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How to Write a Memoir that Impacts Lives: 8-Step Memoir Writing Guide

Written by

Colin Dunbar

https://selfpublishing.com/author/colindunbar/

Published on

2020-02-27

Is it your dream to write your memoir?

Everyone has a collection of memories and experiences that are worthy of being told…including you!

And while memoirs are powerful stories that will change the lives of both the writer and their reader, it’s important to learn how to write a memoir effectively. 

This is a piece of your life story, after all. 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking writing a memoir is like writing a journal entry, or an autobiography. 

In this article, we’ll explain the differences, and walk you through the entire memoir writing process. 

Read on to discover the secrets you need to know to make your memoir unforgettable and life-changing.

This guide on how to write a memoir covers: 

  1. What is a memoir?
  2. What are the key elements of a memoir?
  3. Step 1 – Find your memoir’s purpose
  4. Step 2 – Identify your target audience
  5. Step 3 – Plan your memoir
  6. Step 4 – Find source material
  7. Step 5 – Memoir writing legalities
  8. Step 6 – Common mistakes of memoir writing
  9. Step 7 – Start & finish your memoir
  10. Step 8 – Title your memoir

Let’s kick off from the very beginning…

What is a memoir?

A memoir is part of your life story in that it’s a collection of experiences, memories, or events that take place in a person’s life. It is not an autobiography, but rather a true experience from the writer’s life, that is creatively written and incorporates research

The key terms in the above definition are: moments or events.

Writing your memoir is different to journaling moments or events in your life. If you want your memoir to be successful, you will also need storytelling skills. And writing a memoir can be a complex, daunting exercise, depending on the subject or topic of your book.

It may be worthwhile to heed the advice of 20-year veteran and expert author, Jane Friedman, “It’s [memoir] not written in a way that makes it stand out, or it could be written poorly. The only antidote to this problem is to either become a better writer, or to find a more interesting story to tell.”

Over the past few years the memoir as a genre, has become very popular. You no doubt are aware of some of the memoirs that were turned into movies in recent years.

difference between autobiography and memoir

As the diagram above shows, think of an autobiography as the whole pie, and the memoir a slice of that pie. A memoir covers a certain period or specific events in your life, and not your whole life.

A memoir is…

  • Not about you. Ouch. Heed the advice from the team at NY Book Editors that your memoir is “about the lesson you’ve learned and can share with others.”
  • Not a journal. A journal is written for personal reasons, and almost certainly does not contain any storytelling elements in it. Also, there is no message in a journal.
  • Not a rant session. Keep these thoughts and feelings for your journal.

Keep this in mind even before you start planning your memoir, as NY Book Editors advise, “Your memoir is not about you. Truly it isn’t. Instead, your memoir is about the lesson you’ve learned and can share with others.”

What is a memoir example?

If you are interested in writing a memoir, I assume you have read a number of published memoirs.

You have, right?

examples of a memoir

These are some memoir examples from both well-known and lesser known authors:

  1. On Writing by Stephen King. This memoir “is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have.”
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This book came into the spotlight when the movie was made. This is a touching story, with a lot of emotion. Walls tells the story of her childhood, living with her nomadic, alcoholic parents.
  3. Beautiful Boy by David Shepp. This is another memoir that was turned into a movie recently. And also, a very emotional story. Shepp shares his life dealing with his “son’s shocking descent into substance abuse and his gradual emergence into hope.”
  4. Direct from Dell by Michael Dell. This book is “the incredible story of Dell Computer’s successful rise, beginning in his college dorm room with $1,000 in capital.” 
  5. Anyone Can Do It by Duncan Bannatyne. Similar to Dell’s memoir the topic of this memoir is business.
  6. Get Me Out of Here by Rachel Reiland. This memoir “reveals what mental illness looks and feels like from the inside, and how healing from borderline personality disorder is possible through intensive therapy and the support of loved ones.”
  7. Broken by Shy Keenan. This is a heart-wrenching story of incredible child abuse. The sub-title says it all: “The most shocking true story of abuse ever told”.
  8. The Liars’ Club is a memoir by American author Mary Karr. Published in 1995, it tells the story of Karr’s childhood in the 1960s in a small industrial town in Southeast Texas. The title refers to her father and his friends who would gather to drink and tell stories when not working at the oil refinery or the chemical plant. The book became a New York Times bestseller.”
  9. Angela’s Ashes is a 1996 memoir by the Irish-American author Frank McCourt, with various anecdotes and stories of his childhood. It details his very early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes his struggles with poverty and his father’s alcoholism.”

