How to Write a Memoir: Top Tips from Bestselling Ghostwriters
[This post was updated 12/20/18]
Everybody has a story to tell: this much is true. But like an archaeologist sifting through the sands, the real challenge comes in discovering what that story is. Though the memoir is a popular genre in publishing, it's much harder to learn how to write a memoir.
In this post, we turned to bestselling ghostwriters to show you what it will take to write a compelling memoir that strangers will want to read.
What is a memoir?
A memoir is a collection of stories that have taken place in the author's life, recounted from memory or contemporaneous notes like a diary. While autobiographies also deal with the experiences of the author, ghostwriter Heather Ebert often reminds her clients that they are not exactly the same thing.
“The biggest difference is that memoir is organized around a particular theme. It doesn’t have to be extremely dramatic or catastrophic, but a good story needs above all else a plot. You are the protagonist and the story is what happens to you and how you react to it and why that matters to you.”
For non-celebrity authors, it is crucial for a memoir to tell a focused story, or else it runs the risk of being a rambling series of disparate anecdotes.
While an autobiography will cover an entire life, a memoir can take place over the course of a select few years, or even a few days. Lynn Barber’s An Education only covers a few short months when she, aged 16, began a life-changing affair with an older man.
What to consider before you start writing
To help you get started on your memoir, here are a few questions to help you focus in on the story you wish to tell.
Which genre does it belong to?
Before you start writing, it’s important to figure out where your book fits within the existing market. Acclaimed ghostwriter Katy Weitz suggests researching titles from a number of popular categories to get an idea of the sheer variety of memoirs that have succeeded.
Many people want books to transport them to another time and place and show them what life was like. Others enjoy recognizing their own experiences reflected back at them. Books that meet this requirement are often called nostalgia memoirs.
Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl. Evoking his childhood home of Cardiff, Wales in the 1920s and 30s, the stories in this book shed light on themes and motifs that would play heavily in Dahl’s most beloved works: a love for sweets, a mischievous streak, and a distrust of older authority figures.
Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. Now best known for its BBC adaptation, Worth’s account of her life as a midwife caught people’s imagination with its depiction of life in London’s East End in the 1950s.
Misery and Inspirational
Books that depict a difficult time in an author’s life aren’t intended to bum the reader out — but to show triumph over adversity. The fact that the authors are writing a book about their experiences often serves as a redemptive final chapter in their personal story.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Proof that memoirs don’t have to tell catastrophic stories to succeed, this book chronicles Gilbert’s post-divorce travels, inspiring a generation of self-care enthusiasts and was adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. An account of drug and alcohol abuse that one reviewer called “the War and Peace of addiction,” this book became the focus of an uproar when it was revealed that many of its incidents were fabricated. (In case you’re wondering, we do not recommend deceiving your readers.)
Public figures have an inbuilt fanbase who just want to hear more about their adventures doing the thing that they do. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of inventive celebrity memoirs.
Troublemaker by Leah Remini. The former star of TV’s The King of Queens tackles the Church of Scientology head on, detailing her life in (and her decision to leave) the controversial religion.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Less of a singular memoir than a collection of humorous anecdotes framed around his life as a transplant to Paris, the star of this book is Sedaris’ dry voice and cutting humor.
Sports stories often make for great books. After all, what's more dramatic than the thrill of victory or the crushing pain of defeat?
Paper Lion by George Plimpton. In 1960, the author George Plimpton joined up with the Detroit Lions to see if an ordinary man could play pro football. The answer was no, but his experience in training camp allowed him to tell the first-hand story of a team from inside the locker room.
It’s Not About the Bike by Lance Armstrong. This is a great lesson on how authors often writers books to create their own legacy in the way they see fit. As history confirmed, Armstrong’s comeback success wasn’t about the bike at all.
Now that you’ve seen some of the popular genres, let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into telling your story.
Who is the book intended for?
The first question you need to ask is why you’re writing a memoir. From there, you can figure out how to achieve that goal. Do you have a story that will resonate with a wide-range of readers, or is this is something you want to do for yourself or your friends and family?
In other words, are you writing a commercial memoir? This kind of book is intended for a wide readership and is more likely to be picked up by a traditional publisher. If this is your intention, you need to do your research and determine if there’s a market for a story like yours.
Or are you writing a legacy memoir? Intended for a more limited audience, legacy books help authors recall and cement a certain time in their lives — or to leave behind important stories and lessons for their descendants.
Will you need to write a book proposal?
If you decide to write something with commercial potential and sell it 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 book proposal will also contain a chapter breakdown of your memoir.
Some authors choose to 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, they also benefit from the interviews that are conducted, as well as their guidance in structuring a compelling book.
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 you wish to consider.
How to write a memoir in 9 steps
Now that you understand for whom you’re writing (and whether you wish to pursue a publisher), let’s head to our ghostwriters and get some practical advice.
1. Start by interviewing yourself
Take a 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.
2. Do your research
One of the realities we have to face when writing our own story is that memory is largely 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 story.
- 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 to write about.
- Interview your family members, friends, and others who were around in certain eras.
- Draft a timeline of your life by year. Writing about certain memories will also 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).
3. Decide on your message or theme
For Carolyn Jourdan, an author and ghostwriter of multiple bestselling books, 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 deciding on a specific theme or a message early on, you will give yourself a strong 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.
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.
4. 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.
5. The best path isn’t always a straight line
“To help give order to the project, 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 start repeating yourself. You can always change the chronology at the editing stage.”
And indeed, 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,” says ghost Johnny Acton, who has written for public figures such as Paul McCartney and Prince Charles. “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’.
6. 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,” Acton says. “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.
7. Lean 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 a lead from your favorite writers (fiction or non) and see how they use 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.”
8. Don’t make 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, promoting 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.
9. Get an outside opinion
“Always remember that the reader may not know what you take for granted,” Acton adds. 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 project, a professional editor can help you focus in on the parts that matter; if you’re writing 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 the way, 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 story to tell: just make yours a good one, and the rest of us will come along for the ride.
What are some of your favorite memoirs, written by both celebrities and non-celebrities? What about them makes them stand out in your memory?