First Draft to Finished Manuscript: A Breakdown of the Memoir Writing Processā€“Part 2

getting started memoirs writing tips Jun 19, 2024
First Draft to Finished Memoir

Writers often underestimate the number of drafts they’ll need to write, edit, and rewrite to get them from their first draft to a fully formed manuscript. In Part 1 of this blog post, I offered a snapshot of what to expect for your first and second drafts, and the key objectives of these phases in the overall memoir writing process. Here in Part 2, I’ll walk you through the remaining drafts. Buckle up…there’s a lot of hard work ahead.

What to do when you’ve completed your second draft

Your second draft can be one of the longest, slowest phases of the entire memoir writing process. If you’ve done the work, you now have a draft that follows a narrative arc that brings your reader on a journey of discovery on a universally resonant theme. You are the main character, and your life experiences form the plot, setting, and characters that illuminate deeper insights for your reader. 

Once you’re satisfied that the foundation of your story is solid, coherent, and compelling, this can be a good point to share your work with a few trusted readers.

A word of caution: Choose your readers wisely. Your book is like a baby bird that just hatched and still needs nurture and tender care. Share your second draft with people who understand the principles of good storytelling and whose writing opinion you trust—people who will honor the sacred work you’ve created. If you belong to a writers’ group, this can be a great place to share portions of your work or to ask two or three fellow writers if they’d be willing to read your whole manuscript.

At this stage, you’re looking for high-level feedback about the structure and flow of your story, not nitty-gritty copyediting or proofreading. Choose readers who will help you see the forest for the trees and give you input on where your story needs potential reorganization and refinement.

Your second draft can also be a good phase to hire a developmental editor—a professional who will look at the overall structure of the manuscript, including the organization of chapters, scenes, and sections. They’ll examine plot development, pacing, and the consistency of the narrative arc, and evaluate the depth and consistency of characters, their development, and their relationships within your story. A developmental editor will also consider the major themes and how they’re developed throughout your work, point of view, and narrative style for consistency and effectiveness. The main objective of a developmental edit is to ensure that the foundation of your story is solid, coherent, and compelling.

You’ll often need to do substantial reworking of your manuscript, including adding, removing, or rearranging large sections of text. This can be discouraging and overwhelming when you’ve worked so hard to get to this point. Trust me, working out your book’s structural issues early on will save you loads of time in the overall writing process. You wouldn't build your house on a faulty foundation. You don't want to build your book on one either.

Draft 3: The Scrub Draft

I call the third draft a “scrub” draft because you’ll go over every surface vigorously, again and again, and get into all the nooks and crannies of your writing. This draft is a hard one because it involves shifting from being a writer to an editor and following a few critical steps.

Step 1: Whether you reviewed your second draft yourself or received input from friends, family, fellow writers, or a professional developmental editor, you’ll need to sift through everyone’s comments and editing remarks and decide which ones to incorporate into your draft, and what additional edits and new writing you need to do. This means another full review and reworking of your entire manuscript. Take your time working through this editing and rewriting step. Once you complete this step, you’ll have a third draft.

Step 2: Now re-read your new third draft through three different lenses:

  • Character development—Are the characters in your story (yourself included) three-dimensional? Even the villains in our lives are multi-faceted and complex. As you read through your third draft, look to see if you’ve painted a portrait of each character that your reader can visualize. Like an artist using light and shading to create a fuller perspective on a person, add nuance and color to your descriptions to help your reader see and imagine the characters in your story. Adding dialogue will help develop characters too.
  • Sensory writing—The old axiom “show, don’t tell” is true and essential to good writing. As you read through your third draft, look carefully through every scene. Wherever you find yourself telling how you felt (“I was furious at her!”), replace with dialogue or sensory details that let the reader see and feel the scene as if they were with you in it. Can they smell the scotch on your uncle’s breath? Can they taste the fresh-picked blueberries as you pop them off the bush and into your mouth? Can they feel the weathered, veiny surface of your grandma’s hands? Can they hear the car rolling over gravel as your dad returns home late again?

