Why the best tools for memoir editing are compassion and empathy

You’re the product of all your experiences.

This is a common expression—one you’ve likely heard before—but have you ever paused to consider its meaning? I mean really stop and think about its relevance to your own life?

When I was a child, I was often told that I was “too sensitive.” I was “too sensitive” when I wasn’t invited to gatherings or if a friend didn’t show the level of enthusiasm I was expecting over an idea or gift. I was “too sensitive” when I was hurt by comments other people made, whether about me or those I love. I was “too sensitive” when I’d invest time in asking someone how they were, but didn’t receive the same level of inquiry.

Friends and family relayed this message to me in well-meaning ways—they likely were trying to help me “toughen up” so that this world of ours didn’t eat me and my soft heart—but I never really understood why it was a problem that certain things upset me. 

Spoiler alert: I never really toughened up. Being “too sensitive” is who I am. A part of me. One I  wasn’t able to change.

Now, many moons later, I also believe it’s what makes me a good editor. 

I work with a lot of memoir writers, many of whom come to me with their most personal stories, asking me to make them better. That takes incredible vulnerability. Most of my clients don’t know me before I start working with them, yet they hand over a huge part of their heart—of themselves—to me…and then they wait, while I read about their highs, their lows, the most vulnerable parts of themselves. And when I return their story to them? They prepare themselves to read critiques of what is, essentially, part of their lives…their sense of being. 

That. Is. Nerve. Wracking. 

When I take on a memoir, I am highly aware of how nerve-wracking an experience it is to just hand over a personal story to a stranger.

A stranger who, thanks to a pervading misconception about what editors do, will “rip their story apart.” That takes bravery, my friends. 

So, while I’m reviewing a client’s story (and, for the record, I never “rip” anything apart, but that’s a blog post for another day), I rely on my internal tools of empathy and compassion just as much as I rely on my dictionary, thesaurus, and genre convections. Every comment I make—every suggestion I give for improvement—comes from a place of heart. 

I put myself in my client’s place and remind myself constantly how they will feel—first, taking such a huge step in sharing their story, and, second, having to read critiques on said story which, because it is memoir, is their actual lived experience.

Just think about how weird it would be if a friend was telling you about something that they went through and you started critiquing it. The experience happened—what does critiquing that fact alter? 

When an author opens themselves up and puts their story down on paper with the intent on sharing it with others, it is my job (the listener) to ensure that what they are meaning to say is heard and understood by others. That the message is clear. That the story is presented in the best possible way. 

It isn’t my job to question anyone’s lived experience.

It is my job to help someone share that lived experience in a way that it resonates with others.

And in doing so, I draw on my own levels of empathy and compassion. Every comment and suggestion I present are done so through that lens. Even if I recommend removing aspects of the story, I do so with full-on heart-coloured glasses. 

Now, I’m not saying I’m all rainbows and sunshine. I don’t praise where praise isn’t warranted. But, I never demand or scold. I ask a lot of questions. I encourage alternative considerations. I challenge my writers to ponder.

Because if a writer feels that their story is harshly judged, there’s a good chance that they’ll stop writing it. They’ll retreat, decide that their story isn’t worth sharing, and quit. 

I never want to make anyone feel that their story is not worth sharing (Exception: unless your story is one that’ll cause serious harm to others in sharing it. I won’t take on a memoir of an abuser or racist, for example.). No, I want the opposite: I want to help a writer feel that what they have to say matters. That their story matters. That their experience matters. 

So, maybe, just maybe, being “too sensitive” is a good thing after all.

How have your experiences shaped the person you are? 

Yes, You Are a Writer!

Click here to learn more about the 5 habits you may already be doing that makes you a writer...even if you've never written a book.

Thank you for signing up for my free ebook. I hope this inspires you to keep on creating!