How to Write a Memoir: Tell Your Amazing Story in 9 Steps
Learning how to write a memoir is like studying to be an archeologist. Not only do you have to dig deep and sift through the sands for fragments of the past, you then have to piece it all together and discover what the story is. To help you tell a compelling story based on your own life, we turned to bestselling ghostwriters on Reedsy to create our practical guide on how to write a memoir.
Step 1. Understand the market
Writing a memoir can take months (if not years) of your life. To cut down on your chances of disappointment down the road, you need to know what you’re writing, and for whom.
First, make sure you’re completely clear about what a memoir is, and how it differs from an autobiography. Then, figure out where your book fits within the existing market.
Memoir publishers are looking for books that will resonate with a wide range of readers. If they don't think there's a strong market for your book, an editor won’t take the chance — regardless of your manuscript's quality. Take it from Reedsy editor Rebecca Heyman: "The market won’t buoy you up just because you’ve experienced tragedy, found salvation or traveled the world. As harsh as this may seem, the truth is that the market doesn’t care about you or your compelling story; the market cares only about compelling stories that also sell copies."
So how do know whether your book idea is marketable? Acclaimed ghostwriter Katy Weitz suggests researching memoir examples from several subcategories to determine whether there’s a readership for a story like yours. Identifying this target market will go a long way towards convincing an editor of your memoir's potential.
Of course, not everyone has their heart set on a traditional book deal. After all, shifting copies isn’t the only reason to write a memoir. Perhaps this is something you want to do for yourself, or for your friends and family? This kind of memoir is known as a legacy memoir: intended for a more limited audience, they help writers to recall and cement the memory of a certain time in their lives, or to leave behind important stories and lessons for their family.
Step 2. Write a book proposal
If you want to sell your memoir to a traditional publisher, bear in mind that you will have to, at some point, submit a book proposal. As well as providing details about the target market and your book’s place within it, a proposal will also contain a chapter breakdown of your memoir.
Some authors will work with a ghostwriter to write their book proposal, even if they end up writing the manuscript themselves. Not only do they benefit from the ghost’s understanding of the submission process, but they also benefit from the interviews that are conducted, as well as their guidance in structuring a compelling memoir.
Working with ghostwriters on a proposal is significantly more affordable than a full ghostwriting project — it’s a great way to get the input of a real professional without breaking the bank to get them to write it. This may be a good middle-ground option.
For more advice, read our guide to writing an effective book proposal.
Step 3. Interview yourself as a journalist would
Take the lead from authors like award-winning ghostwriter Sharon Barrett. That is, get under the skin of your subject: you.
“I’m ghostwriting for a successful businessman who wrote his own memoir a few years ago. He wrote a perfectly fine narrative, but it was impersonal because he didn’t know how to ask himself the questions that would allow him to dig deeper — to look at the events that helped shape him, what he sacrificed, what he learned. It’s an exercise in courage to go back through the years and take a hard look at the ups and downs, but it’s the only way to tell the true story.”
A memoir is like a diamond necklace: before you can set the stone and craft the chain, you have to extract the ore and refine it. As Barrett suggests, you should treat yourself as an interview subject and ask yourself questions that can trigger stories that may have slipped beneath the surface.
Step 4. Go the extra mile with your research
One of the realities that memoir writers inevitably face is that memory is mostly unreliable, according to Heather Ebert. “What you remember about past events may be empirically false, but they can still be emotionally true. That doesn’t mean all of your memories are wrong, but go into the writing questioning every memory and assumption you have.”
Here are a few of Ebert’s research suggestions:
- Investigate every story, fact, feeling, or vague inclination you have about your past insofar as it applies to your account.
- Look up anything that can be verified or fact-checked: World news, local weather, dates, places, events.
- Revisit locations and settings from the past that you plan on writing about.
- Interview your family members, friends, and others who were around in specific eras.
- Get your hands on photos from that period in your life — they might be family snaps or ones from a local newspaper.
- Draft a timeline of your life by year. Writing about a particular experience will pull up more memories as you open the floodgates.
- Don’t invent or make things up — especially not anything that can be verified (see Frey, James: A Million Little Pieces).
Once you've collected the raw material, organize these memories in a way that makes sense for you. Some writers like to mind-map, others might compile them into a scrapbook or paste them into a journal. Some sort of structure in your research is the key to writing well, and it will pay serious dividends when you actually start working on your manuscript.
Step 5. Decide on your message or theme
For Carolyn Jourdan, an author and ghostwriter of multiple bestselling books, knowing the message is vital. “The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever been given was from a Professor. He said, “When you get stuck, ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to say?’”
By addressing a specific theme or a message, you will give yourself an intense focus that drives the story and what you do or don’t include.
“Your theme is the meeting point on which readers will relate to you and recognize themselves in your story. Your story may have several themes, but consider what you want the overarching point to be.”
For example, Elie Wiesel’s Night chronicles his experience in Nazi death camps. On a thematic level, however, it deals with questions of faith as the author grapples with the idea of a God who would allow such horrors to take place.
