How to Write a Memoir (and common mistakes to avoid)

elderly woman reading a memoir

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The best memoirs are powerful works of literature that inspire readers through authentic storytelling. A good memoir not only tells a compelling story, it leaves readers with a newfound understanding of the world.

From Michelle Obama to Elizabeth Gilbert, many of the best-selling books of our generation have been memoirs. Every successful memoir is wonderfully unique, but they have certain elements in common. Are you ready to craft your own memoir that readers will love? You’ll have to flex your literary muscles to convey the necessary level of vulnerability that allows readers to truly walk in your shoes.

Before we get into it, remember that a memoir and autobiography are not the same. A good memoir chronicles a specific period of someone’s life and finds the deeper meaning gained from that experience. While autobiographies will also be infused with life lessons and larger truths, an autobiography tells the true story of an entire life.

Start with an outline

For many writers, creating an outline can be a buzzkill. Authors are passionate and enthusiastic to get pen to paper. Everybody is excited to fire up the grill and start cooking, but few are excited to write out the grocery list of ingredients. I’d argue it’s an incredibly important part of the process of writing a memoir. Let’s discuss how to do it effectively.

Identify a theme

A memoir’s power comes from its ability to share an experience and then extract meaning from that experience. The theme is what readers remember, not the little details about how everything happened. When it’s all said and done, your theme needs to be relevant, compelling, and memorable. Every scene in your book should connect to the overarching theme.

Establishing your theme should be relatively easy. Think about your story and take a step back to consider what important lessons readers will take away from the book. If you are an avid memoir reader, you likely are aware of a prevalent theme in many of the best-selling memoirs — self-discovery. Many authors choose to share moments from their life experiences because these moments made them think differently about the world and their place in it. As a result, they have a newfound understanding of both the meaning of life and the meaning of their life.

Consider how Elizabeth Gilbert addresses the theme of self-discovery in her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Throughout the book, she takes readers on a lighthearted but enlightening journey across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Gilbert allows you to see through her own eyes as she experiences culture, food, and meditations on religion. Her experiences are funny, heartfelt, and inspiring. But most importantly, they all are connected to the fundamental theme of her book: self-discovery through newfound spirituality and self-love.

When you are outlining your memoir, be sure that every component of the book is in some way connected with its theme. After reading Eat, Pray, Love, it’s unlikely that readers will remember the events of Gilbert’s exact experiences abroad, but they will remember how a woman began her voyage in a place of brokenness and ended with strength and purpose.

Decide what memories, people, and perspectives to add

Remember, this is not an autobiography. A memoir walks readers through specific parts of your life, not your entire life. Because of that, you will need to narrow your focus regarding who and what you include.

For some authors, selecting which memories and people to include can be the hardest part of writing a memoir. Our lives are filled with many meaningful moments; it’s not easy to determine what is most significant in the grand scheme of things. When you are deciding what to include in your memoir, always keep your theme in mind and focus on what speaks to it.

Michelle Obama, for example, can write thousands of pages chronicling her life for readers. However, her bestselling memoir, Becoming, is 448 pages. To write a great memoir, Michelle Obama had to make some difficult decisions and decide what/who needed to be included in her book to tell the story.

If you read Becoming, you’ll find that the book is broken into three parts. The first part is a thoughtful collection of memories that convey her own personal development. Part two involves her love story and marriage to Barack Obama. Part three chronicles her tenure as the First Lady of the United States.

Each section shares specific memories and people who shaped her into the extraordinary leader she is today. This includes compelling glimpses into her life that involve her father’s battle with multiple sclerosis, her entirely non-white class in elementary school, and snapshots of poverty in her community. Every moment in Becoming serves a fundamental purpose: to detail what factored into an inspiring story of overcoming the odds.

How to structure your memoir

Structuring your memoir is not an exact science, but there are four different methods that authors conventionally follow. Regardless of the structure of your memoir, remember to always keep the content relevant to its theme.

