If you’re brave enough to start writing your memoir first draft, I commend you! Staring down that blank page and putting something onto it is one of the most courageous things you can do (and the most magical). But if you’ve never written a manuscript before – short, or long – you might appreciate some dos and don’ts from my experience.

Before writing two published memoirs, I worked as a freelance journalist where I wrote thousands of articles for online and print outlets for over ten years. This taught me three vital things about writing the first draft of anything:

1: The quicker you have something to edit, re-write and polish, the better your work will be (ie. stop procrastinating so you can spend longer on the polishing than the agony first draft)
2: Back everything up!
3: An outline [even if it’s just bullet points] or a focus sentence will help you stick to the topic

Read on for more drafting tips and writing advice from someone who has conquered the blank page many thousands of times over…. Pay particular attention to what not to do!!

“I hate writing. I love having written.” Dorothy Parker

“Get it all down. Let it pour out of you and onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.”
Anne Lamott

Why is the first draft so hard?

The reason I commend you for attempting this first draft – especially if you’ve never written anything before, let alone a book – is because you’re going back to being a beginner. As adults, we’re not used to being terrible at something. You probably have your career, your expertise, and you’ve long-since found your excellence in those places. But creating something new demands that we do a terrible first draft. There truly is no other way! You don’t just compose a symphony in one fell swoop!
And – as Hemingway wrote – you’re going to have to bear that bad writing to get to the good stuff. That said, the quicker you get something very bad down, the sooner you will be able to redraft and craft and really become a better writer.

Technical tips for your first draft

Create a new folder on your computer (if you haven’t already) with the working title of your memoir. Try to start with at least a rough outline – even better if you have your synopsis, your focus sentence and your chapter outlines.

You’re going to start a new document called (gulp) FIRSTDRAFTWORKINGTITLE (replace WORKING TITLE with your actual working title).

Get into the habit of saving your work to Dropbox or whatever your chosen cloud-based software is, at the end of every writing session. Before I knew any better, I used to email my draft to myself, but now I just click and drag it over to Dropbox.

Some writers love the program Scrivener, others (me!) find it confusing. I would warn against purchasing any software that you will need to ‘learn’ – the resistant part of you will use that as an excuse to not write!
I’m happiest working with a simple word document. I write the word count at the beginning of my writing session down in my diary, and the word count at the end of the session. I keep track of this on a wall calendar if i’m working on something huge and new – it’s important to have a visual reminder of how far you’re going. Remember that with the first draft, your biggest aim is word count – not structure or beauty!

I configure all the style and paragraph settings later, but generally set it up to be 12 point, double-spaced, with page numbers down the bottom for quick reference. View it on screen in print layout for easy navigation.

Rituals and touchstones

Figure out what your little ‘touchstones’ are to get into the writing zone. For me, it’s making a pot of coffee, pottering about my kitchen a bit, lighting a candle and playing some classical music. For others, it’s a long run and a shower or a load of washing or a walk of the dog.

Do what works for you – but beware massive time-suck procrastination ‘touchstones’ – such as checking Facebook, twitter, making long phone calls, sending emails…. Etc etc. Phone calls are particularly time-sucky, because it can be hard to get back into your ‘head-zone’ after talking. It can all wait until later. Put your best energy into this drafting time. Focus is a precious, luxurious, powerful thing.

Productivity = creative power. I heard that on a podcast the other day, and i just love it. Do whatever you can to be as productive as possible – if that means cooking your meals in advance or turning off the wi-fi, do that.

Extra dos and donts:
  • Don’t use the Pages writing app for a large document like a book manuscript. I learnt this the hard way, losing about 30 000 words because the program isn’t designed for such large documents.
  • Do create a mood-board or a writing playlist on spotify if this helps you get into the zone. For me, I can’t listen to lyric-based music, it has to be classical or jazz. I know one author who creates a new playlist for each book she writes. Others need silence. Find your sweet spot and cater to it.
  • Do put some little touchstones to remind you why you are doing this around your writing space – a quote that inspires you, Henry Miller’s Writing commandments, a feeling, an image, an object, a photo of the dress you want to wear to your book launch (!) or poetry or favourite memoirs to remind you that you aren’t alone and keep you moving forward with inspiration and comfort.
  • Do be OK with being alone. Sometimes the enforced solo time of writing can be so challenging because we’re taught to be switched ‘on on on’ all the time and that we should be extroverted and always aware of what’s going on in the external world. When I’m really in the middle of a draft I’m half in this world and half in another. And that’s OK. I put vegemite in the freezer and my wallet in the bath. A part of me is not quite in this world because I’m grappling with a big story – which is really the creation of another world – and that’s why I have to set everything up to be OK in that regard (eg. Bills automatically paid, friends know when I’m not available etc).
  • Writing a book is building a world, and it takes a lot of energy! If you have a lot of other responsibilities, give yourself this time very early in the morning, so that you can have some time to ‘come back’ to the world before you start your ‘other’ day.
  • Don’t talk to anyone about what you’re writing in the beginning stages. By explaining yourself to others, you dilute the story and can find you get misinterpreted and possibly even hurtful comments. Keep it close to your chest while you’re working on this magical beginning stage.
  • Focus on word count only, for the first draft (not number of chapters, for example, or anything else). Be content to just see that word count go up.
  • Do make yourself feel safe. You may find that you need absolute silence or stillness while you’re working on the first draft of your memoir. Memoir is incredibly personal, and a book is a big task. I find that I can do freelance copywriting or short article assignments from a packed train, but to work on my memoir I’ve always needed to be at home with the door closed and in my own peaceful world, because sometimes what you’re digging up isn’t peaceful at all, and you need that background silence to focus and figure it out appropriately on the page.
  • Do keep a log in your diary or on a calendar and tick off every time you meet your word count goal. It can be really useful to look back at how long it actually takes you to write a certain amount of words, and motivating to see how your word count goes up week by week.
  • Don’t: Some things are unavoidable, but try not to do any of the following in the time that you’re writing your first draft: Move house, move country (!), have major surgery, start a high-stress new job, or commit to another huge life goal like a massive training regime.
  • Writing a book is enough. Focus on doing this one huge thing for now, and getting it finished. Reward your effort, not the quality of the output, for now.
  • Book yourself a non-negotiable reward!! This is crucial. You need to make that deadline feel real.
In Summary

If i can give you the most vital thing to remember, it’s that the first draft is supposed to be bad, and no-one needs to see this but you! Don’t share it with anyone, it’s magic and it’s yours and it will all change.

And remember: The first rule of magic is self-containment. This first draft time is precious – guard your magic, keep it contained!

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