Nonfiction: Self or Peer Review of a Personal Essay or Memoir
Using the list below, consider the following areas in your analysis (you may also use this list to do a review of your own work, although writers tend to be their own worst critics):
What is the essay or memoir about? You should be able to summarize the piece in one or two sentences.
Does the essay/memoir follow a traditional story structure (common for creative non-fiction)?
Beginning → Rising action → Climax → Falling action → Epiphany → Resolution
If not, does the nontraditional structure work?
How is the piece structured? (If you can’t figure out the structure, feel free to ask the author.)
Does the piece involve a well-defined conflict that makes the essay/memoir worth reading? What is the conflict? (No conflict = boring. The best creative non-fiction is driven by conflict, although it does not have to include a major catastrophe.)
Does that first sentence and/or paragraph reach out and grab you, immersing you into the piece? If not, how might the writer develop a better hook?
5. Evolution of Writer and Development of Supporting People.
How does the writer, as the major player in his her/his essay/memoir, evolve during the course of the piece?
Does the writer develop his/her/their own persona adequately, or is he/she/they a static persona who has not changed as a result of the unfolding events and his/her/their epiphany?
How might the author develop a better evolved self while retaining the essence of truth?
Do the supporting people create enough tension and conflict? If not, how might the author develop them better, while still retaining the basic characteristics of their personalities?
Are all the supporting people necessary? If not, who might the author cut?
Is the “antagonist,” the main driver of conflict, a person, animal, object, or place? Explain.
Does the setting reflect the mood of the piece? How does the writer develop setting as mood?
7. Point of view (First Person “I”).
If the author uses anything but first person, does it work for this personal essay/memoir? If so, how?
Should the author change to first person? Why or why not?
In the writer’s book Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment, some select chapters are from the third person P.O.V., for example, A Possible Scenario at the Police Station (dramatic third person objective). Other chapters present the P.O.V. of the writer’s grandmother and grandfather.
8. Tense (Past or Present).
What tense does the author use? In your view, is this the appropriate tense? If not, explain why.
Does the author mix past and present tense? If so, ask what tense the author has intended, and mark the lapses with an “8.” Please note that essays/memoirs written in the moment (present tense) will often flash back to past events in the past tense, and this is perfectly correct, so make sure that you don’t mark these passages as inconsistent.
However, if flashback chapters are not clearly defined, the reader should note this.
9. Dialogue/Dramatic Monologue.
Does the writer incorporate dialogue (two or more speakers) or dramatic monologue (one speaker)? If not, might the essay/memoir benefit from some well-placed dialogue or dramatic monologue that reveals details about the speakers? Put a “9” where the author might consider developing dialogue and/or dramatic monologue.
Keep in mind that most dialogue in personal essays and memoirs is re-created, and it is up to writer to decide if the quoted words maintain the essence of truth, although the wording may not be exact.
How does the writer incorporate dialogue tags?
Does the writer refrain from overusing fancy dialogue tags, allowing the dialogue to speak for itself? In other words, does the writer mostly limit tags to “said” or “ask”? If not, where can the writer develop dialogue better to avoid distracting dialogue tags?
10. Scene, Details, and Description.
Has the author included important events in essay/memoir scenes that include dialogue, details, and description to show personal and event development? If not, mark those areas with a “10.”
Does the author summarize parts of the essay/memoir that, while important, are not important enough to warrant an entire scene? Mark areas that could be summarized with a “11.”
Is the scope, or time frame, of the essay/memoir narrow or wide enough? (One of the most common problems of beginning non-fiction involves a scope that is too broad, which I refer to “I’m-going-to-start-at-my-birth-and-continue-until-now” syndrome).
Think “slice-of-life” for scope.
Is syntax (word order within the sentence) used in ways that we don’t usually hear or expect? If so, does the unusual structure work for this essay/memoir? If not, mark “13a.”
Is the language direct? In other words, does the author use economy of language as opposed to wordiness? If not, what could be deleted? Mark suggested deletions with “13b.”
What kinds of imagery are used? (Imagery = use of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, as experienced through concrete language). (Mark lack as “13c.”)
Has the author used any inappropriate word choices, including wrong words and/or clichés? Mark these words “13d.”
What passages could be rewritten to incorporate concrete language rather than abstractions? Mark these areas “13e.”
What could be suggested rather than told outright? Mark these areas “13f.”
Circle any “to be” forms of verbs (e.g., is, am, are, was, were, will, etc.). Could any of these passive verbs be developed into active verbs (in which the subject is doing the action)? Mark these areas “13g.” (Active voice is almost always more powerful than passive voice.)
Circle any adjectives and adverbs. Which of these modifiers could be cut? (Mark “13h”)
Does the author use appropriate sentence length to develop pacing? (Short, staccato sentences = fast pacing; lengthy, compound/complex sentences = slow pacing. In short, an author can manipulate pacing via sentence length. Authors often use sentence length variety to reflect changing pace within a story.) Mark inappropriate pacing with “13i.”
14. Surface Areas: (Punctuation, Grammar, Mechanics).
In dialogue or first-person narrative, the writer may be intentionally suspending the rules of proper English. If so, ask the writer about intent. Ultimately, is the result successful?
15. Peer Narrative.
A. In some detail, discuss overall strengths of the essay/memoir.
B. In some detail, discuss overall weaknesses of essay/memoir.
C. In your opinion, what are the most critical areas that the author should be working on?