Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 6 of 12: The William Zinsser Model

William Zinsser
6. Freewrite without editing or censoring

It’s easy to get bogged down in too many details when writing the first draft of your lifestory.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “My life is about the details.”

Yes, but . . . (There is always a but, right? Some purists declare everything before but is erased in the mind of the reader or hearer. But, that's not today’s topic.)

Yes, but notice these words in the opening statement: bogged down, too many details, first draft.

Writing and editing are different processes. I’ll have more on editing in a later tip. When writing your lifestory you should have a first draft you clean up by adding, deleting, rearranging, clarifying, and re-purposing days or weeks after you wrote it. If you stop to do those actions while writing it you may never have a draft to finish.

Bozo and Cheerio Syndrome
Suppose you are writing about your twelfth birthday party at your grandparents’ house. Your grandparents hired Bozo the clown and his dog Cheerio. You strike through twelfth; it was your eleventh birthday. You strike through grandparents; it was your uncle and aunt. Oh, and the clown’s name was Cheerio and his dog was Bozo. You trash the whole thing until you can get it exactly right. You could go on like that and never write the story.

It’s okay to make your first draft ugly. This is the hardest part of writing for me. I always want to do the Bozo/Cheerio routine, even though I know I shouldn’t. Many writing gurus say write it and worry about fixing it later.

Also in your freewriting don’t try to censor yourself. Eliminate from your thoughts ideas such as this is not an interesting story, I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, my family remembers it differently, this is too personal, I’m not a writer (see last week’s post on this one). Go ahead and write what you are feeling and decide later whether to include it or modify it. Open your thoughts to all possibilities.

William Zinsser Model
Ninety year old William Zinsser has had a distinguished career as columnist, university professor, freelance writer, and author of eighteen books including two on memoirs. In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th Anniversary Edition, he suggests this model for writing your memoir:
  1. Write about one event today; could be in longhand, could be on the computer, could be one page or several pages. Just one event. “Don’t be impatient to write your ‘memoir’—the one you had in mind before you began,” he says. 
  2. Tomorrow, write about another event. And the next day and the next until you have written thirty or sixty or ninety stories or whatever fits your purpose. Do not edit or arrange the stories as you write. 
  3. When you have written all you want, lay all of the stories onto the floor and arrange them in the order you prefer. Rewrite to your satisfaction.
Voilà, you wrote your memoir.

Photo courtesy William Zinsser

How have you overcome your urge to edit and censor as you write?


  1. Wayne: When I wrote my first memoir, "Digging Deep," I started by outlining every event I could remember that related to the part of my life I wanted to write about. Then I searched for a theme. Then I went back and deleted every event that was unrelated to the theme. Finally, I started writing. Of course, there were many revisions after I finished the first draft. But this method worked well for me, and I used it to write my second memoir, "Eat, Walk, Write," and my third (still in process) "Retirement: a Memoir and Guide."

    Boyd Lemon-Author of “Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany,” "Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages," the author’s journey to understand his role in the destruction of his three marriages and “Unexpected Love and Other Stories. Information, reviews and excerpts:
    Travel blog:
    Retirement blog:

  2. Excellent technique, Boyd. In Lifewriters Forum, where you and I are members, you have told how painful it was to write your first memoir. I admire you for seeing through to the finish a difficult job.

  3. I love this, Wayne. If people would remember to first 'tell the story' then worry about what needs fixed. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Right on, Angela. And they would finish their projects sooner.

  5. Really enjoyed this post, because I found myself in it. I am the perfectionist who feels every detail must be just so before I can write on. And I'm working hard to freewrite, having just begun reading Mr. Zinsser's book. I hear this all the time from most writers I interact with, and I know I'll never finish if I don't practice what is being said here. I do like the idea of writing one story/topic a day until you have so many. I'm working on that just as soon as I post this!

  6. Glad it was helpful, Sherrey. We're in the same boat. Like you, I have to work at it all the time.