8 Steps to Writing a Great Memoir
Want to share a life experience with others?
By Kimberly Blaker
Everyone who has ever lived has a story to tell.
As you approach mid to later life, you may find yourself reflecting on your past. Perhaps you realize you’ve lived through significant or relatable events, experiences, choices and changes that would be fascinating or helpful to others. This is what leads many people to write a memoir.
But how do you go about telling your story? Just follow eight simple tips to get started.
1. Decide what to write about and why
A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it focuses on one aspect of or time from your life. So before you get started, reflect on the reason you want to write a memoir. Then, to find your focus, write down your ideas using methods such as a mind map or stream-of-consciousness writing. Typically, memoirs that do best have a takeaway for the reader. Although your story can and should be unique or unusual, it should also have a core to which the reader can connect.
2. Define your theme and stick to it
Once you’ve decided what your memoir is about, find its theme. A clear theme like coming of age, dealing with loss, friendship, determination or overcoming adversity will help you focus your story and connect to readers. Of course, life doesn’t fit easily into a clean theme or narrative. So try to separate the relevant and extraneous details.
3. Refresh your memories
Write down all your relevant memories with as much detail as you can remember. Include not only events but also senses and emotions you experienced. Throughout the memoir, remember to show, not just tell, to evoke a more authentic, emotional connection with the reader. If possible, talk to others who were involved in the memories to get their perspective or to trigger memories of details you may have forgotten. Looking at old pictures or journal entries or visiting significant places can also help refresh your memory. If you find this step too challenging, you might not be ready to write about these memories. Perhaps pacing yourself would be easier to manage emotionally.
4. Be authentic
In a memoir, being honest and authentic is essential. If you’re not, it will reflect in your writing and result in disengaging the reader. When sharing part of your life with others, vulnerability is necessary, so they’ll care about what you’re writing. If you hold back, readers can’t get a full sense of who you are and why your story matters. Keep in mind that no one is perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t have learned or grown. So don’t hide your flaws or bad decisions if they’re part of your story.
5. Develop a structure
Based on your memories and theme, think about how to structure your story. Memoirs often have a personal growth arc, where you learned something or something happened that changed your life. Think about your theme and what you want your reader to get out of your story. An outline can help you stay on the theme while laying out a clear structure that the reader can follow. Find an interesting way to structure your story; you don’t necessarily want to start at the beginning. Look for an exciting or notable moment to hook your readers and get them wanting more.
6. Get writing
Putting the first draft down on paper can be the hardest part because you’re starting from nothing. It may seem intimidating. But remember that no one ever has to see the first draft. It’s just you telling yourself the story. Also, don’t worry too much about grammar, spelling, structure, or other elements at first because they can distract your train of thought and the flow of writing. Just get your story written down and worry about revision and editing later. If you’re really struggling, try recording yourself telling the memories you want to include, or use a talk-to-text converter. Talking may feel more natural and be a less intimidating way to get started. If it helps, ask someone close to you to be in the room while recording and speak directly to them, so it feels more conversational and natural.
7. Put your personality into the writing
You’re telling your own story, so it should sound like you. Do you often tell jokes? Swear? Use a particular phrase? Include those quirks from your normal speech into your writing. Pay attention to how you talk in your daily life or ask those closest to you for their observations of how you speak. If you use talk-to-text or a recording to do your first draft, that’s a great way to notice what your natural speech is like.
“Throughout the memoir, remember to show, not just tell, to evoke a more authentic, emotional connection with the reader.”
8. Be consistent
If you’re serious about writing your memoir, it’s important to intentionally carve out time to write and work. Writing your memoir will take time and dedication, and likely won’t be easy. A memoir requires an in-depth, sincere look into your own life and the choices you made. There are also more tedious aspects to writing, such as writer’s block, rounds of editing, trying to find a publisher or figuring out how to self-publish. So it may be helpful to join a writing group or find a writing partner to keep you accountable for making progress. This kind of support can also serve as a resource when you feel stuck or need an outside opinion.
Realize that no matter how interesting or tedious you think your own life has been, you’ve followed a unique path with a variety of experiences. You’re the only one who can tell your story — but there are likely many who will find it fascinating, useful, or be able to relate.