The woman whose memoir writing advice I most admire, Marion Roach Smith, recently discussed a technique for self-editing your writing that I love: indexing. Now, this is not the process of creating an alphabetical listing of important words and phrases and the pages you will find them on that appears in the back of an academic or instructional nonfiction book. No, the way Marion describes her form of indexing is this: to read each paragraph of your writing and make a little note or symbol next to it that tells you what the paragraph does, i.e., what purpose it serves in the manuscript.
Does this sound overwhelming to you? Or does it thoroughly confuse you? Or both?
I’m going to try to offer more insight on this technique, but be warned—this process is for those who really want to improve their writing by acknowledging whether each paragraph has a clear purpose. If you can stick it out through an entire manuscript, it will make your writing tight, precise, and far more enjoyable to read.
Most Common Writing Mistake
I edit a lot of manuscripts, some by accomplished authors, most by novice writers. But both groups often make the same mistakes, especially when they are trying to make a point—they overdescribe, overexplain and repeat, repeat, repeat. (See what I did there?) This is an issue with all forms of nonfiction I’ve worked with—political science, economics, business—but it is most often the case with memoir.
Because the memoirs I edit are nine out of ten times written by first-time writers, they want to make darn sure you understand their reason for writing the memoir: trauma, grief, redemption, new insight, physical or mental health challenges, and so on. So, they say the same thing, more or less, repeatedly throughout their writing. If your reader finds themselves thinking, “Yes, I know, I get it, you told me already!” too many times, they won’t bother to finish the book. Or recommend it.
Once you have made a point, assuming you’ve made it clearly, that’s great. Now more on. There is no need to bludgeon your reader with the same point in passage after passage.
As I said, if you really want to streamline your work, indexing is one way to do it. With good writing, every paragraph should perform a purpose. Here are the thirteen most important paragraph purposes, taken from an article by the Jackson School Writing Center at the University of Washington:
1. Stating: Making an assertion.
2. Supporting: Providing evidence for an assertion.
3. Concurring: Agreeing with another author's assertion.
4. Qualifying: Restricting the meaning of an assertion already made.
5. Negating: Offering reasoning or evidence to demonstrate the falsehood of an assertion.
6. Expanding: Stating more comprehensively an idea or assertion already expressed.
7. Analyzing: Breaking an assertion down into its constituent parts in order to clarify or evaluate it.
8. Describing: Naming one or more features of an object or concept, to help the reader imagine it precisely or understand it fully.
9. Comparing and contrasting: Examining objects alongside each other for the purpose of clarifying their features, evaluating them or noting differences and similarities.
10. Evaluating: Making judgment about something discussed previously
11. Synthesizing: Combining elements of previous paragraphs into a coherent whole; often this includes presenting a new perspective on the subject.
12. Summarizing: Restating the principal idea of an argument or point already introduced.
13. Transitioning: Moving from one aspect of the argument to another by connecting the points for the reader.
Wow, right? The point here is,
every paragraph you write should serve one of these purposes.
After a paragraph serves the #1 purpose (stating, making an assertion, e.g., the allure of underage alcohol drinking entices 20 percent of girls aged 12–13), you then move on to write paragraphs that serve one or more of the other purposes (e.g., supporting, concurring, or expanding). Yes, this can be an exhaustive and time-consuming process. If you have written a statement paragraph and you write another paragraph that simply repeats the statement, or if you can’t identify the paragraph as clearly serving any of the other twelve purposes, delete it or rewrite it to serve a clear purpose.
Is this process easy? It is not. Will it make you a better writer? Yes. Is it worth the time and effort? That is totally up to you.
Write with Purpose
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT. Marion Roach Smith’s sister, published author Margaret Roach, calls a first draft the vomit draft. (I warned you!) That’s some harsh imagery. But the point is, of course, all first drafts stink, no matter who you are. Write, write, write. Get it all out. Throw in everything including the proverbial kitchen sink. But then, edit. Edit as furiously as you wrote, maybe more so. Keep two things in mind as you self-edit and rewrite: your purpose and your ideal reader. My business motto is Every word of every sentence matters. Please feel free to adopt it as your own!
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.