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write a first memoir draft

Write A First Memoir Draft Efficiently and Well! (Really, this is do-able!) 4 Pillars.

I’m about to tell you something contrary to so much advice you’ve received: don’t give yourself permission to write a first memoir draft that is of poor quality and less than what you want.

In this post, I will elaborate on four pillars that will enable you—eventually, of course—to write better than so many writing teachers have encouraged you to do. You will learn to produce at a higher level—that is, at a more polished level—so that 60% to 80% of your first draft will make its way into your final draft. (That’s what I always aim for, and you can, too.)

I urge you not to get rid of the idea that your first draft always has to be deleted and put in the potty. You can learn to write a better first draft than that. If this sounds like what you want to learn to do, stay on to the end of this post. Pillar 3 will contain a question that will change your writing

Today, I’m here to tell you that there will be many sentences and paragraphs in your first draft writing that will find their way into your final memoir draft—and, of course, there will be sentences and paragraphs that you will delete quite happily, but these should be in the minority.

Don’t shortchange yourself with the belief that your first memoir version has to be an embarrassment and will be worthy only of the potty. It does not have to be—the choice is yours.

You can learn to write as best as you can even in the first story draft, or you can convince yourself that you will be writing a terrible first draft. At the end of this post, I will ask a question that may change how you write!

This is the second part of a series of posts on memoir writing pillars. Earlier, I wrote about the three pillars of starting a memoir. Thousands have viewed it. Here is a sequel—The 4 Pillars of Writing a Good First Memoir Draft—which I hope will prove as popular.


The First Pillar: Expect quality of yourself even as you produce for quantity in your memoir first draft.

What you expect is something you will work towards to make happen. So, expect quality and you’ll get quality in your first memoir version. While a first lifestory draft implies there will be a second, this is not to say that your first memoir draft need be execrable. I am not trying to say that, after you write a first memoir draft, there won’t be much to work to do on your story. That’s not what I’m saying

Yes, writers must expect to write a second draft, and a third even. No one can sit down and churn out countless pages of prose that don’t need rewriting. Jack Kérouac claimed he did just that with On the Road, but we know now that he was stretching the truth. His editor, Robert Giroux, at Farrar Strauss did extensive editing of Kérouac’s books. (BTW, if it’s an editor you are looking for, contact us for a free consultation.)

Yes, writing a first memoir draft is your opportunity to let all the words you have bottled up inside of you spill out onto the page. You must go for quantity. Writing for quantity may seem a corroboration of the idea that your first draft has to be awful, but it isn’t. Bear with me.

While there are bound to be spelling errors, grammatical errors, factual errors, and missing information and while these don’t matter at this early stage, this does not give you permission to write poorly, to let bad writing slip in even if you know it’s bad. Don’t tell yourself, “This is supposed to deserve the potty, doesn’t it?”

Let me repeat so that there is no doubt in your mind about what I am saying.  What you are doing, writing for quantity at this creation stage, is exactly right. One important part about writing a first memoir draft is to write it all down, but that is not to say that you must write sloppily.

This pillar which acknowledges you are writing for quantity does not advocate not editing your first draft. You’ll look up the right spellings, correct the grammar and fill in the missing information. I always do. My goal is always to write the best first story draft I can.

This editing can be done as you write, when you are most involved in your text so that any corrections and alterations are in keeping with the tone and focus of the story. In this way, your first draft can result in 60 to 80% of your final draft.

It may take you a while to learn to write this way, but learning this is possible—if you commit to it.

After you write a first memoir draft your anxieties about writing will dissipate when it is done. You will know that you can, in fact, write memories well in the first go around. You know that your lifestories will live on in some fashion, even as that first draft may still be 20 to 40% off what you hope the final memoir draft will be. You will have a tremendous sense of accomplishment. However, you are certain to feel some disappointment with the draft.

Every writer feels disappointment at some stage. It’s par for the course and you need not let it discourage you. Let’s move on to the second pillar which is a corollary of the first.

The Second Pillar: Demand much of yourself as you write a first memoir draft.

Your first draft ought not to be an occasion for you to tell yourself “This is good enough.” No, I am always urging you to write as best you can even in the first draft.

Let me give you an example of memoir writing as best as you can even in the first draft when you demand much of yourself. Let’s say you wrote “Initial beginning.” Those who advocate writing without revision will counsel you to leave that combination alone to be reworked later, but I say, “Stop right now!” Take the time to follow your inclination and delete “initial” because, of course, all beginnings are “initial.”

Or let’s say for another memoir rewriting example you have written, “Having grown up in another era that was more community-oriented than the one in which I grew up, I envied my grandparents.” You could let that faulty relationship between the introductory phrase and the subject go for a later revision, but I would correct it immediately so that the introductory phrase modifies the subject. Your text would now read: “Having grown up in another era that was more community-oriented than the one in which I grew up, my grandparents had a childhood that I envied.”

For a third memoir-writing example, don’t let yourself write something like “I hated my bedroom with its wallpaper.” Of course, this is grammatically correct but this is not vigorous writing. There is so much unsaid here. Even at this stage, you can do better and explore your thoughts. You can write, “I hated my bedroom. At seven, I had thought my bedroom with its little girl wallpaper full of pink cartoony animals was so cute. Why didn’t my parents accept that, now at seventeen, I should be allowed to repaper my room.”

