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Updated: May 17, 2023


woman's arm, pen in hand, poised over blank journal page in her lap
Just write, but have a purpose.

Just write.


Don’t think, just write.


Just write and see where it takes you.


First-time writers (and would-be published authors) often ask for advice on social media as they wrestle with creating their first-draft manuscripts. Just write is the #1 comment I see. I always chime in that to write a long-form piece (such as a memoir), you really need to have a sound purpose in mind when you begin. A direction. A compass heading.


I’m always in the minority.



I decided I needed to re-evaluate my position. Maybe I’m being too rigid, too narrow in my advice. So I pondered. . . .


Where to Begin?

As I am a writing coach and as I specialize in memoir, I have had to give a lot of thought to how to help newbie writers get started with their memoir, or improve existing work. I have read innumerable first-draft manuscripts (and one or two first-draft chapters). They are often the product of the just write school of manuscript development. A few show immediate promise; this writer understands where they ultimately want to take this book. But most, sadly, suffer from what I refer to as being all over the place. When you just write, it shows in how your narrative jumps from one subject to another, one time period to another, one argument to another.


Let me be clear—I do not enjoy dashing a writer’s dreams. Seriously. It takes a ton of tact and empathy for me to objectively critique a piece of writing that someone has poured their heart and soul into for months or years, but it just doesn’t fly. My defense is putting on my coaching hardhat and remaining objective and professional to offer my guidance as to how this draft can become a successful published book.


Where are You Going?

I feel like a vinyl record with the needle stuck in a groove. I have offered the same advice in every article I’ve written about memoir. So, I apologize. But if this is the first one of my blog articles you have read, I will repeat the two questions I ask of everyone I work with:

  1. What is the personal transformation story you want to share in this memoir?

  2. Who is your audience for this story; who are you writing this for?

In my article Memoir is a Journey Story, I discuss this in detail. So, there’s no point in repeating myself. Is there?


Oh, heck! Let me ask you—why are you writing this memoir? If it is for yourself, to get clarity or catharsis about some particular aspect or experience in your life, that’s okay. But that’s not a memoir. (See my article Is it Time to Write Your Memoir? for more about the transition from journaling to writing memoir.) If you are writing for your personal legacy or to leave a record of your life or specific experiences for your family, that’s okay too. But that’s not a memoir either.


People who fall into one of these categories rarely intend to publish their writings. “It’s just for me,” they say. Or “It’s something I want to leave for my family.” I applaud anyone who puts the time and effort into such an endeavor.


But a memoir—a real memoir—that you hope to publish must be more than this. If you hope to publish, I assume you hope to sell. I have been told, “I don’t care if it sells. I don’t care if anyone buys it.” That's your choice. But maybe—just maybe—if we focus the message, carefully detail your journey, and highlight your transcendence, this could be a story that helps others. In the way author Caroline Knapp used her memoir Drinking: A Love Story to describe her journey from alcoholism (and one alcohol-soaked bad choice after another) to recovery, sobriety, and taking control of her life, your memoir could potentially be a game changer for someone else.


Just Write—Good Advice?

Far be it from me to tell anyone that they should not follow the just write advice for memoir. Just write certainly makes the process feel less intimidating, less daunting to a new writer. Just write can kickstart a manuscript when the thought of knowing exactly where you’re going with the writing eludes you. But I wouldn’t be much of a writing coach if my coaching consisted of, “Just write. Don’t think, just write. Just write and see where it takes you. Here’s my bill.”


Go ahead. Just write. But know this: You must just write with the knowledge that you will definitely—100 percent—have to just rewrite extensively if you want to produce a book that people will read, enjoy, and recommend.



In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism, including how to place bulk orders. Also available at Amazon.com.



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Updated: Aug 19, 2022


A red rose bud beginning to open
A developmental edit lets your manuscript bloom

Way back in June 2018, I wrote a blog article about developmental edits. I have just read it for the first time since I published it and it’s held up well. In December 2021, I wrote an article for my blog defining five levels of editing: developmental, substantive, line, copy, and proofreading.


Even though I have defined a developmental edit in two other articles I’ve written, I have a few new insights I want to share.


What is a Developmental Edit?

Developmental edits are often what finished first-draft manuscripts need. Why? Because a DE is done to have another pair of eyes give your manuscript a big picture review. DEs are organizational and structural edits, since the editor will look at your entire manuscript to evaluate how effectively and thoroughly the material is organized and presented.


