What is a developmental edit?

During developmental editing, the editor focuses on the ‘big picture’ of the story and makes recommendations to ensure a winning structure that will keep readers absorbed to the end of the book. This editing step can be done during an early draft of the completed manuscript or once the author feels they have done all the self-editing they are capable of. The developmental editor can help determine the best order or format for chapters or paragraphs, areas where clarity is needed and where the writing has digressed from the topic.


Why do people write memoirs?

There are many reasons a person may feel compelled to share an important part of their life publicly. It could be to warn others of a danger that some may face, to make sense of a traumatic life-changing experience or simply to share a wonderful adventure. It’s also a good way to leave a legacy for one’s children and future generations. Depending on the topic, memoir writing can re-awaken intensely painful memories, so it’s important for an editor to frame comments and queries with sensitivity and tact.


What should be included?

The author should identify the purpose of their story. Is it to inform, to entertain or to inspire? They should aim to weave the story around this central theme and to stay on track as far as possible.

It’s advisable to include enough detail to establish the place and time of the event to provide context to the story. This way, readers are grounded in the timeline and can relate to where they were in their own lives at that moment.

Challenges, fears, hopes and dreams are what make a memoir relatable and touch the hearts of readers. An author who describes events in a fairly factual way may need to be encouraged to express more of their emotional responses to what took place.


What can be omitted?

Unrelated details about minor characters and boring day-to-day activities can be left out. Judgement and negativity are also best avoided – readers should be allowed to form their own opinion of the other people in the story. Adopting a preaching tone may alienate readers who would rather draw their own conclusions about the lessons they wish to take from the author’s experiences. Draw the author’s attention to these areas, if necessary.


How should an editor deal with ethical issues?

An author should strive to tell their story with fairness, honesty and integrity. However, a memoir is only one person’s version of events, told through their unique perspective. Alert the author to remarks that may hurt people’s feelings or reveal sensitive information that could result in legal action. If necessary, suggest using terms like, ‘I felt …’ or ‘I believed …’ to avoid implying that the events related are irrefutable fact.


What makes a memoir a good read?

Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end, with an inciting incident or pivotal point. And a memoir is still a story – with the author as the main character. Realistic dialogue and relatable moments should be encouraged. Just like fiction, strong chapter openings and endings, multi-dimensional characters and a satisfying – or at least understandable – conclusion will keep readers turning the pages.



The editor’s role

As a developmental editor of memoir, your author queries may relate to many of the topics previously mentioned. Once these important elements are satisfactorily in place, the fine-tuning of spelling, grammar and punctuation can begin. These skills and many more can be learned and refined through membership of the Professional Editors’ Guild.

Memoir is one genre where a sensitive editorial touch is vital, and a trusting relationship between author and editor needs to be established. If this is successfully achieved, the final result can be both therapeutic and immensely rewarding.

Photo credits: Images from Microsoft Word 365

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Tracy Buenk

Tracy Buenk specialises in editing memoir and fiction. She has worked with memoir writers from different countries and cultures, guiding them towards the most engaging way to share their stories. She embraces her role by enhancing these touching human experiences and by clarifying the knowledge that we are more alike than we are different.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.