Everyone has a unique story because no two lives are the same. Whether we’ve been an underdog, a crusader for just causes, or something altogether different, sharing our adventures and misadventures links us to others. It’s the human-to-human connection that makes writing a memoir worth the effort.
Memoir writing is a memory experiment that can be both therapeutic and terrifying. But if you can find the right way to write a memoir – your memoir – and give your life journey wings, you have a great opportunity to immortalize a piece of your history.
These tips for memoir writing include:
What is a memoir?
A memoir is a nonfiction piece of writing that focuses on a particular time in a person’s life—a singular event or a related group of events. Memoirs are intimate narratives of factual, personal experiences that the author has chosen to share.
Below, you’ll find tips on memoir writing. Before you begin, consider each to ensure your personal story resonates with your reader while protecting your loved ones and secrets you don't want to share.
Do's and don'ts for your memoir writing structure
One part of memoir writing is simply understanding the best way to tell your story. As we mentioned, this is an extremely personal journey, but there are some tried and true tips you can learn from authors who have gone before you.
1. DO focus on a specific theme from your life
Don’t write an autobiography
The difference between a memoir and an autobiography is the focus. Memoirs are focused on a particular theme from your life, like learning how to parent or overcoming a loss. Meanwhile, autobiographies condense your entire life into book format.
Think of memoir writing as a couple of letters in the alphabet and an autobiography as a journey that takes you from A to Z. You don't have to tell your whole story for it to be a good one.
2. DO craft your story carefully
Don’t treat your memoir casually
The same rules apply to memoir writing that apply to any other book. The difference is that, when writing a memoir, it may feel more intimate, like writing in a journal. But unlike a journal for your eyes only, a memoir is for an audience. And how you present your story to them matters.
Your memoir is like a puzzle that your readers walk with you as you put the pieces together. Who wants to spend time assembling a puzzle with missing pieces?
The same goes for your book. Before you start writing, take time to carefully plan your story and craft a memoir outline to follow. This will help make sure no details are overlooked so that your readers can enjoy the complete picture.
Not sure where to start? Check out our memoir writing prompts for ideas to get the creative juices flowing – or challenge yourself to a Six Word Memoir writing exercise!
3. DO write chronologically
Don’t confuse the reader by hopping around
Readers don’t know your story. You do.
If this is your first book, or if you’re new to memoir writing, the safest road is to write in an order or sequence that makes sense to the reader. Chronologically.
“A good technique is to open the story with an incident that focuses the theme of the memoir after that starting the story at the beginning and continuing with scenes chronologically (unless you have good reason to do otherwise).”-Jane Friedman, Strategist for Authors and Publishers
If you are a more experienced writer and want to use flashback techniques, editor Trish Lockard suggests navigating tenses by remembering that “there must always be a now. You now tell your readers where and when you are in your life, the place and time of your life from which you are writing the memoir. No matter how you time travel, you must always return to your now.”
For either of these examples, having a trusted writing coach could help immensely. You will be able to show them your outline or chapter summaries – and they will be able to provide you with an external, third-party opinion. That's just one way our coaches love to help our authors!
4. DO show discretion when sharing personal events
Don’t use your memoir as an opportunity for payback
While it might be tempting to try to humiliate someone who mistreated you in the past, anger and resentment tend to poison even the best stories. They drip from pages like thick sludge, making it difficult to see the story underneath.
Instead of focusing on the message, readers may redirect their attention to the offender's actions and miss any redeeming value you’re trying to share, like overcoming abuse, tragedy, or heartbreak.
If the theme of your book focuses on resiliency and you spend a third of it bashing a former friend for their poor behavior, there’s a high probability that your words of contempt will overshadow the intent of your book.
5. DO write like a fiction author
Don’t forget to engage your reader
Memoirs are a type of creative nonfiction. Although they relay factual life events, they are typically written like fiction with characters, character arcs, a plot, and a point of view. As with fiction, memoir writing should take the reader on a journey.
Veteran memoir ghostwriter John DeSimone suggests that if you want your memoir to be accepted by a wider commercial audience, “using narrative story arcs will be critical to your book’s success.”
Narrative arcs provide a familiar format for readers to follow, increasing their understanding.
