience, medium, and purpose.

The chapters are usually in logical order, she says, but the sequence of events within chapters may need realignment. For example, an anecdote about the importance of an author’s relationship with a grandparent should precede one on the effect of the grandparent’s death. Editing often involves moving paragraphs within a chapter to order events logically.

To engage, a memoir must be well written, and many of Paula’s examples fall under PES section C, the stylistic editing standards. For example, when a story isn’t yet a “good read,” she suggests using sensory detail or imagery, comparison or contrast, or more specific language — standard C3:

Improve word choice to more effectively convey meaning (e.g., by replacing the general and abstract with the specific and concrete [and] … eliminating clichés and euphemisms) where appropriate.

Immediacy and impact can be lost, she says, if the writing is too general: “When we bring our own experiences to things, something that resonates is usually concrete and specific.” So “threadbare cotton quilt” might be preferable to “blanket.”

Because Paula usually edits literary memoirs, legal issues seldom arise. However, in a manuscript involving a historical incident, she understood that a legal opinion was needed when public figures in the narrative were reported to have made statements, so she highlighted passages for a lawyer’s consideration. (Fundamentals of editing standard A5: “Know the legal and ethical requirements pertaining to publishing.”)

In memoirs, the spelling of names must often be verified (copy editing standard D3: “Correct errors in spelling”). If she can’t verify that an unusually spelled name is correct, Paula suggests a more common spelling and asks the author to confirm or correct it (standard D19: “Write clear, coherent, and diplomatic queries and notes”).

Standard D5 reads “Identify and either correct or query general information that should be checked for accuracy.” If the author mentions, for example, that someone played in “the NHL” but she can’t find the person’s name in that context, she suggests a more generic expression, such as “a professional hockey team,” to reduce the chance of error.

Paula provided many more examples of how the PES apply to memoir editing. Do you edit memoirs? Or do you see ways that these standards apply to your editing of other genres? If so, please tell us how in the comments.


Previous post on the PES: Standards at Work: Academic Editing.

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4 Comments on “Standards at Work: Memoir Editing”

  • Rosemary Shipton


    The standards provide an excellent overview of the editing process. They are particularly useful for copy-editing and proofreading, where rules apply. It’s difficult to set guidelines for the more creative part of editing – stylistic and especially substantive editing – where editors have to respond to every manuscript differently and, yes, creatively. They must work with what is there and what is not there – drawing from the author what is missing or providing a draft for the author to edit. Memoir writing (like biography and autobiography) is the story of an individual within the context of a particular period and place, and both the life and the times should be in balance, without bias or self-serving motivation. And like all successful narratives, they should be a good read. Many memoir editors find they have to be just as creative as the authors in achieving that goal.

    • « Memoir writing (like biography and autobiography) is the story of an individual within the context of a particular period and place, and both the life and the times should be in balance, without bias or self-serving motivation. »

      Rosemary, I love how your comment succinctly encapsulates the specific implementation of standard B2 (the first one Shelley cites) as it applies to memoir!

  • BTW, if you’re on Twitter, be sure to follow the standards account, @ProEdStandards! It tweets a couple of standards every week–emphasis for the next little while on structural and proofreading standards (as well as fundamentals), because those are the areas where certification tests will be held this November.

    If you’re thinking of taking the certification tests, or if you just like enjoy the occasional prompt to think a bit about what editors do, give @ProEdStandards a follow!

    Today brought a tweet of structural standard B8, which also definitely applies to editing memoir:

    (It’s actually another standard that could describe the spelling error mentioned in the post, since that’s an issue of spelling a proper name, and so a question of fact and accuracy as much as spelling.)

  • Thanks! for posting such an informative article. As a proofreader, following a structural approach while editing a Memoir is an essential ingredient of proofreading. These standards will definitely help me in future assignments.

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