For nonfiction, a DE checks to see if the chapter arrangement is logical, the text has a cohesive flow, jargon is defined (or eliminated), and tone and word usage are appropriate to the purpose and audience.


For creative nonfiction, such as memoir, the DE looks at how well the writer has established a theme, how well the plot develops the theme, how well characters are presented, and whether the tone and pace (tempo) of the writing is right for the subject and audience.


What are the Benefits of a DE?

There are several reasons you should have an editor do a DE on your finished first draft:

  • Offer an objective point of view

  • Bring a beginner’s mind approach

  • Fill the experience gap

Let’s look at these three benefits.


Objectivity

I, too, am a writer. I know from my own experience that the more time and effort I put into a piece of writing, the less objective I am able to be about it. I either fall in love with my writing and grimace at the thought of changing a single word, or I hate everything I’ve written and want to delete the Word doc and throw the printout into the wastebasket!


The importance of objectivity cannot be overemphasized. I think it is almost impossible to be completely honest about the quality (or effectiveness) of our own writing. What we create—whether a blog article, essay, memoir, novel, or textbook—is like our baby. As an editor, I have found that critiquing a manuscript is like criticizing someone child—it can cause offense.


That is why it is imperative to keep an open mind when working with an editor during a DE.


Beginner’s Mind

Simply, beginner’s mind means adopting the mindset of a beginner.


It means you approach everything you write as if you are hearing it, thinking about it, or describing it for the first time—free of preconceptions, expectations, and judgments.


With nonfiction (self-help, how-to, educational, etc.) writing with a beginner’s mind forces you to present your material using these three old-school guidelines:


1. Known to unknown

2. General to specific

3. Simple to complex


I talked about these in my blog post Three Simple Rules to Clear Writing. The purpose of these rules is to create a piece of writing that builds your material by starting on familiar ground and slowly slipping in new or more complex ideas.


With creative nonfiction, such as memoir, a beginner’s mind forces you to realize that your reader does not know you or anything about you, your family, your life’s experiences, and so on; therefore, you must take the reader by the hand and gently ease them into every aspect of your journey.


Filling the Experience Gap

This is the most basic benefit of having a DE done on your manuscript—editors know stuff you don’t. Stuff about how to identify a theme and stick with it, how to identify the most appropriate audience for your theme, how to be clear and concise, and how to present your material in a way that will inform, entertain, teach, and support.


In a blog post from May 2020, Overwriting, the Death of Clarity, I quote English and Rhetoric Professor Richard Norquist: Overwriting is a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures.


These kinds of issues jump off the page at me. Fixing them are part and parcel of what I do for a living. Chances are excellent they are not what you concern yourself with on a daily basis. Hence, filling the experience gap.


The Benefits are Worth the Investment

Yes, I know, I'm an editor so, of course, I would tell you that the money you spend on editing is worth every penny. But honestly, it's true.


Think of writing with the goal of being published as a business. Be a professional throughout the process. Being in control means being responsible. Take each step in

the process seriously.




In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.





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plain white paper on clipboard, nothing written on paper
How to beat writer's block

In the worlds of writing and editing, the term writer’s block rears its ugly head as often as the dreaded show, don’t tell.


In the unlikely event you have never heard of writer’s block, it is the term that refers to anything that prevents you from making progress with your writing. You have become stuck—you’re either not writing at all or you’re writing, hating it, deleting it, and repeating the process.


In nonfiction, the writer might experience a block about how to introduce the subject, how much detail to go into, which points to include and which to exclude, and how to organize their material to be the most clear and useful.


The problem with trying to help someone overcome writer’s block is that there are a million circumstances that can cause it. Well, maybe not a million, but a lot. Here are just a few:


  • Timing (or “I have too many distractions or other obligations.”)

  • Fear (or “What if I really suck at this writing thing?”)

  • Perfectionism (or “I’m trying to write the perfect manuscript with my first draft.”)

  • The well is dry (or “I’m burned out and have no more ideas.”)

  • Lost the point (or “I’m second guessing myself about the purpose of my book.”)