6. DO add enough details to make the story engaging
Don’t add so many details that the story becomes cumbersome and hard to read
When you’ve lived out an event or a set of circumstances, it’s hard to overlook even the tiniest details; however, minutia can make your reader's eyes glaze over.
Instead of recounting every last detail down to you remembering it was the fourth of July because you were wearing your favorite red, white, and blue t-shirt with the ketchup stain from the previous year’s barbeque, narrow your focus.
Your reader will thank you.
Details matter, but too many details can derail the best of books.
7. DO focus on emotions
Don’t let the events of your memoir hog the spotlight
Author Amy Lou Jenkins offers this advice: “While events are important, the emotions and feelings behind those events make a memoir an absorbing read. In first-person writing, the voice of the narrator and their inner and outer journey can create a layered and satisfying read.”
Events are hollow until emotions are attached.
When writing about your experiences, try to recall how you felt in the moment and document it in your story. This focus will help guide the reader into your world.
8. DO give an accurate account of events
Exaggerations and tall tales are great for novels and children’s books, but they can sap your credibility when you stretch the facts in your memoir. It should be an accurate account of your life, so any detour from the truth can come back to bite you.
Instead of exaggerating, try to remember that your experiences have value. Focus on the sites, sounds, people, and underlying emotions you felt in the event.
It’s not the size of the circumstances that matters as much as how you interpret them and their impact on your life.
9. DO write to share your story
Don’t write a memoir for therapy
Memoir writing is not journaling or a therapy session. While the writing process can be cathartic and healing in many ways, every emotional wrestling match won’t fit into your book’s overarching message.
10. DO use professional publishing services
Don’t do everything yourself to save a few dollars
The final form of our book is everything. Consider a package on your grocery store shelf. The outside and its contents should appeal to the customer. When a manufacturer takes a shortcut, you know. The same goes for your book. Even if you're self-publishing your book (and we absolutely recommend that you do!), you can still get invaluable support by hiring a writing coach, hiring someone for specific steps of your process, and taking a course.
The success of your memoir is not just about your story. The cover design, back cover synopsis, and interior formatting all matter, so know your strengths.
For example, if you’re a great writer and book cover designer but a horrible speller, hire a professional book editor.
You don't need to hire a publishing team to create a successful book, but knowing when to pay for professional support vs cut corners is critical.
To the best of your ability, don’t compromise the integrity of your book when you have access to professionals who can partner with you to create the best version possible.
11. DO take time for reflection
Don’t let the first draft be the only draft
Memoir writing can be tough, especially when it dredges up a lot of emotional baggage. It's important to take a step back and recalibrate during the writing process. Reread the draft a few times after you’ve taken a breath and decide how to move forward.
“Treat yourself very kindly during this process. You’re likely dealing with deep emotions and possibly things you haven’t thought about in a long time.”– Joanna Penn, Serial Author
The first draft is seldom the last – or best – draft. And that's okay! It's a part of the writing process for all authors.
12. DO write to entertain
Don’t write for sympathy
This is a tough one because empathy can be a lifeline, but there’s a difference between sharing your story with a close friend and doing so with a thousand people you don’t know.
Be true to yourself and your experiences, but remember that most of your buyers will be people who don't know you and are purchasing your memoir for its entertainment value.
Write in a way that pulls readers into your story so they want to stay there.
If you fall into a sea of emotions while writing it, that’s okay. Just make sure you wear a life jacket so you can get back to the shore where your readers are waiting for you.
13. DO read, read, and read some more before writing
Don’t write before you’re familiar with the art of storytelling
Author William Faulkner said it best: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.”
When you read a variety of writing (especially memoirs), you get a feel for what you like and don’t like and which elements of storytelling you want to include in your memoir. There are plenty of memoir examples you can look to for inspiration. Choose some that cover the same topics as you – and some that don't. The variety in perspectives can enhance your own writing.
Remember that memoirs are a genre of writing, so readers have an expectation of what the reading experience will be like. Study other memoirs to understand the expectations of the genre. Once you are confident in how to write one, you can experiment or borrow elements from other genres.
Do's and don'ts when thinking about your audience
While the primary objective of memoir writing is to share your story, you don't want to lose sight of who's going to be receiving that story.