Can anyone write a memoir?

While everyone may be able to write a memoir, not everyone can write a memoir successfully. 

The reason I say that is because it is linked to your “why?” and the subject matter. 

For example, if you plan to write a memoir about your years of working as a sales clerk behind the counter in a retail store, you need to ask yourself what the value of your memoir is going to be to your reader.

If you have a specific and intentional value or lesson to show the reader, then great! But if you’re just telling about your day-to-day activities with no real lesson to be learned, you may want to rethink your memoir plan.

In addition, you also need to have some storytelling skills to make your writing captivating, and exciting for the reader. 

If there isn’t value in your book, your reader will become bored, and if bad reviews start doing the rounds, it will affect the success of the book, and thus it will affect you.

What are the key elements of a memoir?

Every successful memoir has specific key elements that contribute to its success, both from the writing standpoint and the reader’s experience. 

Now that you have a clearer picture on the exact definition of a memoir (and what makes it different from an autobiography), it’s time to get clear on a memoir’s key elements. 

These are the key elements of a memoir: 

  1. A focused theme. Your memoir should have an overarching theme, takeaway lesson, or message for your readers. It’s not just a play-by-play of your life, but rather showing the reader something based on a specific event or experience.
  2. Conflict. The most captivating and memorable memoirs out there are those that have a hero’s journey, or obstacles that the narrator must overcome. 
  3. Writing style. The reader is likely reading the story from your perspective, so make sure you’re writing style and author’s voice comes through your narrative. This is your chance to invite the reader into your world and tell a story from your life, so add some personality to it. 
  4. Use supporting stories and details. While this is a memoir about your particular experience, your memoir will be stronger if you’re able to inject stories from other people’s lives that move your narrative along.
  5. Storytelling elements. Your memoir needs to be an engaging, emotional experience for the reader, and the best way to create this is by incorporating the elements of storytelling. Draw on character development, story setting, exciting plot, literary elements, and more. 
  6. Truth. Lastly, your memoir needs to be an honest reflection of your life experience. While it’s okay to highlight and draw attention to certain details, make sure your memoir is factual. This is not only important from a storytelling standpoint, but from a legal position, too.
storytelling skills

Manage Your Expectations

It’s easy to get inspired by your dream to write a memoir, but before you get started, there are some cold hard truths to be mindful of. 

Acknowledging the realities of memoir writing will help you manage your expectations and re-define what a successful memoir means for you. 

Here are four crucial truths to know before you start your memoir:

  1. What’s in it for the reader? If you’re not a celebrity, or well-known, it may not be realistic for you to find instant world-wide success. Getting people interested in your memoir is more difficult than writing a “how to” book. That’s why it’s important you angle your memoir in a way that readers can benefit from. We’ll go into that later. 
  2. Consider the topic. The subject or topic of your memoir has a big influence on how successful the book will be.
  3. Your writing craft matters. Storytelling is important in a memoir. That isn’t to say that you need to be a super talented writer to publish a successful memoir, but you do have to use the key elements of story for your memoir.
  4. Prepare to be emotionally-overwhelmed. Writing a memoir can be a tremendous experience, but it can also be daunting depending on the topic or subject matter. For example, if you want to write a memoir about your years in foster care, where you were possibly subject to abuse, re-visiting the memories can be traumatic. Your memoir can also be a healing process.

Redefine Your Success 

Naturally, only you can determine what success means to you. Later I share the importance of identifying who your reader is and this can make a difference between your memoir succeeding or flopping in the market.

As I mentioned above, the writing of a memoir can be therapeutic, and you may want to write your memoir for your own personal benefit, and there certainly is no rule that says you cannot do that.

But I want to enable you to create a work of art that you can be proud of. Also, I want to share the reality of what writing in this genre is about, and what it entails.

Every memoir has a specific target audience, and depending on the subject of the book, it could affect how successful the memoir is. Your niche may be small, which means less readers will be interested in your particular memoir.

So, it’s important to get clarity on your expectations and definition of success before you commit to learn how to write a memoir.

