Ask Me Anything: How can an average person get their life story published?

Dana Jean writes:

I have a friend (yes, this is true, this is not me) and he has a really interesting non-fiction story to tell about life in a certain field of work. I have encouraged him to write about it, but he is so reluctant as he is embarrassed about his grammar, punctuation, spelling — he won’t do it.

How does someone with no contact at all with anything or anyone in the publishing field, how would he find a ghostwriter, or a really good, reliable editor? Could he approach an agent with the idea, and just honestly lay out his weaknesses and see if an agent would be interested and then set him up with someone?

The publishing world seems so snooty. So many really good stories out there in people (especially the elderly) who grew up in a time when some had to work a farm instead of getting an education, and we are missing out on history by insisting every comma be in the right place, and spacing be just so, and and and…

Any ideas I could pass onto him?

This is a great question. Capturing first person accounts is wonderful and important. Preserving these accounts for the future is vital.

Finding a commercial publisher for them is a different matter. Who would the story be written for? Family? The historical record? The general public? If somebody wants to get their memoir commercially published, they need to think about its appeal to readers. Is there a large potential audience for this story? Will the author’s voice delight them? Will the tale the author tells hold readers spellbound?

Hiring a ghostwriter would be expensive, and isn’t generally what agents do for would-be clients. As for finding an editor: I’m going to hand you over to someone far more knowledgeable about both editing and memoir writing.

From Ann Aubrey Hanson:

I’m sorry to hear this, Dana Jean. Unfortunately, your friend’s situation is not uncommon. Many people who can and should be telling their stories are inhibited by not being “literary” enough, or fearing that their lack of grammar and punctuation skills are game-enders.

But that’s not the case. In this situation, I would suggest one of two options, both of which I have offered to clients before, and both of which work out.

First, I would suggest that people opt to write a memoir rather than a novel. This isn’t the same as writing an autobiography, but rather is a collection of memories that are woven together into a framework.

I have offered classes as well as individual memoir writing lessons, in which I help people such as your friend to get their stories out, one vignette at a time, until we are able to see the narrative framework that works best for their life story. This is rewarding for the memoirist, as well as for me. I’ve worked with people from age 26 to 98, and each story has been eye opening.

The benefit of working individually or in a small group for memoir writing is that the author gets immediate feedback on his or her work, not only on content but also with respect to grammar, punctuation, and writing style. In this way, the author can improve, learning along the way.

The second option is to write their story/novel, and then to find an editor who will revamp the writing into correct English. This is less advantageous for the author, who won’t learn as much unless she or he studies the edits carefully. But it has the advantage of allowing the author to get the words on paper without worrying about grammar or style.

One caution, however. If a writer contacts an editor, that writer must be willing to pay for services, and not ask for a special discount since the writer is “new to this” and doesn’t “have much money.” The writer’s amateur status means more work for the editor, and logically the editor should charge more. Typically, I don’t do that, but I certainly don’t charge less. If a writer is serious about improving the written word, then the writer must pay for professional editing.

In either case, memoir writing guidance or after-the-fact editing, your friend and others with stories to tell should simply tell those stories, if not for general publication then for their families and friends and neighbors who might enjoy their unique life story. An African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Please tell your friend, Dana Jean, not to let his library burn before he records the stories of his life!

As always, I am here to help as memoir coach or editor.


Thanks, Ann. Good luck to your friend, Dana Jean.

One response to “Ask Me Anything: How can an average person get their life story published?

  1. Thank you so much, both of you. I will pass on your words and hopefully it will spur him into taking a chance, putting embarrassment aside and just accepting the help offered through editorial services from someone gentle and encouraging.

    This is just great to hear and makes me truly smile.

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