The 2020 Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Memoir
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Writing your memoir is a big undertaking. If you’re thinking about giving it try, or you’ve started but are having trouble, I hope some of the advice I have for you will be helpful.
As far as I’m concerned, writing your memoirs is one of the best gifts you can give your loved ones. If you have a wider audience in mind, that is terrific too. This article’s focus is on writing for a small audience of friends and family. If your goal is to publish your memoir and sell it, you should do an internet search for “how to publish and sell your book” for more topical advice.
I hear a lot of objections from people about why they don’t want to write their memoirs. Writing makes people nervous, especially those who are not used to it. If you think you want to try writing your memoir, then you should absolutely give it a go. Writing a book can seem impossible, but it’s not. There were over 1.5 million self-published books in 2018. Why not be one of them?
This article is organized into a couple different sections. The first section focuses on how to get the memoir done. These are tips on what to write about, how to keep momentum going, and how to deal with the bumps along the road. The second section deals with how to write a good memoir. This part focuses more on content rather than procedure.
By the way, I use the term memoir, memoirs, and autobiography interchangeably. Technically these are all slightly different things. A memoir normally focuses on just one aspect of your life whereas autobiographies theoretically incorporate your whole life story. Memoirs is the plural of memoir, but I often hear people using the term memoirs as they would “memories.” The terms are becoming more fluid as this genre becomes more popular thanks to modern online self-publishing options. My advice: worry about which category your book belongs to when you’re done writing it.
Last point before we start: I really want this to be useful information for you. If it is, or if you have questions or suggestions, please leave comments for me. I promise to respond as quickly as I can.
So, are you ready? Let’s get started!
Tips for how to write your memoir
This section is about how to get started writing you memoir and how to get it done. It’s not about how to write a compelling story. If you are already super-motivated about getting it done, feel free to skip ahead to "Part 2: How to write (a good) memoir."
First of all, I want to say “Congratulations!” It takes a lot of courage to start writing your memoir. And it will take dedication to finish it. There will be moments when you’re frustrated or you want to give up. That’s ok. Sometimes it’s good to take a break. But I hope you will always come back to it.
Writing about your life is a fulfilling project. The process of reflecting on your accomplishments (and failures) makes you realize how much you got done. In my experience, people who write their memoirs are very, very happy they did.
Here are my top 7 tips for how to write your memoir:
1. What is the memoir going to be about?
There is no hard and fast rule that says your memoir has to be about one thing or the other. You’re free to write about whatever interests you, or whatever it is you want to leave a record of. Some people will write only about themselves. Others will include information about their parents, grandparents and other family members.
Do what interests you. After all, it’s your life. Write the story the way you want to tell it! Just make sure you take some time before you begin writing to think about what it is you want to put in your book. Need help with that? Download my free worksheet.
One more thing… you may want to ask your friends and family if they have any stories about you they love. It’s amazing how different an outsider’s favorite story is compared to your own.
2. Find inspiration by looking at photo albums, family keepsakes, and thinking about relatives
Whether or not you are struggling with content, you should make time to go through family history materials. Immersing yourself in old photos, newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, etc. will trigger memories and feelings that you may have forgotten.
While you’re at it, set aside photos or documents you may want to use in the book itself. It will save you time later when you’re ready to publish.
3. Find an accountability partner
No one likes to be watched, or know that someone is keeping tabs on them. But the reality is that you get more done when you know you will be meeting with someone to discuss your work.
An accountability partner can be a friend or family member. Even better is finding someone who is also working on their memoir. This person is going through the same experience you are. You can discuss your respective problems and successes, and compare notes. Most importantly, you keep each other motivated and moving forward.
Where can you meet someone like this? Check your local library or evening class listings. There are often classes offered on how to write your memoirs. Reach out to the teacher and see if they will put you in touch with a student. Or, encourage a close friend to start a similar project.
4. Find a quiet space you enjoy and where you won’t be interrupted
This sounds obvious, but it’s still worth stating. If you’re going to commit time to writing your memoir, then you are not going to want to be interrupted by phone calls, chores, and other nuisances. For some people this means heading out to a coffee shop. Others can close the door to the extra room in their house. Just make sure you find a comfortable place that you can dedicate to this project. If you enjoy the work space, the work will be easier.
5. We all have things to cringe about; don’t be too hard on yourself
As my father said in the opening lines of his autobiography, “the more I thought about the past, the recollection of blunders and bad errors in judgement tended to make the reconsideration of those early periods most unpleasant.”
We all have awkward moments in our past. We have made mistakes and been part of embarrassing events we’d prefer to forget. Facing these moments is just another choice. You can choose to omit these episodes in your book. Writing your autobiography does not mean you have to lay bare every detail of everything that ever happened to you.
