How Writers Revise: Emi Nietfeld and Writing Real Life

Emi Nietfeld Acceptance

How Writers Revise: Emi Nietfeld and Writing Real Life

This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revision processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.

Author Emi Nietfeld’s essays have appeared in New York Times, Longreads, Vice, and Boulevard, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and noted in The Best American Essays 2021. Her memoir Acceptance was released to widespread critical and reader acclaim from Penguin Press in August.

But Emi didn’t set out to be a writer of nonfiction. When she first started writing, in high school, “I just wanted to be seen, and I wanted to have my internal life be recognized and validated, ideally with the Pulitzer prize, which I thought was pronounced the ‘Pew-litzer.’”

Emi didn’t exactly have a typical upbringing. Her parents divorced when she was 10 and her father came out as transgender. Her mother suffered from a hoarding disorder that rendered their home life increasingly unsafe. Emi developed an eating disorder, and her mom allowed her to be put on antipsychotics. At 14 Emi left her mother’s house, lived in a locked facility for “troubled teens” for a year, and then entered the foster care system.

“I was telling adults in my life, like, this is what’s going on at home, here are the problems. But no one would listen…. There were versions of the story that were easier to accept, like the version that my mom was telling or that doctors were telling. And so to me, writing was the way to tell my version of the story, and try to trick people into listening to truth that was harder to swallow.”

She started with keeping journals, and then participated in NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) multiple times in high school. “I felt like I really had to become a skilled writer to convince people to take my perspective seriously.”

“I felt like I really had to become a skilled writer to convince people to take my perspective seriously.”

–Emi Nietfeld

Accepted into Interlochen, a prestigious arts high school, for visual art, Emi soon switched to their rigorous creative writing program, which included three hours a day of writing instruction and regular critique by classmates.

“Can you imagine being workshopped by fellow teenagers?” she recalls. “You were just trying to turn in a draft that was decent, so that your peers wouldn’t judge you and be mean to you and socially ostracize you.”

She studied poetry, short story, and continued writing full-length novels in her NaNo experiences, but it was in a high school memoir class that Emi really found her passion and her voice.

“I found that that was really where I felt happiest and had the most success, frankly. And also, when I was applying to college, I felt like the process was so dehumanizing of having to take my life and package it into this one acceptable narrative for colleges that I really wanted to write about both what happened in high school and that process of applying to college.”

Driven to attend an Ivy League school, Emi was accepted into and attended Harvard—but she majored in computer science rather than writing, recalling a high school mentor who’d told her, “You cannot major in anything with French, English, or literature in the title.”

“I needed to have a job when I graduated,” Emi says. “I needed dental insurance.”

After graduating she was hired by Google, and shortly after that she began writing Acceptance, based on her unusual upbringing and her college-application experiences. “I thought about it all the time, like, even through university and after I graduated, so when I sat down, I was like, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to write.’”

Her early drafts were written as a nonchronological stream-of-consciousness completely from her memory of events, but as the story developed she began restructuring, based on principles of novel writing and storytelling—and making sure she had the facts straight.

But she grappled with many of the challenges common to memoir: worrying what people might think or say, other players in her life story asserting different versions of what Emi remembered, even fears of being sued.

“I tried to focus on being as factually accurate as possible,” Emi says. “Like I read over 10,000 emails that I wrote in high school.”

She also dug up old instant messages, tracked down medical records and billing statements from 15 years prior to verify certain details, changed names and identifying details when she felt it was best—and put it all into an extensive spreadsheet of facts, dates, and quotes.

“It was no stone left unturned. That was my research motto in this book.”

But beyond that, Emi came to terms with her intentions for the story—and her right to write it. She ultimately decided, “This is my perspective, right? The book is very much written from a singular point of view. And I am not trying to give anyone else’s perspective. It’s really like, ‘Okay, this is my story,’ and kind of acknowledging that some of the people in it will disagree.”

