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Proofreading and editing autobiographies and memoirs

Posted on 29th January 2019

I receive quite a few proofreading queries each year from authors wishing to self-publish their life story, and the first and main question I always ask is "Has this been edited by a professional?" If the answer is no, I then have to explain why I am not going to be happy proofreading the manuscript in its current state. I thought this might therefore form a useful blog post to explain more clearly why I believe this particular genre needs to be professionally edited and hopefully to demystify the process a little if you are a writer looking to put your life on the page.

There are lots of blog posts and articles online about the main issues with memoirs and the potential defamation and libel issues, but this UK-focused one by Jericho Writers is particularly clear. The explanation and example given in the section on Right to Privacy is of particular note.

The importance of having your memoirs or autobiography professionally edited

In theory, the proofread should be the final stage in any book being published (well, printing or uploading an ebook would come later, but hopefully you get my gist), so I should be focusing on correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation and format. The actual content should already have been checked and deemed publishable, so it's not my remit to review the actual details of the file. However, in the world of self-publishing in particular, many of these editing stages are skipped and there are no agents or experienced project managers to determine what is OK and what will lead to a court case.

I have no legal background and am not an expert on this genre so I tend to therefore take an uber-cautious approach. I am unsure what counts as libel or statement of fact and if I query every contentious element, this will lead to a lot of uncertainty for the author. As mentioned above, as the proofread should be the final stage, if I start raising content queries, this means the author will have to rewrite sections or get the text checked by a defamation lawyer.

I don't want to overly worry authors with this feedback either, as memoirs are an important part of documenting history. There can be ways to edit text to make it clearly an opinion rather than a statement of fact, thus avoiding libel issues. But I hold my hands up here and say I am not au fait with these and if I were to splatter a manuscript with "In my opinion..." and "I think...", it would most likely lead to a very dull and badly written book.

In my fiction proofreading service, I will raise queries on contentious language or question if something might be perceived in a way in which I don't think the author intends, but these queries tend to relate to one or two sentences in a 100,000-word novel, and are often easy to rectify. In a memoir, if a query is raised at proofreading stage about a large chunk of content, this will require more than just a few tweaks.

What if the book is only being printed for family and friends?

This is a common approach to self-publishing memoirs, where someone wants to get their family story down on paper to pass on to future generations. However, there is no control over what happens to the printed version once it's in the hands of a family member, and if they then lend it to someone or donate it to the charity shop, the book will be in the wider world and can have the same exposure as any other book. One can never know the future life of a printed book, or a PDF, so it is safer to assume what is being written is for public consumption.

What if the author accepts all responsibility?

In almost all scenarios but in self-publishing in particular, the author is responsible for what they publish. I state this in my Ts and Cs and accept no liability for what is published. However, I don't want to be too officious, nor make the author feel like I'm not being supportive. If I know that the memoir or autobiography has been checked by an experienced editor and the author is aware of all the implications of publishing the book, I can focus on the proofread.

As the Jericho Writers website suggests, the chances of you being sued are slim, but by ensuring an editor with experience in this field works on your manuscript first before you send it to me for the proofread, you will hopefully have fewer sleepless nights and a better published book.

What do I recommend for self-publishing authors of autobiographies and memoirs?

The process for all books is usually much the same, as discussed in my blog post looking at the process flow for a manuscript.

Beta readers are useful for any book genre but can be particularly helpful for autobiographies and memoirs. Though they might not have a legal background or be specialists, beta readers will be able to read the book and raise any queries where perhaps the author assumes the reader knows too much. After all, when writing about one's life or experiences, it's necessary to remember that the reader might know nothing at all about the story before they start reading and what might seem obvious to the author will be unknown to the reader. The beta readers could also be asked to point out elements they think might be deemed contentious – this wouldn't be asking them to check it for libel or defamation but as they will be taking a big-picture look at the story, there's no harm in asking for extra feedback. This approach before the main edit will hopefully lead to a tighter story and knowledge that there's a target audience who likes the book, both of which will hopefully create a smoother publication process.

If you've written about a small set of people, it might also be worth asking them to read the story. They might be able to add some details you've forgotten, and getting their blessing for the publication will mean you have fewer worries about libel or defamation.

I certainly don't want this blog post to backfire and sound like I don't want to work with authors of memoirs or autobiographies – I've worked with many and loved doing so – but it's just to highlight why I am uncomfortable proofreading an unedited book that might have legal implications beyond my knowledge.

If you've written a memoir or autobiography and are looking to get it edited, an internet search will bring up plenty of options so you can find someone who suits you and your book. And of course, once you have the edited and finalised manuscript, I'd love to quote to proofread your memoir or autobiography and help bring your story to the world!

Written by Kate Haigh.