“Just get it down on paper and then we’ll see what we can do with it,” advised the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins who edited Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins believed that the key to a quality book was revision. How could one disagree when one looks at the books his authors produced.
Until you have a draft of your manuscript of your memoir or family history your book is nothing more than an idea and a pile of research. But when the draft is finished you have something with which you can sharpen the ideas and polish the prose until you have a quality book.
The process of revising your draft is best accomplished in stages. Begin with the big picture. Look at the overall flow of your narrative. Is it coherent? You may find that some stories you’ve included need more detail to be complete. You may find that some anecdotes you’ve included, while interesting in themselves, may be digressions in the overall flow of your story. Your book will be better off without them. Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project told Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation "These are the decisions all memoirists have to make," she says. "What goes in; what stays out."
The majority of first drafts are linear narratives organized chronologically. But as you review your draft, you may find that you can tell your story more dramatically by breaking up the chronology into a non-linear narrative. Richard Gilbert describes his own experience on his blog Narrative. He wrote, “As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine.”
Once you are satisfied that you’ve settled on the most effective way to present your content, you can focus on sharpening your prose. There are many ways to revise on the sentence level. LuAnn Schindler recently describe on the Women on Writing Blog. She calls it the “Pointings System.” Says Schindler:
- Draw a straight line under any words or details that impress you as especially effective: strong verbs, memorable phrases, striking images.
- Draw a wavy line under any words or images that seem flat, stale, or vague. Also put the wavy line under words or phrases you consider unnecessary or repetitious.
- Look for pairs or groups of sentences you think should be combined. Put brackets [ ] around these sentences.
- - Look for sentences that are garbled, overloaded, or awkward. Put parentheses ( ) around these sentences. Mark any sentence that seems even slightly questionable; don't worry now about whether you're certain about your judgment. Point to anything that you had even the slightest hesitation understanding.
By systematically revising a draft of your memoir or family history you can make sure that your book is coherent, well focused and effective in telling the story you want to tell. If you haven’t finished your first draft yet recognize that it doesn’t need to be perfect, you’re going to revise it. Get that draft done so you can get started with the process of polishing it. And, I might add, this is a process where you might benefit from working with a professional editor.