Are you wondering how to write a memoir? This guide explains how aspiring memoir writers can write about their own life stories for a book.
I spent the lockdown of 2020 writing a memoir about my experience of becoming a father unexpectedly in my early twenties. It was a challenging creative project that took longer than I imagined and was immensely rewarding. It was also fun and a new type of writing I still needed to explore more.
After taking several courses, reading books on the topic, and speaking to a coach, I learned that while everyone has a story, only a few take it and turn it into a memoir. That’s because this type of honest writing isn’t like writing genre fiction or non-fiction. It requires a commitment to sharing personal truths that interest readers.
Writing a book about your life is more challenging than you might think, but it’s doable and worthwhile. If you’re ready to give it a go for yourself, check out this book writing guide series, where I explain how to start writing your first memoir step-by-step.
- What is Memoir?
- What Are the Main Elements of a Memoir?
- How Long Should a Memoir Be?
- Step 1: Decide Why You’re Writing A Memoir
- Step 2: Choose a Focus
- Step 3: Craft a Memoir Outline
- Step 4: Plan Your Memoir’s Key Acts
- Step 5: Set a Daily Word Count
- Step 6: Manage Your Time
- Step 7: Commission Your Editor
- Step 8: Pick the Right Opening
- Step 9: Highlight Your Memoir’s Turning Points
- Step 10: Write With Emotion
- Step 11: Be Honest
- Step 12: Write For Your Ideal Reader
- Step 13: Employ the Devices Of Fiction Writers
- Step 14: Let Your First Draft Sit
- Step 15: Revise Your Memoir
- Step 16: Hire a Proofreader For Your Memoir
- Step 17: Publish Your Memoir
- Examples Of Memoir Writers
- The Final Word on How to Write a Memoir
What is Memoir?
Memoir is sometimes confused with autobiography, but they are not the same. Memoirs delve deep into a single topic or concept from an author’s life. In a memoir, an author tells personal stories that relate to each other and a theme that underpins the book, often conveying a message or worldview.
Memoirs often include themes such as alcoholism, love affairs, starting a business, hobbies, and interests. Anyone can write a memoir at any point in their lives. Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: a Love Story is a famous example of a memoir. It covers her twenty-year battle with this disease rather than her entire life or career.
On the other hand, an autobiography can be a chronology or narrative of nearly the entirety of someone’s life. This style of writing recounts where the subject was born, grew up, and went to school, their personal life, career, friends, and relationships. If autobiography casts a wide net, then memoir casts a deep one. Usually, an author only writes an autobiography later in life or if they’ve lived a particularly remarkable life to date, for example, a celebrity or politician. Barrack Obama’s A Promised Land is an example of an autobiography from a memorable public figure.
From the moment readers open your memoir to when they read the last paragraph, your reader should feel engaged and inspired by your writing. But memoir writing isn’t simply journaling or writing about your holidays or family. It takes a plan, purpose, and commitment.
What Are the Main Elements of a Memoir?
A memoir tells a true and compelling story from the first-person point of view, often highlighting one particular aspect of the memoir writer’s life story. The main elements are as follows:
- A single theme or controlling idea readers can relate to
- Deep and honest personal stories from the author’s own life, usually told over three acts
- Dramatic moments, conflict, and triumphs
- A moment when the author felt like all was lost
- A key turning point that often involves the help of others
- A personal change
- Lessons, insights, and takeaways for the readers, either directly or indirectly
Anyone can write a memoir; all you need to do is pick a topic or a theme that’s interesting to readers and that you can write about at length. Your job is to tell honest personal stories that relate to a single theme or topic. Here are the steps involved:
How Long Should a Memoir Be?
A successful memoir averages sixty thousand words long. However, an ideal word count depends on the subject matter and topic. Caroline Knapp’s book Drinking: a Love Story is 304 pages long and clocks in at approximately seventy thousand words. David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is closer to 400 pages and clocks in at under one hundred thousand words. If you’re prepared to write that much, here are the steps involved.
