Transforming oral histories into self-published life stories (memoir or autobiography)

Oral histories are stories told by one person to another and/or recorded electronically. They can be about the person’s whole life, or about just one or multiple experiences or periods in their life.

We at On Time call the person who is narrating the oral histories the ‘storyteller’. The storyteller is the owner of their stories. We are the guide, the assistant, the curator and compiler of their story, into a book.

Oral histories can be turned into a self-published life stories, memoir or autobiography, by using the below method.

1. Record and/or document the oral histories

Anyone can record a person’s life story or oral history – the storyteller themselves, a family member, an oral historian, a life story writer or an editor.  But for the purposes of this article, we will call the person who records, edits and produces the storyteller’s self-published life story a ‘life story writer’.

You can either record the oral histories into recordings, then type them into transcripts; or, if you are a fast typist, you can document the oral histories by typing what the storyteller says as they speak, into transcripts of their stories.

You can interview the storyteller (i.e., ask them questions), give them prompts to seek more information. Or you can just let them speak about what they want, in whatever order they like.

It can take anywhere between one and thirty sessions to record all the stories a person wants to tell or is able to tell. How many stories are documented  depends on the wishes (and budget) of the person telling the stories, and the availability of a person (family member or professional life story writer) to document them.

2. Compile the story and obtain extra information

Once the person has told all the stories that are going to be included in their book, and these have been transcribed, the transcripts then need to be edited and compiled into a draft manuscript of their memoir or life story.

Next, the life story writer reads through the manuscript and notes all the places where extra information, or clarification, is needed. They may need to meet with the storyteller again, as many times as necessary, to gather more information to add to the manuscript. Or they may need to do some research to cross-check or add in information.

Another aspect of this stage is fact-checking. Some life story writers gather additional stories and facts not alluded to by the storyteller, to add detail to the story. My approach is more akin to that of an oral historian: I rely mainly only on the stories told in their own words by the storyteller (and also, in some cases, their family members). But I do fact-check certain dates, places and events mentioned by the storyteller against other versions to make sure the information in the story is correct. (For example, a storyteller may remember the Black Saturday bush fires happened in 2011, but a fact-check may show that those particular fires actually took place in 2009.)

If this type of correction is minor this can be done without consulting the storyteller; but if it is a major error the life story writer needs to consult with the storyteller to correct it.

3. Structural (or developmental) editing

When editing, the life story writer always needs to look after the audience. Because if the audience isn’t being looked after, they may not read the book, or may not feel okay after reading it.

The number of stories and how detailed they are depends on both the wishes of the story teller and the life story writer’s advice, which partly depends on who the intended audience is. (For example, if the storyteller wishes to sell their book to the public, the book needs to be edited in a different way than if the book is intended only for the storyteller’s friends and family.)

Once all the information is clear and easy to read, and both the life story writer and the storyteller think there are enough stories for the storyteller’s book, the life story writer begins the structural editing stage.

The order things are placed within the book is incredibly important because this may make the difference between the reader enjoying the book or being confused by the book. ‘Structural editing’, also called developmental editing, is placing the different sections of the book in the ‘right’ order and in the ‘right’ way, so that the reader will find the book engaging enough to read it through, right to the very end.

The structural edit may mean placing everything in chronological order, but sometimes the different parts of a memoir are best not placed in  chronological order. Some life stories are basically the storyteller’s memories of experiences and others include stories, poems or essays they have written, in addition to their remembered experiences. Some autobiographies or memoirs need to be grouped around themes or particular incidents, rather than a whole life story or sequential stories, and the use of reflection and/or flashback-memories may be an appropriate way to present some life stories.

The ‘best’ way to structure (or order) a life story ultimately depends on the particular book at hand, the life story writer’s instinct and the storyteller’s trust in the life story writer. The life story writer consults with the storyteller and recommends how they think the life story should be presented or structured, but the final decision about this is always up to the storyteller.

Because the book is owned by the storyteller, from start to finish.

4. Copy editing 

Now that the manuscript is structurally sound and has all the required information, the manuscript needs to be copy edited.

For information about this stage, go to:

One of the latter-stages tasks of producing a self-published life story is writing and copy editing the front and end matter. For more information go to: Front and end matter.

5. Final production stage

Some people want their life story (memoir or autobiography) produced as a photocopied spiral-bound (or stapled) booklet for their family to read. This presentation is low-budget and does not look very professional. But it is still a self-published book, and many families or storytellers are happy with this.

Most of my clients request their life stories to be produced and self-published as ‘a proper book’ – that is, we produce their life story as a professionally presented self-published book. After being copy edited, we design those books (using our professional designer), proofread them and have them printed and delivered to the client, or e-published if the client wishes.

For information about all the steps of self-publishing (including the final production stage) go to: Self-publishing.

Proofread by James Austin.

Image: Cover design by Devo and Sarah. Copyright ETISC. 

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