My mother is a celebrity in a small niche world. Her contribution and experiences are wonderful and should be told. She says she can't write a book, so she has settled on a book that is something else, including anecdotal stories from her co-workers and peers over her historical career. Her idea is exceptional, and it will make a great book because she is mixing it into something a little ingenious.

She has never read a book from cover to cover except research books, which she has decades of that experience. She has no patience for words, so she tells the little stories as simply as she can, and breaks every rule of writing possible. I am not a writer, and have a formal style, but tried to show her how important it is to paint the picture for the reader so they can see the event as it was happening, and imagine the people as the story is unfolding in her telling of it. She is 88 years old, so it is difficult anyway, but she thinks she knows her audience, and that they are just like her, very country and informal with an average education. She can't imagine how people like to read books for anything other than researching something.

I am losing my mind. This is probably the last thing she will do professionally, and I don't want her to end on a sour note. In her world, music, she is a master. Her low self-esteem, however, is preventing her from being able to admit she doesn't know everything about everything. Any ideas on how to get information and guidance to her from people in the field? Anything from me is wasted because she has never been able to allow that I know anything she doesn't because of being plagued by low self-esteem. She has had this amazing life and I just wish someone else could do it for her, but I don't know even where to start.

  • 25
    "I don't want her to end on a sour note" Do you know that she will actually be disappointed if people don't like her book, or do you mean that you don't want her last work to be so mediocre? If the book's a flop, does it matter? It seems unlikely at 88 that she'd start writing just for the money. Or if you really want her story to be told, why not write her biography yourself, either now, or after she dies? Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 8:42
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    I don't see the connection between the question title and body. Based on the question's title, I thought this was going to be completely different. Slightly ironic given the question content.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 14:34
  • Has she considered writing a blog instead of a book? Eventually you could collect a bunch of her blogs and hire an editor to polish them into a book.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 23:51
  • perhaps give her a list of memory games, which make her travel through her memories based on unusual analyses of her life... funny experiences, advice to herself if she traveled back in time, memory games from writing websites, and turn them into a few chapters, on top of her own spontaneous style. Commented Jan 25, 2020 at 13:17
  • 2
    Let her write the book. If need be, fix it afterwards.
    – Mast
    Commented Jan 26, 2020 at 8:42

7 Answers 7


I very accidentally stumbled over this question and have a feeling that I must answer. I'm no writer at all and also no pychologist or NLP [neuro-linguistic programming] practitioner (to help you changing her thoughts).

My first thought was: why not just let her write her story in her own style? What's the clue in telling her "you have to do it this way to attract readers"?

She is 88 and she wants to write. That's awesome!!! People who need her words will love her book. Give her all your love and understanding to support her in any way SHE wants. That's the best you can do.


There is a very standard solution for people in your mother's exact situation. Hire a ghostwriter. Writing is a demanding art, and someone who excels in their own area of expertise is rarely also a great writer. So most people hire someone to interview them, and turn their story into a book. This might be someone famous themselves, but it is more likely to be someone unknown, a good writer who isn't famous and doesn't have an exciting story of their own. Depending on the exact arrangement, the ghostwriter might be credited as co-author or left off the cover of the book entirely.

It sounds like your mother might be a little resistant, but plenty of bestsellers, and even critically acclaimed classics have been produced this way. You can tell her that 90% of all musicians' autobiographies are probably ghost-written (that's a made-up stat, but plausible).

As far as costs, those will depend on how well-known and experienced your ghost-writer is. If your mother is sufficiently famous, there may be people willing to work entirely for a percentage of the eventual profits. Otherwise, you'll probably need to pay up front.

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    My wife works in publishing and has done several self-published and other books of this nature, and I'm sure she would agree that a ghostwriter is 100% the only path of sanity.
    – Alan B
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 8:57
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    You could even style is as a biography. Many of those are written in this exact way: someone rambles at length at a writer, x time later a coherent story rolls out.
    – Borgh
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 9:24
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    Just to add to this, the OP also has the standard problem of bringing family or friends into a professional situation. It rarely works well, because the "working relationship" between the people is formed by something other than professional respect. Parents are rarely successful at teaching their own children, and the reverse is even less successful. Especially for people who are rather insecure, they will take comments more easily from someone independent which they would point-blank refuse to even listen to from someone they have a closer connection with.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 11:40
  • 1
    @Graham While this is sometimes true and may be true in this case, saying it "rarely" works well ignores most of human history where parents were often the primary teacher for the child and even today many businesses are kept in the family quite successfully. For that matter, my wife and I routinely edit each others professional publications before they go out to the official editors and reviewers. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 20:28

I don't think there is anything wrong with her writing the book her way. Whenever I read one of those articles that Firefox recommends to me, I find that I'm drawn in by the title. But then the author drags on forever setting the stage. An example recently was about death row inmate interviews. I wanted to see what the death row inmates had to say, but about half the article was spent on how the interviewer felt leading up to and after the interviews. I felt like I got bait-and-switched. Setting the stage is definitely important for a novel, but I think it must be used sparingly in short-stories or anecdotes. Setting the stage can't take as long as the story itself.