Step 1: Decide Why You’re Writing A Memoir
Before you begin writing a memoir, ask yourself why you are writing one in the first place. It may take you months or even a year to reach the end and publish your work. That’s a long time to commit to a creative project, which is why setting writing goals is so important.
Regardless, refine a specific reason for writing that you can tap into and guide your planning even when you lose motivation or interest during difficult parts. It’s a good idea to come up with five to seven reasons explaining why you want to write a memoir and write these down near where you work. Common reasons for writing one include:
- Sharing a personal story or message to help others
- Engaging in a fun, creative project
- Earning money from book sales
- Connecting with readers
- Building a personal brand as it relates to the topic of your memoir
- Exploring an event from your personal life
- As a form of writing practice
- To try a new book genre
- As a break from writing fiction
Step 2: Choose a Focus
Many new memoirists mistakenly assume a memoir is an autobiography. While similar, the two types of books differ in focus and execution. A memoir doesn’t span life but focuses on one moment or experience.
Choose a focus or theme for your memoir to guide your writing and keep you focused on the end goal. It’s best to go deep into a single topic, theme, or concept from your personal life that readers will be interested in learning more about.
Caroline Knapp focused on her battle with alcoholism in her memoir. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote about his love for long-distance running and how it fuels his creativity. In the Liar’s Club, Mary Karr writes about growing up in a dysfunctional but loving family in Texas in the 1960s.
For help finding your focus, consider free writing or journaling about topics of interest from your personal life. Write without censoring yourself about personal stories that relate to a single big idea or theme.
You can use this list of memoir writing prompts to get started or spend a few hours asking yourself these questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- Who or what is the theme of my book?
- What is the core value underpinning my book?
- How is my book different from everything else that’s out there?
Step 3: Craft a Memoir Outline
Open up a new document, and you will feel surprised by how challenging it is to write an outline of your own life story without a clear plan. Before writing the first draft, craft an outline of the entire book. Then, create individual outlines chapter-by-chapter. Finally, outline key scenes for each chapter. This outline will help you move past writer’s block and start writing.
A good bullet-point outline covers each scene, chapter, and book’s key points. It enables a memoirist to move around story elements and sections without spending too much time line-editing.
It can also help memoirists visualize the structure and see the scenes to cut or expand on. Spend a few days or even weeks on this step. Live with your outline for a while, and give the structure of your book time to breathe.
To create one, you can use a whiteboard, a mind map, or index cards. I used dedicated software to create an outline for my memoir. For help with these tools, read our guide to the best outlining software.
Step 4: Plan Your Memoir’s Key Acts
Ideally, a good memoir follows a three-act structure. Act One set up the memoir. Here, a memoirist explains what’s at stake and why. They may open this act with a dramatic scene or story from their life.
Act Two is the body of a good memoir. Here, the memoirist describes what they tried or experienced. They detail their trials, tribulations, and setbacks. Regarding word count, act two forms 50-60 percent of the book. It’s the meat of the story.
Act Three draws the memoir’s key stories and theme to a close for readers. Here, the memoirist explains what worked, what didn’t, and how their journey or quest changed them for better or worse.
For example, let’s say a memoir is sixty-thousand words long. Approximately thirty-five to forty thousand words should comprise Act Two, while the other twenty to twenty-five thousand words will comprise Act One and Three.
Step 5: Set a Daily Word Count
Writing sixty thousand-plus words for a memoir sounds like a lot of work… and it is! So best break this down into smaller milestones that you can tick off one by one.
Let’s say that book comprises 27 chapters, an introduction, and an afterword. (I based these figures on how Caroline Knapp and others structured their best-selling memoirs). That equates to approximately 2,200 words per chapter.
Now, you can set a goal of writing five-hundred words a day. That should translate into one to two chapters a week. More prolific memoirists can set bigger daily writing goals, whereas those balancing writing with a job or family life can figure out what they need to do each morning or evening.
