Is it your dream to write a 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.
If you've been wondering: “How do I write a memoir effectively?” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that learning how to write a memoir is just like writing a journal entry, or even an autobiography.
In this article, we’ll explain the differences, and walk you through the entire process of how to write a memoir.
Read on to discover the secrets you need to know to make your memoir life-changing and unforgettable.
This blog on how to write a memoir covers:
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.
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.
Learning how to write 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. If your memoir isn't selling. “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 memoirs have become very popular. You no doubt are aware of some of the memoirs that were turned into movies in recent years.
Think of an autobiography as the whole pie, and a 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. At the end of the day, you need to provide lessons and ideas that will help your readers grow. A memoir still needs to be able to resonate with readers at its core.
- 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.
What is a memoir example?
If you are interested in learning how to write a memoir, I assume you have read a number of published memoirs already.
You have, right?
These are some memoir examples from both well-known and lesser known authors:
- 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.”
- 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 dives into the details of her childhood, living with her nomadic, alcoholic parents.
- Beautiful Boy by David Sheff. This is another memoir that was turned into a movie recently. And also, a very emotional story. Sheff shares his life dealing with his “son's shocking descent into substance abuse and his gradual emergence into hope.”
- 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.”
- Anyone Can Do It by Duncan Bannatyne. Similar to Dell's memoir the topic of this memoir is business – but it's a business book unlike any other.
- 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.”
- Broken by Shy Keenan. This is a heart-wrenching story of incredible child abuse. The subtitle says it all: “The most shocking true story of abuse ever told.”
- The Liars' Club by Mary Karr. Published in 1995, this memoir 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.
- Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. 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, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes his struggles with poverty and his father's alcoholism.
Now that you have some great examples of memoirs, you may be wondering: How do I write a memoir? Can I write a memoir?
Can anyone write a memoir?
Everyone can write a memoir, but not everyone can learn how to write a memoir successfully.
Success 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 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.
Finally, you also need to have storytelling skills to make your writing captivating and exciting for the reader. A book writing coach can help you bring everything together into a cohesive, engaging, and inspiring story – while helping you reach all the important milestones of writing and self-publishing a book.
That brings us to the next important topic of how to write a memoir: the key elements of a memoir.
What are the key elements of a memoir?
Every successful memoir has specific 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 the important elements of a memoir.
These are the key elements of a memoir:
- 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 shows the reader something based on a specific event or experience.
- Conflict. The most captivating and memorable memoirs are those that have a hero’s journey, or obstacles that the narrator must overcome.
- Writing style. The reader is likely reading the story from your perspective, so make sure your writing style and voice come 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.
- Supporting stories and details. While this is a memoir about your particular experience, it will be stronger if you’re able to inject stories from other people’s lives to move your narrative along.
- 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, the setting of the story, an exciting plot, literary elements, and more.
- 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.
Crucial things to consider before writing your memoir:
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 redefine what a successful memoir means for you.
Before you write your memoir, you should ask yourself:
What’s in it for the reader?
If you're not a celebrity, 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 to angle your memoir in a way that readers can benefit from.
Is this the right topic?
The subject or topic of your memoir has a big influence on how successful the book will be.
Are my writing skills up to snuff?
Storytelling is important when learning how to write 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 literary elements in your story.
Am I emotionally prepared?
Writing a memoir can be a tremendous experience, but it can also be a daunting one. For example, if you want to write a memoir about your years of abuse in foster care, revisiting the memories may be traumatic.
That being said, learning how to write a memoir about traumatic experiences can be an incredibly empowering and healing process. You just have to be ready for it.
So, now that we've discussed what a memoir is and determined that you can, in fact, write one, let's discuss how to write a memoir successfully in nine simple steps.
How to write a memoir in 9 easy steps
Here are the only steps you'll need to learn how to write a memoir:
1. Determine the purpose of your memoir
The first step in learning how to write a memoir is determining WHY you want to write it. If you don't have a strong “why?”, the motivation and determination to write your memoir will be almost impossible.
Tips for discovering the “why” of your memoir:
- Accept the process. It can be hard, but also exhilarating to learn how to write a memoir. Accept that there will be roadblocks, then ask yourself why it will be worth the struggles.
- Free write. Before you even start writing your book outline, brainstorm the reason you want to write it. Use pen and paper, or fire up your favorite word processor and think about the reason(s).