  • I think this is a good point, but the medium is also different: writers and readers should have different expectations for articles vs books.
    – wordsworth
    Commented Jan 25, 2020 at 23:13
  • @wordsworth Definitely. I would accept more stage-setting in a book than in an article, but I think the concept is sound. Setting the stage is not a strictly good thing. You can do too much of it.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jan 26, 2020 at 4:58
  • @wordsworth many, many, many US-produced articles or books have this problem too and and reading about interviewer's entire morning and then interviewee entire biography and biography of his parents and grandparents before finally getting to subject stated in title was getting on my nerves for years. Commented Jan 26, 2020 at 4:58
  • @OlegV.Volkov, it's true-- I think the way internet advertising works has exacerbated that problem, too. I look up recipes and you have to read someone's memoirs before you get to the ingredients list.
    – wordsworth
    Commented Jan 26, 2020 at 5:59

Sounds like she has a following and an audience. Perhaps suggest she let some of her fans (could be some well known fans) have inputs on a few segments. Or see if she wants to talk to a biographer or even offer her a speech to text software so she can dictate her stories.

Ultimately, this is her book, not yours, and it sounds like she has some idea of what direction she wants to take it in. A good number of humorists would tell small stories from their life in their books and they may or may not be based on true events or loosely therein... she's not the first person to do it (think as if a stand up comic wrote his show down into a book, rather than a stage tour). You will have to accept that it's her book and not yours and she's going to do it the way she wants to do it (As someone who writes for fun, I've let my family read some of my stuff and I appreciate their feedback, but I'll be damned if I let them tell me how to tell my own story.).

All that said, every writer has the same weakness: Vanity. Ask if you can read some of her stories... and then say you enjoyed it but you wanted to here more about [insert details you find lacking here] and get her to open up about it... and then if you like what she's saying, tell her other people would love to hear that. Writers collapse like a House of Cards for any positive remarks about their works (and will be Fort Knox to any hostility to it).

I got to say I think you misdiagnosed your mother. Writing about myself is hard... and most writers I talk to agree. Anything but that! Your mom sounds like she's got an ego to her, not a low self-esteem.


Writing in a uncommon style need not be a disadvantage. Perhaps it makes her book even more interesting for publishers and readers. I remember the memoirs of a well-known German actress I read years ago. They were written in the way one writes a diary (perhaps it was based on her diaries), with many incomplete sentences or just catchwords. Very strange (my mother, for example, did not like it at all), but it became a best-seller.

I would advise to first let her write in her own style, and then find a good publisher or literary agent. If she is a celebrity, this should not be too difficult.

And a good publisher or literary agent that is interested in the manuscript will do the job you are trying to do now. They know what sells and will help her to improve the text.


Your mother picks up on how unintuitive writing is. It's so unintuitive, we need years of schooling to become functionally literate. However, years of schooling sometimes don't come to understand one of the most powerful and intuitive styles we can write in: classic style.

Classic style is modeled on conversation. As you read classic style, you might as well imagine someone standing in front of you talking to you. This might sound informal, but it's far from it. Descartes, Jefferson, Steven Pinker (who introduced me to the style through his book on writing), and many other first-rate thinkers use this style. So do novelists and poets described in Clear and Simple as The Truth.

Why am I saying this? If your mother is writing a text that is modeled on conversation, then you can go forward knowing that the text will be any bit as respectable as 'formal' writing. Here's the issue, though: readers, in the same way as people you're having a conversation with, need to be able to understand what is being said.

So, have proofreaders. Read it yourself. Point at places where things aren't clear. If your mother won't take criticism from you, have a friend/peer who she will listen to. Just make sure other people can understand what your mother says!


I think her purpose for the book is important here. If she wants it to be more research-like, then maybe it can be simple and short, cut-and-dry. If she is targetting an audience that is similar to her, maybe they don't read for anything besides research, and so for them, her style is perfect.

But if she wants readers to become involved in the story, then I agree with you 100% that she should paint a picture for readers to see as they read. It would most likely captivate more people. Remind her that writing is fun, and reading is fun, and she might enjoy getting into it and letting her voice pour into her story. Oftentimes, what makes a story unique and memorable isn't exactly what the story is about, but how it is told. The author's voice. Now obviously, I do not know your mother so maybe she disagrees with this, and if so, then that's her call.

Also, I know the rules of writing are important (they are there for a reason), but many awesome books break writing rules all the time. There isn't some overlord who is looking over every author's shoulder and erasing their work if something is "wrong." As long as you can follow the story and it makes sense, it most likely is fine. I guess you know it when you see it. I'm certainly no expert.

As for guidance, the internet is full of writing tips ranging from technique and style, to interesting readers, to marketing... everything. You can surely find technical advice and opinionated advice. But that's a lot to sort through. There are people on Stack Exchange who have experience and degrees and actually really know what they're talking about, so good idea coming here. And if you're worried about her final professional endeavor ending on a "sour note", that's a good reason to look for more ideas. But if she can't do her story her way, regardless of how much success she has, it might not bring her the same joy as it would if she could do it the way she intends it to be done. Balance, right? Balance is hard.

Good for you both. Hope this helps at least a little bit. :) Good luck!

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