Some did—and some objected to her characterization of her story and even her writing it in the first place. But Emi persisted.

“Especially when you come from a background, as I think many memoirists do, where you feel like your reality is something that’s up for debate, or you feel like you have been silenced, it’s really hard to then be like, ‘Okay, I love you. You did so much for me. You hate this, and I’m still gonna do it.’”

Seven years and more than thirty drafts after starting the manuscript, she sold the completed story to an editor who had been interested in it and encouraging Emi for years, since Emi had first approached her with the idea when she was working at a literary agency.

“Personally, for me as a first-time memoirist, I don’t think I could have sold the book proposal, because I didn’t have a platform…. And I’m really glad that I had that time, because it would have been a completely different book. I think I wouldn’t be happy standing behind the message that I would have sold, like, six years ago.”

I asked Emi to talk about her extensive editing and revision process, including the particular challenges presented by the memoir format.

[You can see our full interview here, and find out more about Emi, her writing, and her book—and connect with her on socials—at And if you’d like to win a copy of the book, drop a note in the comments section below (U.S. only).]

How Emi Nietfeld Revises

How do you edit—meaning how do you initially evaluate your manuscript and assess what may need developing or changing?

For me, writing is all about the process of discovery — surfacing the tiny details that will probably be scrapped. Usually my first drafts don’t even make sense. My least favorite part of the whole process is reading the initial crap on the page; my eyes fog over and I’m blinded with shame. It takes me a couple of drafts to actually get comfortable with what I’ve written and feel I can evaluate it without wincing.

 How do you approach revisions—once you know the areas that need work, how do you go about doing it?

I was a software engineer at Google and Facebook and often the technical lead on projects, which meant I was responsible for scoping out ways to achieve a goal, making a plan, and parceling it out into manageable tasks. These were called “design documents” and I wrote hundreds of them.

Now, that’s what I do for revisions. I gather all the feedback, slice it into doable chunks, and then I make a very long checklist. This was especially useful when I was incorporating research, fact-checking, or legal changes.

The more I can separate the administrative/logical work of writing from the emotional part, the easier it is. I love the feeling of just going down the list, checking things off.

If I spend a full day at my desk, and I’m really productive, I know I can edit about 20 pages once through. (Don’t get jealous – I have to edit each chunk 5+ times.)

Structural stuff I do in Google Docs, since I’ve used it since I was thirteen. But I now switch to Microsoft Office to dig into line-level track changes. It’s when shit gets real!

When I get really stuck, I print pages out and mark them up. Often the act of printing is all I need. But when I annotate, I only mark up with a wide-tip highlighter. With a pen I get too in-the-weeds, so I need a big pen to focus on structure.

This printing turns an emotional problem into a physical one. Just fit the sheets of paper together, and you’re good!!

If it still doesn’t feel right, I type up the whole thing from scratch. If it’s really desperate, I rewrite it from memory. This allows the less useful parts to fall away without the pain of “cutting” them out.

What are some unconventional tricks you have?

I read a book that claimed we only truly learn after sleeping on something. I’m a true believer in this when it comes to writing. So many nights I go to bed defeated, and then wake up with the answer.

I’ve also learned to pay attention to boredom. If something is tedious to edit, or takes forever to get right, it usually doesn’t belong. I discovered this two years ago when I gave up coffee. Stimulants made work generally pleasurable, so I happily wrote circles around myself. Without caffeine, everything felt like more of a slog—which conversely sharpened my aesthetic sensibility.

What’s your favorite part of the process?

My favorite draft is the final-ish draft, what John McPhee calls “Draft #4.” How is it only #4??? For me it’s usually draft number 15! I stole this trick from him: I make a list of words that are coming up a lot in the piece and then add synonyms to the list. I then go through and reconsider each word that’s repeated, seeing if I can swap it for something else. This allows me to home in on my focus, make everything precise, and ensure an exciting reading experience.

