Copywriter Q&A: Brenda Hazzard on Editing Memoirs and Family History Books
COPYWRITER Q&A: BRENDA HAZZARD ON EDITING MEMOIRS AND FAMILY HISTORY BOOKS
TWFH Copywriter Brenda Hazzard has over 30 years’ experience working as a writer and editor in the private and public sectors. With The Writers For Hire (TWFH,) Brenda’s editing and proofreading talents are put to use in a variety of projects, including memoir and family history books.
In this installment of Copywriter Q&A, Brenda spoke with TWFH about the role she plays as an editor for memoirs and family history books, and also shared her advice for staying true to the author’s vision.
TWFH: When editing someone’s memoir or family history book, do you generally read the entire piece and then go back to do edits, or do you edit as you go?
BH: I scan the entire book first, to get a feel for the author’s voice and the overall tone of the book. Then, I settle into editing page by page. If the book covers several generations, I often have to go back and forth as I edit to make sure I am following the story line – genealogy, birth order, family moves – to catch any inconsistencies that may have crept into the narrative. Siblings sometimes drop out of the narrative only to reappear after several chapters.
TWFH: What are your tips for making changes, while still keeping the author’s message the same?
BH: I like to keep expressions that reflect the author’s speaking voice. For example, if the author uses a turn of phrase that is grammatical but does not comply strictly with AP or Chicago style, I may choose to keep it, if it reflects the author’s voice.
TWFH: When you are editing, do you fix grammar issues, or do you leave them alone as to keep the true voice of the author?
BH: If it’s a direct or attributed quote, I never correct the grammar.
TWFH: What if the book is being written in first person, and the author typically uses language like “ain’t” instead of isn’t, or “we was” instead of “we were” when describing events that happened in his/her life? Do you keep those things in to capture the author’s voice? Or do you correct them?
BH: In this case, especially if I am working from a transcription, I would correct the most egregious grammatical errors in the narrative. But I would also try to carve out some space for colorful language that captures the author’s voice. For example: “I ain’t no angel but I know right from wrong!”
TWFH: What do you do if the content you are editing has huge holes or missing information? Should you, as the editor, try to fill in the information, or do you generally just leave it as a question for the author?
BH: I prefer to pose questions about information I believe is missing, in an effort to direct the author’s attention to what I see as a problem. I make suggestions (or comments in the text) but only fill in information that is factual. And even if what I add can be verified, it is still up to the client to accept it or not.
TWFH: As an editor, how do you know when someone is okay with you making large changes or providing editorial feedback?
BH: I try to take my cues from the author, ascertaining out what they think of their draft and how much help they want with it. Generally, authors who turn to editors, such as The Writers For Hire, are seeking and welcome editorial feedback.
TWFH: Do you have any tips for constructive ways to tell the author that you don’t think a certain part of their book is working, or that it needs some major overhauls?
BH: So far, I’ve never had to deal with this as a serious problem. The drafts I’ve worked on were in pretty good shape. But should I ever have to deal with serious structural issues in a draft, my approach would be to talk the author through the problem to help them see it and then try to arrive at a way forward together.
TWFH: Are there times when editing should just be just kept to minor changes?
BH: Minor is often in the eyes of the beholder – the editor and the author may see things differently. But, yes, there are those rare times when the client says–and really means–they are “happy” with their draft and it just needs minor edits. That’s when minor means minor.
TWFH: What are the most common issues you run into when editing memoirs or family history books?
BH: Tracking the family’s chronology can be tricky sometimes but the bigger issue is making sure there are no anachronisms in the narrative, which can happen. Knowledge of history comes in handy! In addition to making sure dates are accurate, I always fact check the correct spelling of entities and geographic locations.
TWFH: Do you have any kind of checklist you use when editing, to make sure you are checking for these issues?
BH: First, I do a spell check to identify specific words, phrases, or spellings that appear throughout the book. I then establish the correct version and make sure I edit for that.
As I work through the text, I edit photo captions and graphics, and do simple math if necessary, to check for accuracy and alignment with the narrative.
Finally, I do one last spell check. At this point, there should be no surprises but there sometimes are!
TWFH: This is all very helpful information! Do you have any other tips or tricks for editing someone else’s memoir or family history book?
BH: I try to keep in mind why the author is writing the memoir or family history and help them stay true to their vision. Here, my sense of organization and narrative clarity may play a role — suggesting what to emphasize and what can be edited out. If a businessman is writing for his grandchildren, there might not be a need to recount the details of a complex corporate merger. Rather, lessons learned from the experience would be worth passing along to the younger generation!
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