Step 1- Find Your Memoir’s “Why”

Why do you want to write a memoir, exactly? What’s the reason that drives your ambition to learn memoir writing?

Before writing any nonfiction book, your “Why?” (the reason) is important. 

Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. That isn’t to say that writing a book has to take years, either. With a proven strategy, you can quickly get the ball rolling.

But it starts with knowing your why, especailly with memoir writing, because your why is what will push you through when the going gets tough.

If you don’t have a strong “why?”, the motivation and determination to write the book will be almost impossible.

Tips for discovering the “why” of your memoir:

  1. Accept the process. It can be hard, but also exhilarating to write a memoir. Accept that there will be roadblocks, then ask yourself why it will be worth the struggles.
  2. Make time to think. Spend some time thinking about your reason(s) why you want to write your memoir.
  3. Freewrite. Before you write, even before you start your outline; brainstorm the reason (your “why?”) you want to write it. Use pen and paper, or fire up your favorite word processor and think about the reason(s).
  4. Don’t make your “why” about money or recognition. Although these can be part of the reason for writing, your “Why?” should be deeper than that, like changing lives or leaving a legacy. 
write a memoir that benefits readers

Discover your memoir’s purpose

Even if you are not a celebrity, but your memoir has a powerful message – encouraging, inspirational, motivational, or helpful in some other way – you may find that your book really takes off.

What do you want your reader to take away from your memoir?

Remember: It’s not about you as the writer. It’s about how your story can benefit your reader.

For example, let’s say that you started a small business with a partner, and the partnership went sour. You lost everything. Now, you write a memoir about your experiences and what you learned about a business partnership, both the pros and the cons (from personal experience). Your ideal reader will be someone who is planning on starting a business with a partner. In other words, what will she learn by reading your memoir?

Every nonfiction book has a purpose. For example, the purpose of a “How-to Book” is to show or teach the reader how to do something.

A memoir is no different.

To find your memoir’s purpose, go back to your why. Think about your core reason for writing a memoir, and brainstorm how this reason serves a purpose. That will help you clarify the purpose of your book.

Looking at the published memoirs I mentioned earlier, let’s look briefly at what their purposes are…

  • Beautiful Boy. The purpose of this memoir is to illustrate the value of human endurance, love, and perseverance in dealing with drug addiction. Sheff offers encouragement and inspiration for his reader.
  • Anyone Can Do It. Bannatyne offers his reader inspiration in that anyone can achieve business success through being alert and persevering.
  • On Writing. The purpose of King’s book is to educate and encourage anyone interested in the writing craft.

Knowing the purpose of your memoir can help you identify your audience, and as such identify a market for your book. This will be invaluable when the time comes to promote your memoir.

Step 2 – Identify your target audience

With your purpose defined, you can now look at who your target audience is.

Identifying who your ideal reader (target audience) is, will go a long way to how you write your book, and it will certainly affect the marketing and promotion of your memoir.

Having the purpose of your memoir nailed down, you can now ask:

  • Who is my typical reader? Define who they are, like their background, age range, career, interests, fears, etc.
  • What are they looking for in a memoir? Does this reader expect to see heavier research, specific words and phrases, or actionable takeaways they can apply to their own lives?
  • What categories does this reader belong in? Maybe your memoir is targeted at entrepreneurs, young parents-to-be, or people dealing with illness.
  • Where do these readers consume information? Think of where you can reach these readers. These could be blogs and forums on the subject of your memoir. Think of where your readers can be found offline, too (clubs, organisations, associations, etc.). 

When you consider your audience, it is almost certain that your audience will be people similar to you when writing a memoir. In other words you want to help people who are in the same position you were. Or, you want to inspire people with your memoir, and then also, it will be people who have similar experiences or dreams as you.

Think “outside the box”. In many cases (especially for a memoir) there could be secondary audiences.

how to write a memoir infograph

Step 3 – Plan Your Memoir

Without proper planning, your memoir will take a lot longer to write. 

After your initial questions are answered, you can start the actual planning of your memoir. This can include:

  • Mindmap (Hero’s Journey)
  • A text list
  • Outline (questions)

Stage 1: Mindmap a Hero’s Journey

Using a mindmap to start the planning of your memoir can be a time saver, and it can also help in establishing the story of your memoir.

