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

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

We call the person who is telling the oral histories the ‘storyteller’. The storyteller is the owner of their stories.

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

1. Record and 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 their oral histories by typing (verbatim) what the storyteller says as they speak, into transcripts.

You can interview the storyteller (i.e. ask them questions), give them prompts to seek more information, or just let them speak about what they want, in whatever order they like. (Some storytellers who I have worked with know exactly what they want to talk about and need very little prompting.)

It can take anywhere between one and thirty sessions to record all the stories the person wants to tell. How many stories you document depends on the wishes (and budget) of the person telling the stories.

Once the person has told all the stories they want and all those stories have been transcribed, the resulting transcripts can be amalgamated into the first draft manuscript of their memoir or life story.

2. Obtain extra information

Once all the information has been gathered, the life story writer reads through the manuscript and notes all the places where extra information, or clarification, is needed. They again meet with the person who is telling the oral history and gather more information to add to the manuscript; and they need to do this as many times as necessary, until everything is clear.

Sometimes, after a session, the editor checks for missing information or things that need clarification in the transcripts (or manuscript). They then use part of the next storytelling and recording session to ask the storyteller to clarify or expand on those items. This is the approach I use and it works well.

Another part of this ‘obtain extra information’ stage is fact-checking. Some life story writers gather other stories and facts not alluded to by the storyteller, to add detail to the story. But I don’t use this method; my approach is more akin to that of the oral historian. I tend to rely only on the stories told in their own words by the storyteller when producing their life story; but (like oral historians) I do fact-check certain dates, places and events mentioned by the storyteller against other versions of those facts to make sure the information in the story is correct. (For example, the storyteller remembers the Black Saturday bush fires of 2010, but a fact-check shows that those particular fires took place in 2009.)

When a fact-check shows that the storyteller’s facts are not correct, the life story writer needs to either correct that fact in the story or insert a footnote or endnote advising the reader of the alternative fact. If the 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 editing

When editing, the life story writer always needs to have the audience in mind.

How many stories and how detailed those stories should be depends on both the wishes of the story tellers, and the life story writer’s advice which will entirely depend on the intended audience for the book. 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 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. It may make the difference between the reader enjoying the book or being confused by the book. Between the reader loving the book or hating the book. ‘Structural editing’ is placing the different sections of the book in the ‘right’ order, and in the ‘right way’, so that the reader will find it easy (and entertaining, and enjoyable) to read the book.

When the life story writer does the structural edit, this may mean placing everything in chronological order; often  the different parts of memoirs and autobiographies don’t neatly fit into a chronological order. Some life stories are not purely memories of experiences but, rather, collections of stories, poems or essays in addition to ‘pure’ memoir. Some autobiographies or memoir collections need to be grouped around themes or particular incidents. Flashback-memories may also be an appropriate way to present some of the stories.

Another part of structural editing by a life story writer is working out the front and end matter. For more information about this go to: Front and end matter.

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.

For information about structural editing in general, go to: structural editing.

4. The copy editing process

Rough copy edit

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

The difference between copy editing other types of manuscripts, and copy editing a life story that has been documented by a life story writer, is that it is the same life story writer who needs to do the first ‘rough’ copy edit. This is because they already know the story and the story teller well, and (arguably) they are the best-placed person to edit the life story in the storyteller’s ‘voice’.

Depending on how ‘rough’ the manuscript is at this stage, the life story writer will need to do either one or two rough copy edits. By ‘rough’, I mean that even after the structural edit the story may need to be edited quite extensively to get rid of repetition, and to group different retellings of the same story together. There may be small sections that have missed being put into the correct place in the overall story that still need to be moved. If the life story needs extensive editing, it may need two ‘rough’ editing passes before the final copy edit.

For more information go to: rough copy editing

Final copy edit

Once the rough copy editing stage has been done, to the life story writer’s satisfaction, it is ready for the ‘final copy edit’.

The ‘final copy edit’ can, and should, be done by a different editor than the life story writer, to provide that ‘fresh set of eyes’ type of edit that it needs. This edit should be done by someone who has never seen the manuscript, so that they can more easily capture all the minor errors (typos, punctuation errors, occasional grammatical errors and so on) left in the manuscript. Because they have this ‘fresh set of eyes’ they may also capture small amounts of repetition that the life story writer missed noticing when doing the rough copy edit, because the life story writer has become too familiar with this manuscript.

For more information go to: final copy editing.

5. The final production stage

Some people want their life story (memoir or autobiography) produced as a photocopied spiral-bound (or stapled) booklet for their family. After the final copy edit, the book can be produced at this basic level. It is still a self-published book; but not presented in such a way that it looks like a ‘real book’.

Most of my clients want their life stories produced and self-published as ‘a proper book’ – that is, a professional-looking book such as you would see on a bookshop shelf. After being copy edited, those books are designed by a professional designer, proofread and printed, 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 Hannah Auld from On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading.

Photo credit: Mohomed Hassan, Pixabay


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