First Draft to Finished Manuscript: A Breakdown of the Memoir Writing Process–Part 1

getting started memoirs writing tips Jun 09, 2024
Man writing memoir

Writers commonly underestimate the effort required to complete a book. You get inspired to write about your life, then sit down and start pecking at the keys, letting your passion and vision of a published bestseller drive your word count.

Then reality sets in. You stare at the screen wondering what to say next. Words don’t come. You fidget, check social media, file your nails…anything to fill the uncomfortable gap between your initial passion and the blank page. This is the first of many days you won’t be productive, writing will feel painful, and you’ll be tempted to quit. Most do.

If you’re persistent enough to push through this resistance and finally get a first draft done, you’ll feel a weight lift as you cross what will feel like a finish line. You pop the bubbly and celebrate your great success. And you should. Few people make it to the first milestone of completing a first draft.

Some bad news

It’s hard for me to tell you this, but your first draft is a starting point more than a finish line. It's your initial attempt to get the story you’ve been burning to tell out of your head and onto the page. It’s raw and unfiltered, and if you did it right, you wrote it just for you. You said all the things you wanted to say without worrying about slander and libel and what Aunt Mary might think if she ever got hold of your draft.

This first draft will be one of several more to go before your manuscript is done. Not to pile on too hard, but this draft will be the easiest one you write. I knowit’s a horse pill to swallow after you’ve dropped blood on the page. You can quit now; no one would blame you.

If you’re committed to continuing your book-writing journey, keep reading to get a snapshot of the first and second drafts. I'll tell you about the remaining drafts in Part 2 of this blog post. 

First Draft: The Starter Draft

The best way to think about your first draft is as a “down” draft, meaning it’s the draft where you get everything down. Sure you’ll add more material in future drafts, but primarily your first draft is for you to feel your way through the dark and fog and get your words, ideas, and memories onto the page.

Unlike other drafts, in the first one, you should push yourself to write fast and furiously. Your first draft isn’t the time to worry unduly about grammar and spelling and concerns about legal issues. Most writers make the mistake of spending years on this first draft, thinking this will be the version others will see. It's not. This first draft is intended to be what others have called a "sloppy," "shitty," "vomit" version of the book you will ultimately publish. (You’ll find details here on what to do once you’ve finished your first draft.)

Key objective for Draft 1: Write fast. Write for you.

Second Draft: The Story Draft

First-time memoirists are often surprised to discover their story isn’t about them. In Draft 1 you write for you. Draft 2 is for your reader. 

Before you dive into rewriting for your second draft, be sure you take the time to re-organize the content you’ve written in your first draft so that it creates a compelling story arc and fulfills the premise and overarching purpose of your memoir. (Check out this blog post if you’re not sure what a premise is.) If you haven’t created an outline for your book yet, take the time to do it now.

Once you’ve reorganized your first draft so that it leads the reader on a journey that illuminates a universal theme through your personal life experiences, you’re ready to do the work of writing your second draft. This is slow, methodical work. You’ll go section by section, carefully rewriting your relevant events, experiences, and memories with your reader in mind. What do they need to know about your life that will drive the premise forward?

Just as you structured your overall book to create a story arc, each chapter also needs to draw the reader into new tension, conflict, rising drama, a climactic moment or discovery, and a resolution. By incorporating elements of storytelling, your memoir will grip your audience and keep them reading.

Key objective for Draft 2: Restructure Draft 1 to create a story arc to fulfill your memoir’s premise. Rewrite with your reader in mind.

In Part 2 of this two-part blog post, I’ll walk you through the remaining phases of the book-writing process.

Ready to get started on your memoir? Download my free guide, “7 Tips to Get Started Writing Your Life Story.


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