  1. Plan the events. What event(s) and period is your memoir going to cover? For example, my time spent in the navy, my years at the orphanage, my life in foster care, how I started a side hustle and built it into a 6-figure company, etc.
  2. Use questions. As you build your mindmap, think of questions you want to, and can ask. These will form the basis for your outline.
  3. Keep it simple at first. Start with a basic mindmap, and in order to add the storytelling element to your memoir, use your mindmap to create a 3-act structure (or Hero’s Journey) diagram.
three act structure of a life story

The above diagram I created after doing my mindmap, when I planned my second memoir. This was an A3 sheet, and I then used a pen to build the story structure of my memoir.

Stage 2: Make a List

Expand your mindmap items and make a list (or lists) of the main points of your story. The list can be short answers to the questions you asked yourself.

Because the idea at this stage is to get the ideas down on paper quickly, these can be short phrases or sentences.

“When writing a memoir, all sorts of things can get in the way – emotions, anger, memories, etc. That’s why it can be incredibly helpful to simply make a list of all of the elements of that picture-perfect memoir…” Paula Balzer, Writing & Selling Your Memoir

This is an example from my second memoir (you’ll notice these tie in with the 3-act diagram above):

  1. Where it started – a kid, with my friend; make pocket money
  2. Reading a certain book – big influence on me – gave me the foundation
  3. First side hustle; photography [photo of camera] – week-ends & nights – good extra income
  4. And so on…

Tip: Make notes on your mindmap of what source material (research) you will need. In my list above, I noted (in [brackets]) that I want to find a photo of the camera I used.

Stage 3: Outline your memoir

With your mindmap and list done, you can now start writing the basic outline of your memoir.

Read our full article on how to write a memoir outline here.

The value of an outline when writing any nonfiction book is priceless; with writing a memoir, it’s invaluable.

With a memoir you will be covering a certain timespan, and events that occurred, and relying only on memory, this can be an arduous task.

Some of the basic questions to get started are (in no specific order):

  • What event(s) am I going to cover?
  • What is the timescale of my memoir?
  • Who are the characters (the people) in my memoir?
  • What source material do I need? Where will I get this?
  • Will I need to interview anyone? When/how can I do this?

Use your list (and questions) and start to create your outline.

Every writer is unique and we all have our own best method of outlining. Here are some ideas for outlining your book. Find what works for you, and start your outline.

Step 4 – Find Source Material (Research)

Don’t try and rely on your memory alone. If you have any type of source material, gather this and file it.

This is applicable whether the time period of your memoir covers a number of years, or only a few years. Use the notes you made on your list – you may think of more source material you need as you do this.

Before you start to gather your source material, create a filing system (either physical, on the computer, or both.) Here is a suggested folder structure you could create on your computer:

life story info sources

If your source material is not sorted and filed, it can turn into an incredible time waster when writing your memoir. You will appreciate the rewards for the time spent in your preparation.

Think of what (and how much) research you need to do. This will give you an idea of how much work is needed before you put pen to paper (or hit the keyboard).

Another tool you should consider is setting up a writing schedule. This can help you a lot in getting the actual writing of your memoir done within a realistic time frame. Otherwise it can tend to drag on for years.

If you want the writing of your memoir to go smoothly, I cannot emphasise enough the incredible value of thorough preparation.

Step 5 – Avoid Being Sued

Full disclosure: We are not attorneys, and do not offer legal advice.

Heed the advice of Nomi Isak, from Los Angeles Editors & Writers Group: “Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.”

Here’s what you need to know to avoid being sued with your memoir: “If your facts will not hold up as 100% true in a court of law, you can open yourself up to defamation. Before you write, make sure to check your facts. You want to know that if you’re writing about something controversial, that you’re not fabricating the truth.” 

Tips to avoid being sued:

  1. Don’t lie in your memoir. 
  2. Understand your right to free speech. 
  3. Be aware of defamation and invasion of privacy issues. 

We cover more on this topic in this article on the legal aspects of memoirs.

Step 6 – Be mindful of these common memoir mistakes 

As you begin to write, it’s important to identify the common mistakes made by those writing a memoir. 

By keeping these front of mind before you start writing, and during your writing process, you’ll be prepared to avoid these mistakes as much as possible. 

