The First Draft

Today’s Guest Post is courtesy of Linda Gartz.

First drafts are daunting, but the two most important aspects of writing your first draft are a) getting started b) keeping at it. So first off, set yourself a writing schedule. There are hundreds of posts out there (including on this site) about carving out time to write. If you can promise yourself to meet some sort of schedule and stick to it, you will see progress.

You can approach the first draft in a number of ways, depending upon which one suits your temperament. Whichever you choose, it will be critical to organize your research (Please refer to Lynn Palermo’s excellent posts on the subject of getting organized.) The next step is to break your project into manageable chunks. Get your draft done one story at a time. Here are some organizing principles for the first draft. Pick one, or a combination, that works for you:

Create an outline

            Make your outline detailed, or just an overview—whichever will allow you to move forward most easily. I found an outline essential to give me direction. By looking at the bullet points in the outline as an overview of the whole story — and where it was headed, I was able to determine which research I needed to have at hand as I wrote.  The outline also gave me a kind of “birds-eye-view” of the whole, allowing me to determine if all the stories were truly worthy of inclusion. I made my first outline chronological (I’ve done many along the way), but later moved some events around. I could also see which incident could serve as a dramatic opening for the book.

You may start before you know exactly what the story is about.

We’re often urged to be able to answer: “What is this story about?” By the time you’re done, that’s a critical question that should be answered. I had a general idea about my family story, but found that the writing itself, and choosing which stories I wanted to tell, helped me discover what the story was about. In future drafts you can trim and edit those parts that don’t fit the overall theme you choose.

Write unself-consciously

In the first draft, don’t worry about perfect sentence structure, grammar, or punctuation. Just get the story down.

Add footnotes to your first draft

Have the research for whichever part you writing at hand so that you can add footnotes or endnotes as you go along, especially if you want your children (or any readers) to know the provenance of the facts you include. If you add the documentation as you’re using it, you won’t have to dig for it later.

Use your own voice

            Write in your own voice, and don’t try to make it too “writerly.” Keep your sentences simple. You can always go back later to vary rhythm, sentence and paragraph lengths, tweak the flow, and create sensual descriptions that will make your narrative sing. When you move on to future drafts, and have a better idea of what you will keep and what will go, you can spend more time on sections that won’t end up in the trash.

The vivid personal event approach

            If you’re still flummoxed by where to begin, one way to start is by writing about vivid and significant events from your memory. This is William Zinsser’s suggested approach to memoir, but it can help with your family history as well. He advises that you write a few pages each day about one vivid memory. Each story should have a beginning, middle and end. Save all the stories all in a folder. After several months, take them out and see what patterns emerge; what’s interesting to you and what’s not. This idea may not feed the “grand plan” of a family saga, but when you see what memories resonated in your life, it may suggest to you which aspects of your family history you’d like to focus on in your book. (Read more at “How to Write a Memoir” 

You can write as you research

When I first began thinking about writing my family history, I was overwhelmed by my resources:  twenty-five bankers’ boxes of family letters, diaries, documents, artifacts, and photos that span the twentieth century—plus my own research from earlier ancestors. With this vast amount of primary documentation, I could fill several volumes of family history — but who would want to read all that?

I started by reading and taking notes on the information in the letters and diaries, creating spreadsheets, organized by subjects addressed in those records. While the information was fresh in my mind, I wrote the story that I discovered as I finished one section of research.

For example, I have about 250 World War II letters to and from my uncle. After reading and organizing quotes, I created the story of what I had discovered and what the events of that era meant to my family. Now I realize that story (which I love) doesn’t feed the theme of my book and will cut most of it, but I’m still glad I wrote it. It helped me make sense of a critical period in my family’s life.

I was able to rewrite the World War II story to stand alone, entered it into a genealogy competition, and was awarded third place. Those original chapters will be part of my family archives for future generations to read, even if the details aren’t in the final book. (As an aside, I’m on the third draft of my book, ruthlessly editing out unnecessary stories that don’t contribute to the main theme).

Here’s a summary of how I produced a first draft:

  1. I recorded anecdotes I could recall that held special meaning to me.
  2. I completed my research — which had information outside my memory.
  3. For those events based solely on research, I tried to imagine the scene. I have Mom’s diary entries of meeting Dad at a dance, but she didn’t describe what she wore. Knowing my mom’s flair for style, I wrote: “I can just see her, wearing a fashionable form-fitting dress that showed off her fine legs and shapely hips.” So it’s clear I’m “imagining” this — but it’s true to her style.
  4. I added details and reflection.
  5. I focused on one story at a time.
  6. I worked to create an arc in the story, and within each chapter: what was the action; what conflict arose from the action; how was it resolved (or not).
  7. I wrote toward a satisfying ending.
  8. Revisions!

Whichever approach you choose, I urge you to start and keep at it. Even if you won’t have time to rewrite over and over, just get that first draft down on paper. Maybe that will be it. But if you want to create a more polished family history, it’s easier to do so once you have something to work with, rather than staring at a blank sheet of paper.

Best of Luck!

New PictureLinda Gartz is an author and award-winning television documentary producer and writer. She’s been digging through more than a century of family letters, diaries, and artifacts, and has shared discoveries on her blog, Family Archaeologist, which can be found at her website, Her second blog, Letters of a World War II Airman, shares original letters to and from her uncle, Frank Ebner Gartz, from 1943-1945, tracing the course of WWII, life on the home front, and the evolution of a neighborhood kid into seasoned airman. Letters are posted on or near the 70th anniversary of the date they were written. You can find the earliest letters on her website, but now all are posted at ChicagoNow, a compendium of Chicago bloggers on wide-ranging topics.

 She’s working on a memoir/family history of growing up in her family’s sprawling rooming house on Chicago’s West Side and the impact of wacky tenants, a psychotic grandmother, her traveling Dad’s long absences, and the racial upheavals of the 1960s on her parents’ love and livelihood. 

 Her prose has been published in national and local magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, including Heartlands––A Magazine of Midwest Life and ArtThe Chicago Tribune’s Perspective (cover essay), MotorHome Magazine (travel), Bird Watcher’s Digest, ChicagoLand Gardening, The Evanston Review, the Evanston RoundTable, and The Austin Weekly News. Online essays have appeared on Persimmon Tree, Rose and Thorn Online Journal, and Extracts: Daily Dose of Lit.



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