Step 6: Manage Your Time
If you’re a first-time memoir author or never have self-published, you undoubtedly juggle writing one with obligations to your family or a job. So pick a time you’ll write each day, block-book it on your calendar, and try your best to stick to it.
Saying no to other opportunities and initiatives that might divert your attention from your memoir is key. The journey from page one to the end is arduous and occasionally lonely, but it’s worthwhile.
Step 7: Commission Your Editor
Many editors have a queue of work lined up, and it can take them a few weeks, if not months, to find space to review a new manuscript. Once you’ve crafted an outline, it’s a good idea to commission an editor sooner rather than later.
They can provide feedback on the key message or controlling idea inside your memoir before you spend hours writing it. You can send them early chapter drafts for feedback as you write them rather than all at once. Even if they can’t take you on it, you’ll learn how much an editor will cost. That way, you can budget and plan accordingly.
Step 8: Pick the Right Opening
How you open a memoir is critical. It is your one chance to hook your reader and make them want to keep reading. Sometimes people start with a funny story. Even if your overall theme is darker, leading with humor helps grab the reader’s attention.
Leading with a dramatic moment can help, too, especially if that moment is the main focus of your memoir. You don’t need all the details in the opening, and you can revisit the moment later in the book, but this can be a good place to start.
With your outline, you can make some decisions about where you will start. Not all memoirists write about their entire life. They may start with high school, college, or another clear starting point where the main idea of their life story happens.
If you get stuck, consider writing the opening scenes of your memoir last. Once the rest of your story is on paper, you’ll have a clearer idea of a dramatic moment to open with.
Step 9: Highlight Your Memoir’s Turning Points
What makes a memoir memorable is not the retelling of an amazing story. Instead, it is the way the writer shows how the most challenging parts of a life story become turning points that transform tragedy into triumph.
As you write, highlight those turning points and what you learned. This will make your memoir engaging and insightful. Try:
- Writing about what worked and what didn’t
- Explaining the key challenges you faced and how you overcame then
- How others helped you
- A moment when you felt like all was lost
Step 10: Write With Emotion
As you write, ensure you aren’t just listing autobiographical facts about your life. Use your writing to evoke emotion in the reader, keeping emotive language carefully spread throughout the piece.
Does the setting or time period play a role in the story? If so, make sure you include information about that. Do details about your job, family, or backstory make sense to include? Then add them. These details flesh out a story and make it more interesting and vivid in readers’ eyes.
It’s challenging to invoke emotions in readers, which is why stories, details, and personal anecdotes are key. If you keep a journal, consider going back through old entries and turning some of these into relevant scenes for your memoir. If you don’t, consider interviewing people or subjects for your memoir. You could also try free writing about these experiences.
If you need help with the specifics of what tools and apps to use, check out our guide to the Best Memoir Writing Software.
Step 11: Be Honest
You may feel tempted to make your life experience more colorful to create a compelling story, but avoid this trap. While ensuring your experiences are as engaging as possible, veer towards the truth.
Remember that the story is the truth from your point of view, and a family member or friend who knew you at the time may have a different point of view. It is fine to write about real-life events from your viewpoint as long as you are not knowingly untruthful.
It’s also understandable if your memory of an event from years ago is unreliable. If it helps, speak to others who were there with you and ask them for their accounts, an approach David Carr took for his recovery memoir The Night of the Gun.
You can also use the internet to supplement an event with factual context and details that add credibility. Some memoirists include a disclaimer at the start of the book saying their memoir captures the intent or emotion of what happened and isn’t meant as a factual record or a piece of journalism.
Step 12: Write For Your Ideal Reader
In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt writes about a challenging childhood, yet he keeps his reader in mind and avoids falling into the trap of talking like a victim. His narrative is compelling for readers as a result.
Many first-time memoirists find writing one therapeutic, but your reader should come first. Many new memoirists make the writing mistake of letting early drafts become a type of diary or journal, a lesson I learned from my memoir editor.
Cut or remove anything that doesn’t drive the momentum of the memoir forward. All stories and anecdotes should relate to the memoir’s key theme or topic. Don’t include them simply because they’re fun to write about. They’ll weigh the book down.