Here are the common mistakes in memoirs:

  1. Boring story. This was the mistake I made with my first memoir. There was no storytelling, and the structure was… boring. I will always be grateful that a friend reviewed the manuscript and offered his honest advice. Be aware of this and ask a trusted friend or family member to read your manuscript before you send it to the professional editor and publish.
  2. More than one book. This can be a real problem. As you start thinking about your memoir, it is possible that you want to include too much information, and the end result is that there are more than one book in your memoir. This can be overwhelming for your reader, and is not what a memoir is about.
  3. Not focusing on the reader. Review the sections on finding your why to make sure you don’t make this mistake. Again, this was a mistake I made with my first memoir – I wrote it only from my view, and for me. There was nothing for the reader to glean. 
  4. Chronology. Memoirs have a general format, and to make it easier for your reader, your memoir should follow a chronological order.

Step 7 – How to Start a Memoir…And Finish It

Keep your outline handy as you write to use as a roadmap for your writing, and prevent blank page syndrome.  It also goes a long way in avoiding writer’s block.

As a memoir is such a personal type of book, and relies on memory (or historical source material), I suggest the following writing stages. Naturally, you do what works and is comfortable for you.

Here’s how to start writing your memoir:

  1. Rough draft. This is all about speed – just get your ideas down on the page (or computer screen). Write, write, write.
  2. First draft. You can now tidy up your writing and add any source material that you may need. At this stage you should look at the completeness of your manuscript, i.e. is everything in that needs to be in? See how to start writing a book for more ideas on beginning to write a book. 
  3. Second draft. Now you look closer at your manuscript, and your story. At this stage, you want your book to take shape as a story. Refer back to your 3-act diagram.
  4. Final Draft. Now you bring out your magnifying glass. I would suggest printing a copy of your Second Draft, and check the physical copy. Read your manuscript as a book – check how the story flows, is there anything that’s unclear, are all your cross-references correct (if you use them), etc?

Go back to the section on the key elements of memoir writing, and be sure to incorporate those elements while you are writing. This will save you some developmental work later on, and ensure your memoir is written well. 

To finish writing your schedule, it will take consistency, determination, and self-control.

Here are some tips to finish writing your memoir:

  1. Set aside time for writing and make a schedule. Then, stick to that schedule as much as you can!
  2. Acknowledge and overcome any feelings of imposter syndrome that prevent you from writing.
  3. Take breaks from writing if you need them, but do not give up entirely.
  4. Write first, edit later. Do not edit while you write. Save this for your editing process. Just focus on getting the words out first.
  5. Create a writing routine. Write at a specific time in the day, or in a specific area. Use positive affirmations, inspirational quotes, and have a warm cup of coffee or tea at your beckon.
  6. Communicate with your family and friends about your writing goals. This will help them understand the importance of your writing time.
  7. Use hacks to write faster if you’re really feeling motivated. Try speaking your book.
  8. Don’t aim for perfection. This is a common mistake most aspiring authors make. Done is better than perfect. You can always edit and refine your words later.

Step 8 – Title Your Memoir

When you start planning your memoir, you will likely have a working title, and that may change, especially after you start writing your book. Perfectly normal.

The subject of your memoir will usually determine your title. Look at the titles of the memoirs I have referenced in this series, and notice the titles for the different types of memoirs to draw inspiration.

The right title is important when your book is ready to be published. It can be more valuable than your book’s cover design, although they go together like a horse and carriage. My advice is not to just pick the first title that comes to mind.

A tool I like to use when I have a new title is this title analyzer.

Keep in mind this is software, and you know the contents of your book, therefore the ultimate decision lies with you, the author.

Memoir Writing Next Steps 

Once your memoir manuscript is written, it’s time to get it ready to be published. 

This means preparing it for the editor, having it professionally edited and a book cover designed, then completing the entire publishing process. 

Hopefully, this memoir writing guide will help you launch into action.

You have a life experience to share – a life experience that will contribute to your legacy and impact the lives of readers all around the world.

Are you ready to positively change lives with your story?

Colin Dunbar

Author at Colin Dunbar
Colin Dunbar is a veteran technical writer with 40 years' experience. He offered a book design service for over 7 years, and is the author of How to Format Your Book in Word. He shares his vast knowledge at www.colindunbar.com
Colin Dunbar