My memoir revision process

Since I’ve been on the topic of revision, I thought I’d share the revision process I followed while getting my memoir ready for publication.

I eagerly took on the task of editing and revising my memoir manuscript. I had spent many years editing and rewriting proposals to the U.S. Government, and I used much of this experience to revise my book. One of the first lessons I learned on that job was to plan before doing, and that was the first thing I did before embarking on my rounds of revisions. Here’s my process.

1. Create a revision plan. I created a revision plan based on my publisher’s and first reader’s notes. Once I buy-in from my publisher to this plan, I was ready to get to work.

2. Don’t edit as you write. Write, wait a while, then edit: Leave your work alone for as long a time as you can before sitting down to edit it. While I spent over two years querying agents and small presses, my manuscript laid dormant. So when I finally got my book contract, I read it front to back, chapter by chapter, with my revision plan in hand. I marked up a hard copy with a red pen. Also I made no electronic changes to any part of my manuscript until I completed this first round of edits. And surprise, surprise, I found lots of things to edit, including typos, awkward sentences, repetition, and inconsistencies. Unbelievable! After all the times I had gone over it! During this first edit pass, I also looked for places to insert the new material necessary to my story and where I needed to update material that was clearly out of date.

3. Post a hard copy of your book on storyboards. I set up foam storyboards along the walls of the long hall next to my office and pinned up a printed copy of each chapter as I electronically finished incorporating my first round of edits. Storyboarding allowed me see the book all at once and better spot redundancies and inconsistencies and places that needed cutting, moving, and expanding. I also saw where each chapter best belonged. I highlighted my problem-child text in yellow, so I could see where I needed to go back and revise again.

My storyboards

4. Have others review your work. After I completed the first round of edits and reworked the yellow-highlighted portions, I gave an electronic copy of the book to three willing writer friends. One person did a line-by-line edit and he too, found punctuation and sentence structure problems. Another friend looked at the content for repetition, inconsistencies, and writing accuracy. And the person who originally helped me create my revision plan read it again for ways to bestorganize the book. She made suggestions about where to move things around and which chapters could be eliminated or combined.

5. Take your reviewer’s suggestions as just that. I made sure I was still in control of my book. I decided whether to take my editor’s notes or not. I was the person with the last red pen. Even my publisher said,“I know you are working very hard on the final draft of your book, and I like that you are keeping in mind that it is YOUR book, YOUR story, and YOUR voice. Others can only offer advice. Only you can write this book.”
So I reviewed each comment, fixed what I thought relevant, and filed the rest away.

6. Create a schedule with real milestones and stick to it. Because I was reliant on other people’s inputs, I needed a schedule with hard and fast deadlines for them, and me, and in keeping with my publisher’s schedule. I made it tight. I gave myself five months to complete everything, including incorporating my revisions and reviewer’s comments; merging the finished chapters into one document; gathering photos for the cover and body of the book; getting permissions to use quotes from other authors, and writing dust jacket and book cover copy.

7. Keep going over your manuscript until you’re satisfied with it. I kept asking myself, what does finished really mean? Even after incorporating the relevant review comments I realized I still needed to make a few little changes, add a few little things, and make a few more edits. In all I must have gone over each of the manuscript chapters at least four (some many more) times during my entire revision process. I knew I was really done when I stopped thinking what I could to the book, when I didn’t have any more changes or adds or deletes or reorganization ideas left in me, when my mind stopped living and breathing the book every waking moment of every day, and when I was comfortable letting it go.

This piece was originally published at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents website on May 20, 2011


  1. I like your description of your revision process. Sounds similar to mine though it never occurred to me to storyboard a revision.I like the revision process because it’s also an opportunity to layer and enrich the story.

    Unfortunately,it seems like many indie authors jump over this process or don’t take the time for more than a superficial revision, and it shows in the end product.

  2. Dear Penelope,
    You are so right. As my friend, Marla Miller says, premature publication by indie authors makes the rest of us – who have done this hard work – look bad.

    It took me six months to follow the process suggested here to get my memoir ready for my publisher. Now that I’ve taken the novel revision workshop, I feel I’ll have to work at least a year to revise my novel. But it will be worth it in the end.

  3. I think that’s a really important point to set the manuscript aside for awhile. You just get too close to it (and too tired of it) and can’t see objectively anymore. Forgetting about it awhile lets you come back with fresh eyes.

    Great points here, and the storyboard idea is wonderful if you’ve got wall space, love the photo!

  4. Thank you Moon, I appreciate your coming by here. Setting the manuscript aside for awhile helps you review it with fresh new eyes – always a benefit when revising.

    Hope you get some wall space for your storyboards. They are also a great help.

  5. I enjoyed the storyboard concept so you can see the entire manuscript at once. I found you can get “tunnel vision” on portions of your manuscript when you are working sections. The storyboard serves as a roadmap of sorts… thank you for sharing

  6. Thanks, Mangus. I learned and practiced the storyboard process when I worked on proposals in the aerospace business. It’s habit for me, but a good and useful one.

  7. Madeline Sharples says:

    Thank you Sherrey for resonating with my words about revision. They apply right now as I’m working with my first round of beta readers and know I’ll be revising yet again. Good luck with your manuscript.


  1. […] who blogs at Choices. A little less than a year ago Madeline posted a blog on the topic of “My Memoir Revision Process,” and as soon as I read it, I clipped it into my Evernote files under “revision […]

  2. […] Then two years and 68 queries later I finally had a book contract after I agreed to more revising and editing. My new publisher asked me to revise the second half of the book completely. That took another six months. To accomplish that I relied on revision techniques I had earned while working on proposals and a group of readers, editors, and reviewers who worked with me until my book was published. I’ve written a lot of blog posts on revision. The one on my revision process is here. […]

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