Revising an Autobiography
Paragraphing in autobiography
To write your story, you'll use four
kinds of paragraphs. The first two are narrative and descriptive.
Focus each on an individual scene or action. When you shift scenes or change
actions, more than likely you'll begin a new paragraph. (For examples of
these paragraphs, see The Ready Reference Handbook, 6b1 and 2.)
The third kind of paragraph you'll
write is the dialogue paragraph, presenting the words of one of
your characters and a signal statement to introduce that speech.
Listen to this writer describing an automobile breakdown during a cross-country
trip with friends:
us, a quarter mile away, shimmering in the desert sunlight by the side
of the road, sat our broken-down car. Ahead of us, down a broad drive,
surrounded by a lush lawn dotted with sprinklers sounding "ffft, ffft,
ffft," shaded by arching palm trees and sheltering shrubbery, was the wonder
of this desert place, an immense new house built in the Spanish style.
As this writer does, you'll use dialogue
to bring your narratives to life, to create personalities, and to reveal
secrets. Introductory signal statements will identify the speaker and tone
of voice, give background information, or evaluate the speaker's remarks.
(For more on quoting dialogue, see The Ready Reference Handbook,
38a and b.)
As we walked
up the drive, a large black pickup came toward us. "All right!" cried Peter.
"Help is at hand. We'll get a tow out of this--or at least a phone call
to a garage."
rolled to a silent stop, and the occupant stared at us for a moment from
behind tinted windows. Then slowly a window descended, and we looked into
the driver's small, marble-colored, depthless eyes.
if we could ask you for a little favor," said Peter in his best insinuating
As the driver
of the pickup shifted his hand on the steering wheel, a gold Rolex glinted
on his wrist. A two-way radio hung by his knees; on the seat lay a cell
phone and a revolver. Peter quickly told him of our plight. "We just need
a little help--a tow, or a phone to arrange a tow."
us for a moment, blinked twice, and then as the tinted window rose between
us and his air conditioned cab, we heard him say, "No. No help around here
that I know of. Maybe up the road a few miles." Through the small remaining
crack in the window, we could see him jerk a thumb toward the road."
the sprinklers sounded "ffft, ffft, ffft."
The fourth kind of paragraph you'll
write is the transitional paragraph, illustrated by Thom Sandersall's
third paragraph above. In these often brief paragraphs writers summarize
unimportant events, provide background information, or mark the passage
of time and heighten suspense. Transitional paragraphs build bridges to
carry a story from one episode to the next.
A revision checklist
As you revise and edit your autobiography,
follow these tips and guidelines:
Questions for peer reviewers of
Sometimes you won't know the point of
your story--its secret meaning or significance, your main idea, or dominant
impression--until you've nearly finished a first draft. If, near your
conclusion, you find yourself thinking, "Aha!", you may have discovered
your point, and you should rewrite in light of your discovery. Often writers
plunge to a new depth of understanding just as they are about to finish.
Rewrite to lead your story to this new depth.
No matter how good a sentence or how vivid
a memory--if it doesn't develop your main idea or dominant impression,
you should cut it.
Beware of beginning too soon, with irrelevant
introductory materials, or too late, without the background information
readers need to understand you.
Reread to see that you've provided connecting
links to carry readers from one episode to the next.
Examine your words to see that each is
faithful to the truth of your experience. In autobiographical writing,
there's no such thing as an almost-right word.
Reread looking for clichés,
old metaphors and similes that everyone has heard and that have lost their
power. Look, too, for mixed metaphors, two or more figures of speech
that clash with one another. (See The Ready Reference Handbook,
Writers: If you're passing out
copies of your writing for peer reviewers to read, number your paragraphs
to make your story easy to discuss. Make a brief introduction:
Peer reviewers: Answer the following
questions to help this writer see his/her autobiographical essay clearly
and begin planning revisions.
Identify your audience (name yourself
or your intended readers).
Identify the kind of autobiography you've
written: a personal experience essay, a reflective essay, an epiphany,
or a memoir
Describe your intentions. "In my story
I'm trying to tell/show. . . ."
Tell your peer reviewers about the feedback
you want from them. Ask questions, describe problems, or pose alternative
solutions for which you want opinions. Take notes as you listen to their
feedback. Use your reviewers' suggestions where they're helpful. But remember,
this is your autobiography; it should say what you want.
What is this story about--its subject?
Does it change from one page to the next? If so, what subject is most interesting
Is the purpose of the writing autobiographical,
informative, persuasive, or critical? Does it change? Role: Does
the writer sound like a story-teller (autobiographer), reporter, teacher,
critic, or persuader? What purpose and role are appropriate?
Is the audience for this project
supposed to respond with sympathy, understanding, evaluation, agreement,
or enjoyment? Will this writing achieve its purpose? What changes might
help it achieve its purpose?
Does this project have a unifier,
a secret or discovery to share, a main idea, or an overall mood?
Point it out or summarize it.
Development. Does the writing provide
enough detail for you to re-live the story with the writer and get its
"secret" message? Tell the writer what description, dialogue, metaphors
or similes you most remember. Are some parts of the story vague, needing
more detail to bring them to life?
you follow this story from start to finish? Where is it hard to follow?
Point to specific sentences or paragraphs.
What message or picture is expressed by
the essay's title? Does the story suggest a more vivid or revealing
title? What does the introduction do to interest you or help you
see where the story is going? Propose alternative openings the writer could
use to begin his/her story.
Does the writer's "voice" seem right for
the topic, too formal, or too informal? Point out words that don't seem
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