Writing a memoir is definitely a challenge, as there’s a lot more to it than simply telling your stories one after another, or putting together a rundown of the facts and important people and places in your life.
A memoir isn’t just a recitation of events. At its best, it’s a glimpse into the inner you, at your thoughts and emotions, especially during a crucial time in your life. Obviously, writing it is no easy matter.
Here are eleven essential tips to ensure that the process of writing your memoir will be as smooth and productive possible.
Eleven Tips for Writing a Memoir
- Think theme
Begin by thinking carefully about your theme. The theme is your memoir’s through line, the central question, problem, issue, or situation that drives the story forward. A well-crafted theme turns a collection of random stories into a compelling memoir. For more on developing a theme, see “Memoir Ideas Are Everywhere.”
- Fit stories to theme
Mentally sort through your stories, selecting only those that truly fit your theme. Be willing to sacrifice stories. If a story doesn’t work with your theme, toss it aside. If it doesn’t help to build upon your central idea, it will bomb and damage your memoir. See “How To Write a Memoir: Getting Started.”
- Breathe life into your characters
Remember that while you know the people you’re writing about, your readers don’t. Find the actions, words, characteristics, habits, or other things that will make your characters come to life on the page. Otherwise, they’ll bring your story to a grinding halt every time they appear. For more, see “Bringing Your Memoir Characters to Life.”
- Emphasize feelings, not facts
There’s a temptation to pile on the facts when writing a memoir, to describe the people, places, and events it covers in minute detail.
And sometimes you do need to go to great lengths to describe someone or something in your memoir. But keep in mind that a memoir should focus on your thoughts, feelings, and responses to what is happening to you and around you at a specific time.
It’s much more important to open up and let the readers into your mind and heart than describe things, people, and events to the nth degree.
- Reveal, reveal, reveal!
Focus on your feelings and don’t hesitate to reveal them. Don’t hold back; the whole point of a memoir is to let the readers see how you struggled with your emotions and changed as a result.
- Follow your pen
Let your writing take you where it will, especially in the beginning. Yes, it’s a good idea to plan things out and work from an outline, but if you find yourself going down a path you had not considered, see where it takes you. It might be a better approach. If not, at least you’ve learned what doesn’t work.
- Always use your “writer’s voice”
All writing has voice—a tone, an attitude, and a level of authenticity—that’s created by word selection, tempo, arrangement, and more. The best voice for a memoir is always the authentic voice that emerges when all pretense is stripped away, when you let down your guard and allow the genuine, if imperfect, you shine through. This is known as the “writer’s voice.”
There are many other voices, including the “in-person voice,” “imagined voice,” “desired voice,” and “acquired voice,” but none of these will produce a work of art. For that, you must dig deep to find and use your authentic writer’s voice.
For more on this, see “How to Find Your Memoir Writer’s Voice.”
- Avoid the “and then I did” approach
Another common mistake made by memoirists is attempting to stuff in as many stories as possible.
Your stories are undoubtedly great, and people love to hear them. But when writing your memoir, you need to remember that all of your stories must serve your theme. Otherwise, they will turn your memoir into a litany of “first I did this, then I did that, then I did this, then I did that.”
We all know people who do this verbally, telling you every single detail of their most recent vacation, favorite childhood memories, how to cook a certain dish, and so on. Is it boring? Is it irrelevant? Do you want to escape as soon as you possibly can? This is how your readers will feel if you get wrapped up in the “and then I did” approach.
- Keep reader expectations in mind
Always keep in mind that the top things readers want from a memoir are theme, emotional engagement and entertainment.
- Make sure it’s a memoir, not an autobiography
People often use the words “memoir” and “autobiography” interchangeably, but there is actually quite a sharp distinction between these two genres.
An autobiography is a recreation of your life that attempts to mention all of its important people, places, dates, and events, from beginning to the present day.
A memoir, on the other hand, is look at the inner you, at your thoughts and emotions during a challenging, changing, or otherwise interesting portion of your life.
There is certainly some overlap between these two genres, but they are not same thing. Take some time to think about what you want to cover in your book, then decide whether it’s best presented as a memoir or an autobiography.
For more on this, see For more on this, see “Autobiography or Memoir?”
- The winning tip
The best tip of all for writing a memoir is simply write, write, and write some more. Don’t worry if you haven’t tracked down all the information you need, if you haven’t completely laid out your story, if you’re not sure you can do it, or if what you’re producing isn’t perfect.
Just keep writing. Most problems will eventually sort themselves out.
Many times, your theme will become sharper as you write, or a new and better theme will emerge. You may come to realize that a certain story doesn’t work as well as you thought it would and another one works better.
Think of the writing process as journeying down a long and winding pathway through your mind and memories. Enjoy the journey! It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about yourself, your development, and life in general. If that’s all you do, you will have accomplished something wonderful.
If you’d like help writing your memoir…
Contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the memoir ghostwriters. Use the contact form on this page to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.