How do you edit someone else’s memoir: particularly when it was written 50 – 80 years ago and the author is no longer alive?
Manuscript editing is such a multi-layered process. In my twenties I worked as a magazine editor, and in my thirties I worked as a newspaper sub-editor and book editor for non-fiction titles. But it wasn’t until I went through the gruelling process of editing my own manuscripts for publication that I really understood what goes into transforming a first draft into a compelling narrative with a strong beginning, middle and end.

If you’ve ever edited your own manuscript or someone else’s work, you know what an intricate and at-times sisyphean task editing can be!

I’ve written books, I’ve edited others’ books, I’ve even worked as a magazine editor, newspaper editor, sub-editor and proofreader. But nothing has come close to the level of work involved in turning my own dad’s memoirs and archives into a publishable book.

With A Letter From Paris, I wrote that as my own memoir, with excerpts of my dad’s writing scattered throughout. Yes, I did have to study his memoirs in intense detail to be able to tell his story, but at heart it was my story: What I knew of him, how I came to learn a new story, and the journey to reconcile the new story with the old, transforming myself in the process. That was the difference: that was my story to write, my memoir. Any dilemmas about what to include or what not to include, came down to me.

Now, I’m editing my late father’s manuscript(s) for publication. This has been a process in stages – a complex project because not only is my father no longer alive, but all of the people and players he mentioned in his memoirs are also long gone. The language is very much ‘of the time’ – in some diary entries, letters and memoir essays I need to research two or three terms of phrase per sentence. It’s quite incredible how the English language has evolved over the last 60-80 years or so!

I have to say that as gruelling as this process is, it is possibly the most fulfilling project of my life. This is why I keep going!
But if, like me, you’re working on editing a family member’s memoir or manuscript for potential publication, or you simply want to turn what you’ve found in your family archives into a publishable book, I hope you will find this post useful.

I’ve not found any other examples online of how someone edits a family member’s work for publication, so I think it’s important to share the process I’ve taken.

Following is the process I’ve been following to turn my late father’s manuscripts into a publishable book. Keep in mind that I am still in the middle of the process, and there will most definitely be a part two!

Digitising the manuscripts

One of the most difficult aspects of editing my father’s memoir manuscripts is the fact that they are held behind lock and key at the State Library Victoria. The first time I visited the archives, I was overwhelmed at the sheer volume of material: 45 boxes, thousands of pages, dozens of printed and typed memoirs, thousands of letters, hundreds of handwritten diaries and notebooks. It’s both a bounty and an enormous albatross at the same time! The box descriptions themselves vary in accuracy, and because of rules with accessing and re-boxing the material (no it doesn’t matter that I’m his daughter – they are technically library property as the library purchased the material in 1984) I’m unable to amend any errors I find as I work my way through, or even to lay everything out and sort it myself.

So. The only way around this is to digitise the material: to painstakingly transcribe his handwritten memoirs onto my own files, to photograph (not photocopy – that’s not allowed) the typed and bound memoirs, then transcribe them separately at home. And this part alone has taken me almost four years.

Hundreds of hours at the library, painstakingly transcribing documents, photographing documents, arranging files, noting dates and gaps and times. Although yes this is an incredibly fulfilling task, I sometimes think about how differently I’ve been able to ‘process’ the material once I’ve brought it home (via my laptop), printed it out, and sat with it, reading far from beady-eyed librarians and cold public rooms with public protocols.

The material is so personal, it’s impossible to process it in a public room – so I’ve had to accept how long this digitisation process will take.

I’ve gone in spurts – some weeks on end I would be at the library every day, then I would need a few months gap (particularly when I was working full-time – it’s not something you can slip into your lunch hour, but I did add some weekend trips – I have to do everything according to the Australian Manuscripts Collection access hours, which are 10-6 during the week, and you need to request specific boxes ahead of time. No whimsical “Oh I’ll just see where he was in 1947 to cross-reference this bit – everything requires methodical planning). In 2016 and 2017 when I was researching A Letter From Paris I also made special trips to the National Library in Canberra, the National Archives, was kindly sent material from a US library and managed to view some letters of dad’s at The British Library in London but, like some kind of Amazing Race farcical joke, the one reading room I needed (out of 8) was only open for an hour that day. You’re only supposed to use pencil in that room and the librarians do regular walk-through checks but since I write faster in biro, I found myself pulling out my biro for maniacal scrawls when his back was turned. I flew back to Australia the next day – it was my only chance!

In 2019 I started transcribing the 350+ page typed FRANCE IN THE FIFTIES manuscript as well as a smaller bound memoir of 150 pages or so, and then had a strange impulse to return to the library to transcribe letters and diaries that surrounded those times.

In February 2020 I had a recurring dream that I was locked out of the library, so I felt this urgency and remember going every day for two weeks straight.

I’m so glad I did, because when Corona Virus hit the world, and Australia, the State Library Victoria shut its doors for the first time in history since it opened to the public. I was unable to access my dad’s papers throughout 2020 because of the lockdown, and again all through 2021.

So the majority of the time has been typing into my own computer, his two printed and bound memoirs.

A postal gift during Melbourne’s looooooong lockdown

Denison’s letters from France, 1948, delivered to my lockdown letterbox in Melbourne!

A few weeks (or was it months?) after Melbourne went into the first lockdown, I received a large envelope from a relatively local address – but alas, it was out of my five kilometre legal travel zone so it might as well have been overseas! I’d been feeling melancholy about the library closing its doors indefinately for the first time in history and the subsequent inability to access my dad’s precious handwritten journals.

He also found a newspaper clipping announcing my brother’s birth in the death section of a London newspaper in 1973, so that was a funny delight to read, too.