Better, but I would even delete “little girl” so that “At seven, I had thought my bedroom with its little girl wallpaper full of pink cartoony animals was so cute” would read “At seven, I had thought my bedroom with its wallpaper full of pink cartoony animals was so cute.” Since we know the girl was seven, we do not need “little girl.” We know a girl of “seven” is a “little girl.”

These memoir-writing examples demonstrate that even at the first-draft stage—if you insist on maintaining standards as you write a first memoir draft—you can add or subtract details that make the text more interesting and meaningful.

It’s not an efficient use of your time to procrastinate and say “I’ll do that later. It’s good enough for now.” Write as best as you can in the first draft.

Yes, you can do these corrections later but doing them immediately will bring your text to a higher level of readability while you are still in the imagined time of your memoir. It will result in faster writing over the long run.

Doing this memoir rewriting immediately can bring your text to the 60 to 80% level that is possible in the first draft.

I believe it is important to call into play all that you know about good writing at every stage of your composition.


The Third Pillar: Disappointment is always in the background of a first lifestory version.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act falls the Shadow.”

He meant that what you produce will never be a fit for what you imagined you would produce. The shadow—or your production—always falls short and brings with it disappointment.

Yes, you will likely be disappointed in your memoir text. Let’s look at disappointment as an asset. Disappointment—if you sit thoughtfully with it—can produce many ideas that spur you on to an even better second draft.

Instead of becoming negative about what you wrote and deleting it, ask yourself what you really want to say in this sentence and in that one. Work at the micro level.

Here’s an important question you must ask yourself: “What do I really mean to say here?” This question will change your writing. Each sentence can now be mined for more meaning. The example previously about the little girl wallpaper is an example of what can happen when you ask “What do I really mean to say here?” “Some will say this is second draft work. Good for them—I will not equivocate. Just ask the question!

Always go to “What do I really mean to say here?” This exercise is an effective prompt for clarity and honesty in your writing and it should be repeated frequently as you write your first draft.

Because you asked this question, your lifestory will be clearer in your head. You’ll keep and develop the good stuff, and happily leave out what you now see as less than good.

Just as important, you will read your work with a more critical eye. You’ll find places where you can expand your autobiography to say what you really mean to say and realize your characters can be made more vivid. You will start to notice themes in your work and the way your story connects to something larger than you had originally thought.

While I agree that writing a first draft can be your opportunity to write wildly, feverishly and frantically—as many writing teachers advocate, I urge you to use your investment of time in your first memoir draft well. The better you write at this stage the less rewriting you will have to do later. (Spoiler alert: you will always have the urge to rewrite—even after your book is published!)

Before we move on to pillar #4, let me repeat: As you write pages and pages in which you describe the who, the what, the where and the when of the story, demand of yourself that you write as best as possible. Refer to your Memoir List (I have several YouTube videos on the Memory List which is a listing of everything you remember about the period of your life you are writing about.) The list comes in handy as you flesh out scenes and vignettes. Keep asking “What do I really mean to say here?” for every Memory List item.

Later, as you rework the piece, the why will have become clear. The why often is not entirely evident as you begin to write.

Let’s move on to the fourth pillar.


The Fourth Pillar: Perfectionism is not your friend as you write a first memoir draft.

It is counterproductive to reward yourself for being a perfectionist!

Think of the first draft process of writing as “fixing” the story in the same way that, in days when photographs were fixed by chemicals, that stage was important if the image was not to be lost. Your first draft is the stage when you “fix” your story and keep it from being lost.

The previous three pillars which advocated more careful writing were not at all about perfectionism. Let me be clear: perfectionism is never a virtue at any draft stage if by perfectionism you mean to be mired in a swamp of endless—and ultimately meaningless—alterations. Perfectionism will vitiate your memoir. I’ve seen writers change the word home for house and then back to home.

“I just want my memoir to be perfect,” perfectionists say. What they are doing is just wasting their time and nursing their anxiety. The result of this perfectionism is often stilted prose.

No, as you write a first memoir draft, it is better to keep writing for the best 60-80% “good” volume you are capable of, to get the story into a document and to get the whole sweep of your memoir written. Quantity at this stage has this going for it: it will encourage you to keep writing as you see your pages stack up. You will have a tangible experience of your efforts adding up to something.

When I mention “quantity,” I am not advocating sloppy writing—just the notion that you are involved in a process of writing that, while it will lead inevitably to a revision, the better the first draft is the less work you will have to do later.

Quality should enter big time at every stage—as it must—and it is not to be neglected as you are writing your first memoir draft.

In Conclusion

Over time, you will rework your piece for various stylistic elements and, eventually, you will have a memoir that you are ready to launch into the world, but for now, get your first lifestory draft written—and commit to your first draft being a quality basis for a second draft.

There are many stages in the memoir writing process. Writing your first draft is just one of them. Let it be an early stage—ok, let it be rougher, less complete, even less accurate than you want it to be, but commit to making it as good as you can make it. Go for 60% to 80%.

Here’s my question for you: Will you read your memoir with “What do I really mean to say here?” in mind? Leave a comment below about what you intend to do.

Good luck writing your memoir.


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