Class Notes. The Most Asked Question in Memoir Writing: When is it Done?

THE MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTION in my class is “How do I know when it’s done?” In fact, a piece of writing never really dies, though you are done when a blog post, an essay, even a book has fulfilled the small task you assigned it. If you read your piece even minutes after publication, you’ll see things you would have changed.

This week, when we are done was the topic in my Master Class, the once-a-month class I teach for people writing books. It makes sense that this is the topic, since we’ve been together since September, and will wrap up in June, so right about now we’re moving toward tediting. (If this once-a-month class interests you, I’ll be teaching it again in the 2012-2013 academic year. You can see more here). So,  all eight people in the class are wrestling with the same thing: When is it done?

Your work is decidedly not done after a mere vomit draft and some rearrangement of that draft. In class, before reading a piece, the writer tells us what draft it is so we know what to look for to help the piece succeed, since as a piece gets closer to being finished, the editing should become more precise. For instance, while there is limited value in discussing the adjectives used in a vomit draft, in a later rewrite, it will be those very descriptors that can make—or break—the piece.

In the simplest sense, your piece is moving toward being done when you have stated and proved your argument. All non-fiction is an argument, even if that argument is as simple as “life is better if you garden.” Make the argument, and you’re moving well toward being finished. Specifically, you’ve moved into the period when you need to get murder on your mind and start editing.

While in my twenties, I quit my job at The New York Times to write my first book, a move made against the advice of pretty much everyone I knew. I was feeling pretty damn saucy until my first copy edit came back to me. There, in the margin of page 110, after an impassioned rendering of the death of my beloved father, the copyeditor had scrawled, coolly, “Already dead, page 86.”

Apparently, I was not done.


  1. Caroline Forsman says

    Related to this question of when one is done, I have trouble knowing when the polishing is done. Each time I look at a piece, there is some, however small, improvement to be made which results in having several versions out there.
    Speaking of versions of the same piece, abbreviating an existent essay for space requirements also has me wondering about which is the “real” piece.

  2. says

    Marion, resigning from a position at the NYT: something I was once thought would be my own dream job! Wow! You are so entertainingly honest about first book’s copyediting incident! Thank you! “Making the argument” is just the best ever guideline I have ever come across for knowing when the memoir is actually complete, at least before copyediting, right? Ha!

  3. says

    I wanted to do a memoir for years. Just as I have wondered about the lives of family ancestors, and not finding much of anything other than statistics, my hope was (is) to do my memoirs so that some future descendant would know more about me and my time on earth.
    I am now 88 years of age, have started the memoirs more than once, still want to get it done but not quite knowing what to do. I hope that I will find help in Roach’s book.

  4. Mary Hill says

    One exercise prompt has led me to write a memoir. The prompt was “write about the most interesting person you’ve ever met.” That person was my mother!

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