Writing sensory details into your scenes and character descriptions will create an emotional connection to your story for your readers. Scrubbing for show-don’t-tell moments can be painstakingly slow work. But shifting from explanatory to sensory writing will elevate your work and draw the reader more deeply into your story.

  • Technical writing—Scrubbing your draft for technical details can feel daunting and tedious. Still, it’s a necessary lens through which to view your third draft. Here you’re looking for consistency in voice (how you narrate your story), point of view (the vantage point from which the reader sees the story play out). Most memoirs are written in first-person (I/me/mine) so readers will experience your story from your POV). 

Scrub your draft for jargon and over-wrought writing. A wise writer friend once told me, “The more complex and abstract or technical your story or ideas are, the simpler your words and sentence structure need to be.” Write in your natural voice—the one you’d use if you were having a conversation with a friend. Avoid using words you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation.

Step 3: After you’ve gone through Steps 1 and 2, give your manuscript another full read-through to tighten and trim all unnecessary fat. Especially watch for places where you may have summarized an incident or thought and then followed the summary with details that describe the summary. You don’t need both. Typically the sentences with the details will be stronger and more engaging than an initial summary.

There are many more details to look for as you work through your scrub draft, but these are some of the big rocks that will help you polish your third draft so that it sparkles. Once you’ve gone through these steps, you’re ready for another round of readers or to hire a professional editor to give you feedback and edits on your third draft. You’re looking for a content edit this time—a detailed edit with a narrower focus than the developmental edit.

The Content Edit

A content edit is to ensure that your writing is clear and understandable. Where developmental editing is about structure, plot, and character development, content editing focuses on clarity, consistency, and style. A content editor will flag any confusing or ambiguous passages, examine the story for consistency of details (e.g. character descriptions, timelines, settings), make suggestions to improve flow and readability of your prose, and suggest strong transitions between paragraphs and sections. They’ll offer specific input on how to rework paragraphs, develop scenes, and make the writing come alive rather than high-level, structural changes that a developmental editor recommends. If you plan to publish your book, it is money well spent to hire a content editor.

Whether you hire a content editor or do it yourself, the objective of a content edit is to refine the manuscript at a detailed level, making it more polished and readable without altering the fundamental structure or story.

Draft 4: The Shiny Draft

Once you’ve incorporated the content edits into your manuscript, you’re ready for a final copy edit. The copy edit covers some of the same bases as a content edit, but because you likely made some substantial changes after you incorporated all of the content edits, it’s wise to go through a round of copy editing.

The Copy Edit

The objective of a copy edit is to refine the manuscript by ensuring clarity, consistency, and correctness in the text. This involves checking for and correcting grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, punctuation issues, and syntax problems. Additionally, a copy edit aims to enhance the overall readability and flow of the text by addressing awkward phrasing, improving sentence structure, and ensuring a consistent tone and style throughout the document. The goal is to produce a polished, professional piece of writing that communicates your message clearly and effectively.

Unless you’re exceptionally strong at fine-tooth editing, it’s wise to enlist the services of a professional copy editor. They’ll help you get your manuscript publish-ready. 

Once you’ve made all of the copy edit revisions, you’re ready for the final step—proofreading. This is the step that makes your manuscript gleam.


You might be wondering why you’d want to hire a proofreader if you’ve already hired a copy editor. Here’s why: “Proofreading differs from copy editing in that it focuses on cleaning up mechanical inconsistencies overlooked throughout the editing process.” Proofreaders aren’t as focused on whether your story is fluid and cohesive; rather they care that the words on the page look as they should.

When you’ve made all of the proofreading revisions, your manuscript is ready to submit to a publisher or prepare to self-publish. Take time to celebrate this major milestone—a finished manuscript, something very few people ever accomplish. 

I've tried to synthesize the major drafts you'll work through to get your book from an idea to a finished manuscript. The reality is this process isn't as linear as I've laid it out. Most writers end up writing many more than four drafts. Too often it's because they don't understand what the process entails, and the spend too much time on the first draft and not enough time on the second, third and fourth drafts.

The book-writing process is much longer and harder than most people realize. Understanding the various drafts and following the steps will help shorten the time it takes to finish your book. The reward and satisfaction of going from dream to done is well worth the effort. 


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