NYT-bestselling memoir author and Reedsy editor Julia Scheeres admits that she struggled to answer the question "what's your book about?".
"This question can be answered in two ways. The asker may merely want to know the general plot, or story arc, of your book, which you probably figured out a long time ago. But she’s also usually curious about something deeper — the emotional story you’re trying to convey. Not just the what, but the why.
"For me, “Jesus Land is about the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister” is the emotional story. The longer version hints at the plot: “Jesus Land is about the unbreakable bond between a brother and a sister raised in a hostile environment.”"
You might not start with a clear idea of what you’re trying to say. But through your research and interviews, you may begin to find that certain lessons or ideas keep popping up throughout your life. And once you discover the spine of your story, you’re off to the races.
Step 6. Collect your moments of high emotion
With your interview answers in hand, you will likely have too many stories to pick from. Which ones should you prioritize, and which ones should take a back seat?
“My approach might not work for everyone, but I always start with the moments of highest emotion,” says Jourdan. “I try to get as many of these moments as I can and build the book around that. When were you the most afraid, confused, euphoric, etc.? Those are the moments when you see the true character of a person emerge.”
Once you have your list of high-emotion moments picked out, you can see how to best use them to tell your overarching story and reinforce your message and themes.
Step 7. Grab the reader’s attention from the start
Eschewing strict chronology, many memoirs chose to open with a story from the middle or end of the narrative.
“Start with an incident that captures the central theme of the book as vividly as possible,” says ghost Johnny Acton, who has written for public figures such as Paul McCartney and Prince Charles. “Unless your birth was dramatic in itself (e.g., your mother was stuck in a lift with a group of Trappist monks), it's probably best to avoid beginning with it. Too obvious and clichéd.”
Potential readers will skim through the opening passages, either in-store or with Amazon’s Look Inside feature before they decide to purchase it — if your first few pages don’t grab them, they won’t buy it.
Step 8. Focus hard on detail and dialogue
This falls into the classic writing advice of ‘Show, don’t tell.’
“Remember to describe how you felt about things as they happened,” Crofts says. “Don’t go into too much description (no beautiful sunsets). In fact, keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, making the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Keep detailed information such as dates and times to a minimum unless crucial to the story.”
Take the lead from your favorite writer (or writers) and see how they write narration and dialogue to play out their scenes.
“Use direct speech as much as possible,” Acton adds. “It doesn't have to be 100% accurate, it just needs to capture the personality of the speaker and the essence of what was said.”
With these steps in mind, you will hopefully have enough inspiration to work your way through the first draft of your memoir.
Step 9. Avoid the most common memoir pitfalls
As with any creative endeavor, writing a book about yourself comes with its own unique pitfalls. In this section, we'll look at a few of the most common mistakes.
Mistake #1. Making yourself a hero
There’s a scene in the British sitcom I’m Alan Partridge where the title character, a disgraced former TV host, is on a radio show to promote his self-aggrandizing memoir. It’s pointed out by a guest panelist that every anecdote in the book ends with the phrase, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”
While a book is often an opportunity to ‘tell your side of the story,’ don’t paint yourself as a complete hero or victim. Like any protagonist in a novel, it’s your strengths and weaknesses that will make you a compelling figure. Readers expect honesty and candor. If they sense that you’re stretching the truth or have an underlying agenda, they will quickly switch off.
Mistake #2. Choosing a strictly linear structure without considering the alternatives
“To help give order to the memoir, try to tell the story chronologically to start with,” says Andrew Crofts, the bestselling ghostwriter of over 80 books. “That way, you can keep control of the narrative. If you jump about too much, you will forget what you have already done and repeat yourself. You can always change the chronology at the editing stage.”
As Johnny Acton says, there are great reasons to chop-up the timeline:
“A broadly chronological structure will make the book easier to follow but don't adhere to it too closely. Flashbacks and flash-forwards can be used to add interest.”
Taking a cue from your favorite novels, you may find that playing with chronology helps to control the pace of your books and cut out ‘the boring bits.
For more advice, check out our guide to outlining a memoir.
Mistake #3. Not getting an outside opinion
At some point, you might want to share a draft with a close friend or family member. Their feedback can be priceless, as they might remember events differently to how you've portrayed them in your book. Based on their reactions, you can choose to work in their suggestions or stick to your guns. However, it's also important that you get someone who doesn't know you to read your manuscript.
“Always remember that the reader may not know what you take for granted,” says Johnny Acton. Beta readers who don’t know you that well can help you see when your stories need more background information (and when they’re not compelling or relevant enough).
Professional editors are also an invaluable resource to tap into. On platforms like Reedsy, you can search for editors who have worked for major publishers on memoirs like yours. For those legacy projects, a professional editor can help you focus on the parts that matter; if you write something with a commercial edge, they can make all the difference when it comes to selling your book.
These are just a few tips that will help you get started. Along your journey, you may encounter well-meaning and highly qualified people who will question why you think you should be writing a memoir. But if you have a story that you feel needs to be told, you shouldn’t let anyone stand in your way. Everybody has a tale to tell: just make yours a good one, and the rest of us will come along for the ride.