1. Chronological order

Writing a memoir in chronological order is a linear approach to storytelling. It’s a rather conventional writing process that keeps the reader on track with a clear narrative and pace of writing that showcases events as they happened. This steady approach allows readers to walk in your shoes in a step-by-step manner.

2. Past versus present

You can craft a fascinating narrative of a life story by flipping between the past and present. By doing this, you allow readers to understand the backstory behind contemporary moments.

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book LaunchFor example, imagine a memoir written by a famous pilot that chronicles his illustrious career. Before a chapter detailing his first time in the cockpit, there is a glimpse into his past that details his treatment for debilitating flying anxiety. Understanding the amount of strength required to overcome his anxiety makes that first moment in the cockpit even more fulfilling. This allows readers to find deeper meaning and connect with his theme: face your fears and good things will happen.

3. Following a theme

There is no rigid structure to this style of memoir writing. You are tasked with piecing together a puzzle of moments (regardless of when they occurred) and arranging them in a way that paints the picture of your theme. For example, let’s say your theme is dealing with loss. Think about the moments of your life that relate to your exposure and understanding of loss. You can walk readers through your pain and deepest struggles and eventually introduce the moments that fostered the emotional and spiritual growth necessary to cope with loss.

4. Internal conflict

Unlike the other three styles of memoir writing, focusing on internal conflict strays from elaborating on specific moments. Instead, this type of memoir is centered around the ways you were affected by something catastrophic.

This style is common for those writing memoirs about surviving addiction, illness, or some kind of tragic event. As you write the book, you must be mindful of all the ways this burden manifests in your life. Allow readers to see through your eyes so they can fully grasp the magnitude of dealing with such a profound struggle. The subject matter of internal-conflict memoirs can be quite dark, but sometimes they make for the most empowering books to read. Frequently written by survivors, this style of writing demonstrates tenacity, courage, and bravery.

Create an emotional journey for readers

Regardless of how you choose to structure your memoir, remember to take your readers on an emotional journey. An effective memoir can inspire readers in a plethora of ways because, unlike fiction, the reader knows that someone lived this.

Get vulnerable and express these significant events with passion, emotion, and rich detail. I’m sure you’ve heard it plenty of times, but show readers everything. Don’t tell them. On this journey, you are the main character surrounded by a supporting cast. Just like a novel, a memoir’s protagonist (you) and the rest of the characters in it require emotional depth.

3 common mistakes in memoirs

Missing the big picture

A memoir is not about what happened — it’s about how and why it happened. Unless you achieve something truly remarkable, readers won’t be interested in your step-by-step life journey. Remember your theme — it can be finding purpose, overcoming mental illness, accepting change, etc. Readers need to remember this theme above all else A reader should finish your book having learned a meaningful lesson.

Starting at birth

A memoir’s biggest mistake is covering too much. If you want to chronicle your life from birth to old age, it could make for a great autobiography! But remember, a memoir walks readers through specific moments of life and allows them to gain a deeper understanding of the world through those moments.

No editing

This common mistake applies to every existing genre, not just memoirs. All published books (either independent or traditionally published) require professional editing. It’s up to you to determine what type of editing is necessary for your manuscript.

Let BookBaby help you share your story

If you have a story you believe in and an audience who will benefit from it, you are in a great position to publish a memoir. BookBaby is here to be your publishing service partner with a book distribution network that allows you to sell your book anywhere across the globe.

Remember, memoirs are one of the best-selling genres for a reason: readers value authenticity. In the literary space, a great memoir is as authentic as it gets. Take the leap, write your story, and focus on a theme that will change readers’ lives for the better.

Your path to self-publishing

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is some good information. Much needed as I’ve written my autobiography and am now trying to get published. Your pointers are excellent. Gives me an more accurate idea of what is important when writing. Thank you very much. I really appreciate this. God bless you
    P. S. I’m looking for a publisher that is affordable, or some self- publishing help.

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