You've Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

memoirs writing tips Dec 06, 2023
Editing Your First Memoir Draft

Every November I host a 30-day Memoir Writing Challenge (National Memoir Writing Month—NaMeWriMo) modeled after the longstanding National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). My challenge doesn’t mandate writing 50,000 words as the crowning achievement of the challenge. Instead, I encourage each participant to set their own goals for the month. Some strive for a daily word count, others for a certain number of writing sessions each week, and still others shoot for finishing a first draft or editing a draft they’ve already completed.

At our closing celebration for the 30-Day Challenge this year, we shared how each of us feels after having completed a first draft, knowing the editing and rewriting process lies ahead. One writer said he feels excited. He’s ready to dive in, reorganize his writing and polish it up. Another said writing the first draft was hard; she just wanted to be done with the whole thing.

Memoir writing is hard. Though writing the first draft is a necessary and critical milestone, it’s only step one in a series of drafts to get to a finished manuscript.

Now what?

If, like many of my 30-Day Memoir Writing Challenger writers, you have achieved your goal of finishing a first draft, you might be wondering, now what? You have thousands of words on pages. What do you do next?

My best advice: Do nothing. Just for one week.

Let your rough draft sit on your computer and don’t give it a thought for the next seven days. Taking a break from your story will give your brain time to rest and regroup. You’ve been working hard to get as many words out of your head and onto the page. You're going to need a minute to shift gears before moving into editing mode.

While you’re enjoying a little hiatus from working on your memoir, schedule a date on your calendar for the following week to read through your entire story. 

After 7 days

Now that you’ve had a break from your story, you’re ready to bring fresh eyes to it. Your week off was to create some objectivity between you and your memoir. Your next task is to do a full start-to-finish read-through of your first draft.

Avoid editing! Sit on your hands while you read if you need to. Resist the urge to move paragraphs around and tinker with words.

The goal of reading your memoir in one fell swoop is to experience the entirety of your story through a reader’s lens. When you’re done reading, take a few minutes to reflect on these questions:

  • How do you feel about what you’ve written so far?
  • Do you feel proud of the quality of your writing?
  • What parts stand out to you as especially strong?
  • Which sections feel rough and clunky?
  • Where might you need to go back and add more information or flesh out scenes?

We are typically our own worst critics. For a few minutes, try to suspend judgment and note three things you feel good about with your story. Give yourself a big pat on the back! You’re farther than most people ever get on their memoirs.

Now, take a deep breath. You’re about to enter phase two of your memoir work.

What’s your premise?

This next task is critical. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to write a one-sentence description of the premise of your memoir.

If you wrote your premise before you started writing, good for you! Use your first full read-through to validate whether your story fulfills the premise you intended for it. Or, if needed, rewrite your premise to better align with what you’re trying to express through your memoir.

If you haven’t yet written a one-sentence premise for your memoir, now is the time to do it! Here's how.

How to write your memoir premise

A one-sentence premise should identify three key elements: the main character (you), the situation, and the lesson or overall theme. 

Here are a few examples (thanks to ChatGPT for the first three):

  1.  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls reveals the theme of resilience as Walls recounts her unconventional and nomadic childhood marked by poverty and dysfunction, highlighting how her challenging upbringing shaped her determination to overcome adversity and build a better life.
  2. Tara Westover's Educated explores the transformative theme of the power of education as she narrates her journey from a childhood in a strict and abusive household with no formal education to earning a PhD from Cambridge University, emphasizing how knowledge becomes the key to breaking free from a restrictive past.
  3. Becoming by Michelle Obama intertwines the themes of identity and self-discovery as it traces her life from a modest upbringing on the South Side of Chicago to becoming the First Lady of the United States, highlighting how she navigates the complexities of public life while staying true to her values and evolving as an individual.

For me, my memoir recounts my journey to rescue and reclaim the youngest, purest version of myself that was lost during a childhood of emotional neglect and sexual abuse, and how I reintegrated my little girl with my adult self to finally live whole. 

Writing a premise is harder than it looks. You have to hone in on what the point of your memoir is. The exercise reaps exponential benefits:

  1. Your premise becomes your north star, guiding you as you shape your personal story into one that will resonate with a broader audience. 
  2. Your premise helps you identify what to keep in and what to leave out of your story.
  3. Your premise will help you write faster because you’ll know more clearly what you’re trying to say.
  4. Your premise becomes an important basis for your book proposal and marketing copy if you plan to publish your memoir.

Once you’ve nailed your premise, copy and paste it at the top of your manuscript. You’ll want to refer to it every time you sit down to edit your memoir.

Kill those darlings

Now, read through your draft again, but this time filter your story through the lens of your premise. Are there any sections that don’t belong in this memoir? Parts that might be well written but don’t advance the story or help illuminate its theme? This is where the adage “kill your darlings” comes into play.

Though not entirely clear who said it first, to kill your darlings is to cut anything from your writing that doesn’t add to the story but which you feel especially attached to. You have to be willing to sacrifice your love for certain turns of phrase or sections of your story for the good of the whole. This can be a painful process—surgery of the most difficult sort.

So read carefully and continually ask yourself, does this scene belong in my memoir? If it doesn’t, cut and paste it into a new document you can title “Memoir Parking Lot.” I like to do this in case there are gems I can use in a different memoir or as part of an essay related to my memoir that I might want to write to promote my book when it’s published.

Reorganize the flow

Along with removing any sentences, scenes, and sections that don’t belong in your memoir, try to determine the right order of your chapters and the right sections and scenes within each chapter. If you're a tactile person, you may want to print single-sided pages of your entire draft and lay them out on a big table or on the floor. This way you can literally move pages to new sections and even cut pages and move sections around.

My first memoir grew out of a series of unrelated scenes about my life that I had written as part of a narrative trauma group I was in. When I decided to turn these scenes into a memoir, I had to figure out how to organize them into a compelling, cohesive story. It was quite a puzzle. Knowing the main message of my memoir helped clarify where to place the scenes in the narrative arc of my overall story.

Once I knew which scene would be the hook to draw readers in, which scenes created conflict, tension, backstory, foreshadowing, and suspense, and which ones brought the story to its climax and a redemptive resolution, I had the framework for my story. Now I could begin the exciting and difficult work of editing and rewriting my first draft.

How about you? Where are you in your memoir writing process? What advice would you add to these steps after completing the first draft of your memoir? 



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