14. DO write with your audience in mind
Don’t make the memoir only about you
While the memoir is about your life, you want others to read it. So make it appealing.
Writing a book to sell is just as much about the audience as it is the author. When you write your memoir with your audience in mind, your readers will feel like you are speaking directly to them.
Memoir ghostwriter Amy Suto offers the following advice,
“When starting out, the concept and content of your book reign supreme. You have to write for an audience that is hungry for what you're sharing and understand what they want from your book: knowledge? Escapism? Most writers forget that they're writing to be read and don't think enough about how to entertain their audience.”
15. DO share your memoir to offer perspective
Everyone has their own compass for what’s right or wrong. Generally, most people don’t like being told what’s best for them, even if it comes from a good place.
With memoir writing, if you want to guide a reader to your life conclusions, it’s best not to force-feed them because they’ll resent it. Instead, meet them with openness and respect for other perspectives by sharing your story authentically based on how it impacted you.
It’s better to say, “This is what I went through, what I learned, and how I persevered” rather than turning the tables and trying to force the reader to come to the same conclusions.
16. DO write a memoir to add to the tapestry of shared stories in the world
Don’t write a memoir just to make money or to gain notoriety
While money is great for paying bills or saving for a rainy day, using it as a foundation for why you write a memoir can have serious drawbacks.
If you take the time to publish a book, making money is a definite consideration, and wanting to be viewed as an authority in your space makes sense, but if that's your only focus, the temptation to embellish or write what you think will sell can become a central focus. Readers can see through inauthenticity and will call you out on it.
Instead, focus on developing a story that adds value to someone's journey. This is how great books spread.
Do's and don'ts for protecting yourself and your memoir
This is a question we get often: “Can I get sued for writing and publishing a memoir?” In most instances, no. They are a true account of your life. However, we do have some tips for authors that will ensure your security.
17. DO consider the feelings of the people you include in your book
Don’t make your feelings the only ones that matter
Sometimes, when we share something that happened to us, thinking about how others may have felt is not at the forefront of our minds. Especially if we were the victims of abuse or another very difficult situation.
Everyone has feelings and a perspective that may or may not align with how we see things.
When it comes to memoir writing, insensitivity, prejudice, fear, and every other type of emotion are magnified in the pages of a book and can be off-putting to your reader.
Try to consider each person in your story carefully. You want to accurately tell the story without unfairly condemning someone or causing new wounds.
For example, if you had a terrible relationship with a parent growing up but have a healthy one now, recounting the bitterness and resentment you felt toward them can sting, even though it is in the past. A better approach might be to balance your mention of the past with an anecdote about how much better things are today.
18. DO save some of the details of your life experiences for yourself
Don’t share to the point of regret
While transparency is great, keeping some things private can protect your mental health by putting the control in your hands. Writing a memoir can feel both freeing and leave you feeling exposed.
It’s okay to pour your heart out, but as mentioned in point #11, once you’ve bared your soul, go back and reframe just the pieces needed to make a great story.
19. DO protect yourself
Don’t get sued
To piggyback off of #18, everyone will not always see (or describe) a course of events the way you do. So tread carefully. Unless you have the evidence to support your claims. But, even then, we still recommend that you tread lightly.
Defamation and libel are real, and you could be accountable for statements against another person. Even if what you share is true, if the other party feels they’ve been misrepresented, you could end up in court.
20. DO believe in yourself.
Don’t allow fear to keep you from sharing your story with the world
Memoir writing is hard because you’re so close to the content. But who better to pen the words of your life than you? No one has walked in your shoes or can tell your story the way that you can.
Maybe there’s a reader who has walked a similar journey and will be inspired by yours. Here at SelfPublishing, we truly believe that books change lives. And you’ll never know if you don’t write it and share it.
There’s something personal and touching about knowing that you share similar challenges with another human being. That if they overcame them to find value and meaning in their lives, then maybe you can too.
The magic of the memoir is that it meets the readers where they are and gives them access to the messiness of real-life experiences. It’s the story of the woman or man who faced seemingly insurmountable odds who grabs our attention and keeps us reading.
Unlike other genres, memoir writing provides a window into someone else’s life while simultaneously giving the reader a mirror to view their own.
Are you ready to take the next steps of your memoir-writing journey?