Updated: May 17
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:
What is the personal transformation story you want to share in this memoir?
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.