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  • Writer's pictureDarby Summers

3 Tips for Writing about Sensitive and Personal Information

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

What if my family hates my book?

When writing your memoir, hard and traumatic things are going to come up, and they will often involve family. The way you write about these events may be upsetting or embarrassing to the family members who were involved. At the same time, your story matters, and you deserve to tell it.

So, how do you write about sensitive and personal information that exposes family members who may read your story?

You’re not alone with these questions! Nearly every memoir author we’ve had has asked some variation of these questions. So here are our 3 best tips for writing about sensitive information in your memoir.

What do we mean by “sensitive and personal information”?

For the purposes of this article, ‘sensitive information’ is anything (usually of a personal nature) that may affect another person’s feelings, reputation, and/or relationship with you.

The biggest example is parents. For better or worse, parents tend to have the biggest impact on a person’s life, so they’re often brought up in memoirs, in both positive and negative ways.

Parents and their children will always have different feelings and perspectives about how they were raised. It can be humbling and upsetting for parents to hear from their now-adult children how they felt throughout their childhood.

Being conscious of how your work may affect others is paramount to being able to publish your story with the confidence that you won’t be creating unnecessary family drama or become the target of retaliation.

3 Tips for Writing about Sensitive and Personal Information

1. Change names, relationships, and other identifying information

First and foremost, you can change the names of the people you’re writing about. People may still recognize themselves in the story, especially if they have a specific relationship to you (your mom or dad, for example), but a pseudonym can provide someone a layer of protection and anonymity.

You can also change other characteristics of the people you write about, such as gender, occupation, physical descriptors, and relationship to you (where appropriate) for more anonymity. The important thing is to keep the details that are relevant to your story. Your cousin Denise who caused a family rift by calling out her mom’s alcoholism could become your uncle Barry who caused an argument at Thanksgiving (for unspecified reasons).

If you’re worried about people finding your story and being upset about what you wrote, you can also publish the work under a pseudonym or ‘pen name’ to give yourself a layer of protection and anonymity.

2. Include a statement

A blurb or statement at the beginning of a book can help to frame the book a certain way before the reader experiences it.

If you’ve changed names, you can mention that the names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

In addition, your blurb can state that the story is from the point of view and recollections of the author. If you’re particularly worried about not making others involved angry or upset, this statement could include information about memory and recollection, how it can be faulty or change over time.

If that feels too invalidating, a softer version of this would be to talk about how different perspectives can be valid, and how different people can reflect on and be affected by the same event in different ways.

3. If appropriate, have a conversation prior to publishing

No one likes to be caught off guard. If you are still in touch with people who played a part in your story and are still on good terms with them, you can contact them prior to publishing.

It is important to set the tone for this meeting: it’s not a meeting to ask their permission or get their input (unless you want it to be), it’s a meeting to give them a heads up, break the news gently and have a conversation about it rather than being blindsided.

Perhaps you can talk about what measures for anonymity they may want you to take, like changing names as we suggested above, but they shouldn’t be telling you to change or censor your story. It’s your story to tell.

A Final Note

While it may be kind to care about what others think about what you write and how you’ve decided to tell your story, it is ultimately your story to tell, and you can tell it in the way that will work best for you when you self-publish your memoir. Whether that means changing names, giving other involved parties warning, putting a statement at the beginning or end of the book, or not communicating with them at all.

From our work with memoir authors over the years, we know that everyone’s story is different. At Next Page Editing and Design, we’re here to help you get your story out there, and we’ll be with you every step of the way on your publishing journey.

About Next Page

Next Page Editing & Design produces high-quality books that reflect authors' brands, purpose, and impact. We do this through editing, book design, launch support, author branding, and coaching. ​Once we finish our job, you keep your rights to print, sell, and promote your work while retaining 100% of your book's profits. We call this a "no-strings attached" model.

To request an editing or self-publishing quote, click here.


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