Sometimes I do this step early in the process to help with structure: duplicate words often indicate duplicate thoughts. On the other hand, close synonyms or powerful words that I left out often indicate ground I should’ve covered but didn’t.

How do you process editorial feedback, and how do you decide what feels right for your story and what to disregard?

Writing Acceptance, I asked over 100 people for feedback: colleagues, in-laws, strangers I met in restaurants. I took all of the feedback seriously (except for one 50-page document listing how I could make the entire manuscript literally true without any euphemisms or hyperbole). I would never recommend that approach to other writers: I went down too many rabbit holes. But it did give me a really good sense of the market and what mattered to an average reader who wasn’t an editor or writer themselves.

That said, I’m a firm believer that, particularly for memoir, it’s crucial to have someone read the whole, unvarnished truth and be affirmed as a human. Only once I feel that acceptance can I go in and edit. And edit. And edit again.

15 Comments. Leave new

  • I love how your day job influences such a systematic editorial process! I also can relate to many aspects from your youth so I’m curious to read how you treated sensitive subjects. Congrats on getting the book out into the world!

    • Thank you so much, DH! How to handle sensitive subjects is a big question that luckily I had a lot of time to grapple with – in short I focused on implicating systems, instead of individuals, wherever possible, and on making it clear the story was from my perspective and no one else’s. I hope that helps! And I’ll try to address this question more in my newsletter:
      Hope you get a chance to read Acceptance and that you love it.

  • Fascinating process. I appreciate how much work went in this project.

  • Hi Emi,

    Thanks so much for sharing this behind-the-scenes look at your editing process. I’m looking forward to reading your book as I’ve heard it’s amazing. (And lol on ‘Pew-litzer.’ I thought the same!)

    All the best,

  • Suzanne S Byrne
    October 6, 2022 1:46 pm

    Wow, Emi. I never wanted to write what you wrote (trauma-filled youth) because, for me, it was so painful I didn’t want to be seen. That’s why I’ve written (draft # 6) it as a first-person-reality-based family that evolves into fantasy where protag. finds herself. The emotional truth keeps the family-turned-fantasy journey well-integrated.

    Thank you, Tiffany. I couldn’t stop watching and I will pass the interview on. I will also read the book with great interest. Suzanne

  • Looks like a great book written by an interesting woman. I’d love to win a copy

  • Marielena Zuniga
    October 6, 2022 5:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing your writing process, Emi. Would love to become more familiar with your work and win your book!

  • I can’t wait to read Acceptance!

  • Smart, concise revising! Love it! That’s a great trick to search frequently duplicated words to change them up with synonyms but also to reconsider their context. Thanks for sharing!

  • Ellen Fowler Hummel
    October 6, 2022 8:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing your revision process. I especially appreciate how breaking the process down to a checklist removed the emotion from the page and enabled you to see the editing more objectively. Really looking forward to reading your memoir!

  • What a journey! It makes “normal” upbringing sound like a picnic. Kudos to Emi for sticking to her guns.

  • Marian Schembari
    October 7, 2022 5:57 pm

    I already have my copy of this FABULOUS book, but I just wanted to chime in and say how *extremely relatable* I found this interview. From using your writing to be taken seriously, to asking too many people for feedback, I have been there. Congratulations Emi on all the wonderful reviews for this remarkable story!

  • Reading about your process was incredibly helpful as someone who is trying to write one herself. It can be incredibly discouraging, and hearing how long it has taken you, how many drafts, and how the ultimate product (through that time, thinking, editing) evolved to what it is today, gives me a lot of hope. I look forward to reading your memoir!

  • Emi, I loved this peek into your process. It’s so fascinating to see how other writers approach this step. I paid close attention to your warnings to yourself when something is tedious or takes too long to fix, meaning it probably doesn’t belong. This is a very helpful tip.

    Thank you Tiffany, for yet another great post on this topic!


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