- 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.
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?
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 inspires and motivates his readers by saying that anyone can achieve business success through perseverance.
- On Writing. The purpose of King's book is to educate and encourage anyone interested in the writing craft.
2. Identify your target audience
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.
- Who is my typical reader? Examine their background, age range, career, interests, fears, etc.
- What is my reader 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 lives?
- What categories does this reader belong in? Is your memoir 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, organizations, associations, etc.).
Think “outside the box.” In many cases (especially for a memoir) there could be secondary audiences.
3. Plan your memoir
Without proper planning, learning how to write a memoir will take a lot longer.
After your initial questions are answered, you can start the actual planning of your memoir. This can include:
- A mindmap (Hero's Journey)
- A text list
- An outline (questions)
Using a mindmap can be a huge time saver when learning how to write a memoir. You should:
- 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.
- Use questions. As you build your mindmap, think of questions you want to ask. These will form the basis for your outline.
- Keep it simple at first. Start with a basic mindmap, then create a 3-act structure (or Hero's Journey) diagram.
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 full story structure of a memoir afterwards.
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.
This is an example from my second memoir:
- Where it started – a kid, with my friend; make pocket money
- Reading a certain book – big influence on me – gave me the foundation
- First side hustle; photography [photo of camera] – weekends & nights – good extra income
- 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.
Outline your memoir
With your mindmap and list done, you can now start writing the basic outline of your memoir.
The value of a memoir outline is priceless; as it is when writing any book. With a memoir you will be covering a certain timespan, and events that occurred, and relying only on memory, which can be an arduous task.
Some of the basic questions to get started are:
- 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.
4. Find source material (research)
When learning how to write a memoir, don't 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).
If your source material is not sorted and filed, it can turn into an incredible time waster when learning how to write a memoir.
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 thing you should consider when learning how to write a memoir is 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 drag on for years.
To learn how to write a memoir smoothly, I cannot emphasise the value of thorough preparation enough.
5. Consider memoir writing legalities
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 when learning how to write a memoir:
- Don’t lie in your memoir.
- Understand your right to free speech.
- Be aware of defamation and invasion of privacy issues.
6. Be mindful of 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 common mistakes when learning how to write a memoir:
- A boring story. This was the mistake I made with my first memoir. There was no storytelling, and the structure was…boring. The structure of a memoir needs to be compelling.
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 publisher.
- 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 is more than one book in your memoir. This can be overwhelming for your reader.
- 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.
- Strange chronology. Memoirs have a general format, and to make it easier for your reader, the structure of a memoir should follow a chronological order.
7. Work through multiple drafts until you finish your memoir
As a memoir is such a personal type of book, and relies on memory (or historical source material), I suggest the following writing stages when learning how to write a memoir.
- Rough draft. This is all about speed – just get your ideas down on the page (or computer screen). Write, write, write.
- 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 how to write a memoir in the beginning stages.
- Second draft. Now you look closer at your manuscript and your story to improve upon it. Refer back to your 3-act diagram.
- Final draft. 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 and check how the story flows. Is there anything that's unclear? Are all your cross-references correct?
Here are some tips to finish writing your memoir:
- Set aside time for writing and make a schedule. Then, stick to that schedule as much as you can!
- Acknowledge and overcome any feelings of imposter syndrome that prevent you from writing.
- Take breaks from writing if you need them, but do not give up entirely.
- Write first, edit later. Do not edit while you write. Save this for your editing process. Just focus on getting the words out first.
- 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 ready to go.
- Communicate with your family and friends about your writing goals. This will help them understand the importance of your writing time.
- Don't aim for perfection. This is a common mistake most aspiring authors make when learning how to write a memoir. Done is better than perfect. You can always edit and refine your words later.
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.
This is 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 that this is software, and you know the contents of your book best. The ultimate decision lies with you, the author.
9. Get your story out in the world
Once your memoir manuscript is written, it’s time to get it ready to be published.
This means having it professionally edited, getting a book cover designed, and completing the entire publishing process.
Hopefully, this guide on how to write a memoir 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 share your story?
Hopefully by now, you can confidently answer the question: “How do I write a memoir?”
So now it's time to get writing!
If you need more help with how to write a memoir, the team at selfpublishing.com is always here to offer advice. You can make use of our many services for authors, from free outlines and courses, to book cover design, to one-on-one guidance from brainstorm to book launch.