I finally finished all the transcription of FRANCE IN THE FIFTIES and many of the letters in July 2020, so I had (literally) hundreds of thousands of words on a digital file, ready to be turned into a memoir.


When you have your first digital draft, print out the manuscript

First draft of A Letter From Paris printed and laid out on the floor for structural changes

One of the things I learnt from editing and revising my own work is that a printed version is essential in those first ‘structural’ phases when you’re trying to wrap your head around what you’re working with. So I printed all my transcription work, both memoirs, the letters, and the diary transcripts. As much as I could, I dated each memoir or letter piece and put the locations. Thankfully, one of the last things I photographed on the very last day before the State Library Victoria closed down was his travel pocketbook, which he’d hand-recorded dates of entry to Italy, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, etc, during the 1940s and 1950s. So this helped me to annotate some of the undated pieces or where he’d not mentioned specifically where he was.

This felt risky (the first scary job of a researcher: making calculated guesses!) but at least I then had a massive pile of work which I could sort by country and date.

Make the manuscript chronological

Another step which I followed from my own memoir manuscript revision process was to start with chronology, before you play around with structure.

I put each section: letters, a chunk of one memoir, diary entries or more – from one year, into a plastic sleeve of its own. In the end I had a file for each year from 1947 – 1955.

Universal Themes and another’s true story

In memoir you talk about universal themes, and how no-one is actually interested in your story. Universal themes like war, poverty, education, marriage, etc etc. Having the labelled plastic sleeves helped me as I came across any relevant snippets of information about specific years. Although it’s dad’s memoir, and his writing, having background information about, say, the coldest winter in Paris when the pipes froze over and people were dying from the cold in their apartments, helps me to understand what was going on in his head when he made particular decisions.

This year I’ve been watching The Crown on Netflix, which has been incredibly helpful for some of the 1940s and 1950s stuff, for example the great fog of London in 1952. I want to see if dad was in London on those dates – because many of his terms of reference, because he was just writing in his diary – assume knowledge of what was going on outside.


Making tough calls on timelines

My father lived a big, complex life on multiple continents and through some incredibly interesting historic periods. But as an editor I need to make some tough calls on what I will and won’t include, because this has to be – more than anything else – an interesting story. This has to be a compelling memoir and people who aren’t related to him need to want to read it!
So I’ve decided to confine the memoir to the WW2 period and then the time he spent in Europe and London, 1947-1955. This is when the most lively writing and the most fascinating encounters took place, and this is the breadth of the material that fascinated me once I took away the fact that I am his daughter.
My biggest fear is that people will be bored: I want readers to laugh at the bits that made (and still make!) me laugh, and to cry at the beautiful pieces that make me cry.

Understanding writing and publishing then and now

One problem that I’ve had with the French memoir (FRANCE IN THE FIFTIES) is that there’s a lot of listing of roads taken (turn left at the N.98 etc) and comparisons of meals in intense, specific, minute detail. It pulls me out of the narrative and makes me sleepy-eyed. But it makes sense when I consider that dad wrote this travel memoir in a time before Lonely Planet travel guides, TripAdvisor and restaurant reviews online. He was writing in a style that was popular at the time – gastro-tourism. But pulling those laborious road and meal descriptions out and leaving the unexpected encounter with the Count with one arm has been part of the (difficult) process of making his memoirs appeal to a 21st century reader.


Editing your own father’s work

This is an intimidating job. My father was smart, witty, spoke multiple languages and wrote well, so I do battle with feelings of inadequacy, but ultimately I think he would love that I am doing this. In many ways we are working together in concert! And he loved to teach in unconventional ways, so perhaps this is his way of teaching me how to teach writing and editing: by editing (and re-writing, in parts), his own work.
When I first dared to delete an entire paragraph I had to double and triple check I’d kept the original transcribed copy as a separate file. Then I got bolder: a bridging sentence here, a correction to a word there. It feels almost blasphemous, and I can’t ask him to clarify what he meant or to use a different word! There are also some guessing games: when DID he divorce his first wife? I will have to put some sort of explanation before the part where he marries (his second-wife) Gisele.


Getting into the editing ‘weeds’: Tenses, styles and cross-references

After I put the entire work into a chronological document, I’d managed to bring it down to 130 000 words. It’s still way too long, and nowhere near polished. So now I’m going through and turning what was year chunks into polished chapters. This is when the real editing work begins. I have to ensure each chapter is clearly structured from the beginning to the end, makes sense, and doesn’t jump around too much. I’ll need to weave in bridging sentences when all I could find were two diary entries months apart, eliminate repetition and check that he hasn’t used a few different nicknames for the one person (which he tends to do). This is probably more accurately what people think of when they think of editing a manuscript. Until now, it has been a mass of structural decisions. Now I’m smoothing out the sentences and ensuring the story actually flows.

I’m also finding it interesting to note that the memoirs he wrote many years later are slightly better in style than his first typed drafts, yet I don’t want to eliminate material from the early drafts completely, because they include interesting anecdotes and specific details that add even more to the later version.

But this is the work of editing. Or maybe it’s a blend of ghost-writing, too.

My goal is to have an 80 – 90 000 memoir manuscript ready by the end of 2021. But more than that – I want it to be readable. I want people who don’t know my father to be compelled to turn the pages, to read his story. Sure, he was just an Australian fellow, roaming through Europe after the War. But his experience was also universal: internal scars from years of war and personal battles with the concept of Art versus practicality, love and responsibility, freedom and confinement.

I’ll let you know how I go.

Do you know any traditionally-published found memoirs?

If you know of anyone else who has transformed dozens of boxes of archives and found memoirs into a traditionally-published (and readable!) book, let me know in the comments!

The closest I have found was The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel, but lucky Lily had the luxury of consulting with the original author, and was working with just one manuscript, rather than hundreds.

editing and revision checklist