I work mostly with memoir. Back in December 2020, I wrote a blog article titled “Don’t Get Mired Down in Your Memoir.” In it, I identified the most common reasons people get stuck while writing a memoir:

  1. The writers are creating book-length prose for the first time and have no formal training or career experience with extensive writing projects, so they are learning how to write as they go. And the struggle is taking time.

  2. The memoir is dealing with traumatic events in their lives, such as disease, abuse (physical and sexual), addiction, suicide attempts, and mental illness, causing the writer to unpack this baggage slowly and painfully.

  3. Other aspects of life are interfering with their writing: full-time jobs, children, school, or family issues such as caring for elderly parents.

  4. They have no support or are facing active resistance (including threats) from ex-partners, spouses, family members, or others who might appear in the memoir.

While these four points are specific to memoir writing, #1 and #3 pertain to any writer. Writing is hard (don’t let anyone tell you it’s not) and writing a full-length manuscript for the first time takes a gargantuan effort. And, even if you overcame writer’s block for a first book, you can slam up against that wall every time you tackle a new project.


Easy-peasy Fixes

Most articles about overcoming writer’s block offer what I consider simple, common-sense solutions, such as:

  • Take a walk

  • Take a nap

  • Drink water

  • Do yoga

  • Listen to soothing music/podcasts

  • Read an inspiring book

  • Write in your journal

  • Move your workspace

  • Fix up your workspace

  • Call a friend

  • Brew coffee (or down an energy drink, if that’s more your style)

  • Free write (choose a writing prompt and pour your heart into it until you feel satisfied with the results)

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these suggestions. They make perfect sense—get your heart pumping and your blood flowing, get your mind on a different topic for a little while, enjoy a caffeine pick-me-up, or gift yourself a new workspace and a new attitude. It’s all good. And any one of these might be all you need to bust through that writer’s block, get back on track, and start making progress again.


When a Walk Won’t Cut It

In some cases, writer’s block is profound—it’s deep-seated and all-encompassing, and, worst of all, the writer probably doesn’t know what’s causing it. They’re excited about what they’re writing. They have a clear vision. This project is on their bucket list and is a life-long dream come true. So what the heck is wrong? Sometimes, a writer doesn’t know the answer to this question. And, if I’m their writing coach, I’m unlikely to know either! But from my experience, I would guess it’s one of these:

  • The writer has lost confidence in herself; she doubts that her manuscript is good enough or important enough for her to keep going.

  • The writing process has proven to be just too exhausting to reach the goal line.

  • He has become unsure about what the point is in writing this book.

  • They reason they’d have a lot more time on their hands for other activities if they would just shelve this darn thing!


Problem Stacking

To help a writer break through, I have to put on my therapist cap and ask questions to get to the root of the problem. As a long-time instructor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I have used a problem-solving technique that looks at problem stacking. Briefly, problem stacking forces someone with a problem they’re wrestling with to look at whether one or more underlying problems are really the culprit. Here is an example, loosely based on a real incident:


A woman says, “My problem is, my adult daughter calls me twenty-five to thirty times each day. I can’t get anything done or have time to myself.” Upon questioning, the class learns that the mother has asked her daughter dozens of times to stop calling so often each day. Mom has pleaded and even demanded that her daughter stop this behavior, but it’s made no difference. So, the class points out that the problem isn’t really that the daughter calls too many times each day—it is that the mother has not set clear, personal boundaries and enforced them consistently. The class has drilled down one level to identify a different problem.


But the woman states that she has not been able to enforce boundaries because her husband, the daughter’s father, does not agree with those boundaries and he will not let his wife enforce them. The class sees that the woman’s husband is not backing her up and giving her the support she desperately needs. We’ve drilled down to another level.


This is a simple example of problem stacking: what the woman thought was the main problem—her daughter calls too often and she can’t get anything done or have down time—drills down to the daughter not respecting her mother’s rules and boundaries, which in turn drills down to learning that the woman’s husband does not have her back in enforcing those boundaries.

What’s Really Eating You?

This problem-solving technique, often used in business settings, can be applied to helping a writer overcome writer’s block. What someone might think the problem is behind their block might be a case of problem stacking. Feeling too tired to write might be a symptom of self-doubt. Not making any significant progress might be a symptom of perfectionism, fear of rejection, or fear of ridicule. If you are stuck, start with the easy-peasy actions. Nine times out of ten, they’ll do the trick. But if they don’t, let’s drill down.



In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.


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