If you struggle with this step, either show early chapters to your editor or enlist the help of beta readers so that you can assess what to expand on versus cut.
Step 13: Employ the Devices Of Fiction Writers
Even though a memoir is a non-fiction book, you should try to think like a fiction writer. The main character, which in this case is you, will walk through the story structure.
It would be best if you had a plot, turning points, a setting, and character development. Like any good fiction writer, include scenes, dialogue, character descriptions, and more. These literary devices should be relevant to your memoir’s theme and not included for the sake of it.
In short, every scene in your memoir should employ at least one of the five senses, dialogue, and character descriptions. Use scenes and stories to show rather than tell readers what happened to you and why it matters.
Step 14: Let Your First Draft Sit
Set aside your first draft for a few weeks so that you forget about it. Then, print a draft of your memoir, sit down with a cup of coffee or tea, and read it in one or two sessions.
You’ll notice overlooked issues and identify the memoir’s advantages and shortcomings more easily after a break like this. With a red pen, underline and highlight the areas to revise.
Consider adding or expanding on concepts and changing specific phrases and sentences. Don’t alter them right now! Use a pen to make a mark on your document and carry on reading. Keep going even if your prose falls short, too. Remember, Ernest Hemingway, said, “First drafts are shit.”
For some inspiration, check out our list of first-draft examples.
Step 15: Revise Your Memoir
Before you’re satisfied with your memoir draft, you may go through the writing, reviewing, editing, and rewriting process multiple times. Take it one line, paragraph, and chapter at a time. Analyzing books and other memoirs will help you hone your craft too. As you revise, consider these questions:
- Do the memoir’s key scenes engage readers?
- How can I make my stories more compelling?
- How can I add a fresh perspective to the book’s universal theme?
- Does each page of my writing refer to at least one of the five senses?
- Which section of this chapter is the weakest? Is it cuttable?
- Is my writing free of as many extraneous adverbs and adjectives as possible?
- Have I eliminated all cliches?
If you are having trouble, go back to your original question. Why are you telling your memoir? What is in your life that is worth telling? When you answer this, you will know your story’s boundaries.
Step 16: Hire a Proofreader For Your Memoir
You could also try proofreading, although I don’t suggest it. It takes time, and since you’re familiar with the draft, you’ll undoubtedly miss some errors.
Alternatively, hire a proofreader or ask family and friends to review chapters. Depending on how long your work is, hiring a proofreader will set you back several hundred dollars. However, it shouldn’t cost you anything to share chapters of your book with keen-eyed family and friends.
Step 17: Publish Your Memoir
For creating a final file for publishing, use either Scrivener or Vellum. Both programs have a slight learning curve, but it’s time well spent. For more on the former, read our Scrivener review. Alternatively, you may spend a few hundred dollars hiring a book designer on UpWork.
Additionally, employ a book cover designer. Reedsy and 99 Designs are both excellent. Expect to pay between five hundred and a thousand dollars for a good book cover. Uploading your e-book and cover to Amazon and other online booksellers like Kobo or Draft2Digital is easy once you have a formatted file and cover. For more on these costs, read our guide explaining the costs of self-publishing.
Include a book review to draw in readers who drive by and peruse your summary and cover. A positive book review from a well-known author or many readers will increase your book’s sales. Consider becoming a member of the Author Marketing Club. You could also give readers complimentary review copies of your work if you have an email list or blog.
Examples Of Memoir Writers
Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden is an example of a classic memoir. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a more modern memoir example. David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: a Love Story are all popular with memoir readers. Just Kids by Patti Smith is another good read for memoir fans. For more, check out our guide to the best memoir writers.
The Final Word on How to Write a Memoir
Your memoir allows you to dig deep into your story and emotions. It’s a true story about your life that also speaks to a universal truth. With careful planning, you can write a memoir that inspires others and will sell well. Who knows? With the proper outline and a compelling story, you might be the next memoir writer to sell a million copies on Amazon!
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