On the other hand, the choice to identify moments in your life where an error in judgement led to an important lesson may be worthwhile. Describing moments you’d rather forget is an honest portrayal of you at a point in time. This is actually one of the more important parts of writing a book for a loved one. Knowing how you handled failure as well as success is what makes your story compelling and comforting. Younger generations like to know their elders were young and imperfect too.
6. Don’t worry about being a “good” writer
Many, many people, even experienced writers, get nervous about having to write about themselves. Most of us haven’t done it since our 4th grade, back-to-school “What I did this summer” essays.
We are overly critical and self-censor. We worry about what others will think. The fear of the red pen is real! Look at Erica Jong who put off finishing projects for years because, “of course, when you finish something, you can be judged.”
If this is a concern for you, take a step back. First of all, no one is going to grade you. Your memoir is for the benefit of your family and friends. They will love reading it because they love you. Every sentence isn’t going to be perfect. Neither are you. Remember, you’re not aiming to get on the New York Times best-seller list. You’re doing this to capture your stories and leave your own mark on those who choose to read about you.
Keep in mind bestselling memoirs published by celebrities are often produced with very expensive ghostwriters and lots of other professional help. Even then, they’re not always that great. Worrying that your memoir may not measure up is like comparing apples to oranges.
7. Grammar, shmammar!
“If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
Don’t let good-grammar-phobia in the door. If you are going to stop to question your grammar, or worry about every comma being in the perfect place, you’ll never get your memoir done. Just put all that aside while you focus on the real job: getting your story on paper.
Once you are happy with the flow and the content, then you can either work on the grammar on your own, or you can hire someone. Copy editors are specialists in improving style and getting all the grammatical rules straight. You can easily find one when you are done writing.
Once style elements like grammar are corrected, then comes proofreading. It’s very hard to catch your own mistakes. By the time you get to the proofreading stage, you’re going to be tired of re-reading your manuscript. Again, just hire someone. It’s not that expensive and will be worth every cent.
Part 2: How to write (a good) memoir
You’ve got the time, motivation, and energy to write your memoirs. The next big question, is how to make it a good read for others.
Before I get into specific actions you can take, I want to state again how important it is to not to worry too much about the quality of your writing. It will slow you down and bring you down.
For many people, the point of writing a memoir is to share their story with friends and family. They will enjoy your memoir because they care about you. Your children and grandchildren will get to hear your voice as they read your words. What’s the point of having a memoir that sounds different than you do?
In addition to keeping your voice intact, there are things you can do to make your story compelling too. Here are a few tips that can help keep readers turning the page:
1. Structure and flow
You may already have notes (if not try my free worksheet) to keep track of what you want to write about. Once you’re happy with the list of things you want to discuss, you should figure out the flow of the book. Will it be purely chronological? Will you have sections, such as “Childhood,” “Activities,” “Work”? Or do you have another idea in mind for the structure of the book?
An outline is not mandatory but it can help. It also allows you to see how much you have accomplished, which is a good way to stay motivated.
2. Include details to create a full picture for the reader
Good details make any story better. For instance, if you describe your first car, don’t just say, “My first car was a blue Ford Mustang.” Details create a scene people can see in their mind. It can also lead to stories you may have forgotten about. In the car example, can you see how answering the following questions will give the reader a richer picture?
Was it new?
How much did it cost?
How did you get the money to pay for it?
Was it comfortable?
How was it different than today’s cars?
Was learning to drive a clutch easy?
Who taught you?
What was the primary use of the car? Going to school? Leisure? Work?
Did you have any special adventures with that car?
This may not be a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of. Not everyone has the same interests. Readers expecting to hear stories about you may get an unwelcome surprise if it’s all about your passion for cars.
One of my clients handled this particular issue by starting some sections of his memoir with “Boring Alert” to warn his family about parts of his memoir they may not find interesting. That gave the reader permission to skip ahead, and it gave him permission to talk about his favorite things to his heart’s content!
3. Boring alert
Let’s extend the car metaphor. Maybe you are a huge fan of cars and once you start writing about them, you can’t stop. Very quickly the book becomes about cars and not about you.
4. Don’t use your memoir to blame someone, express disappointment in your loved ones, or reveal family secrets
Your memoir will be around long after you are. Your family and future generations will read this and remember you for it. Keep that in mind when you feel like being 150% honest about what you think of your least favorite family member.
A memoir is not the place to express negative judgments or shock the family with a big revelation. If your son chose to be an artist rather than follow you in your footsteps as a successful lawyer, so be it. If there is an unknown half-sibling out there, tell your family in person.
I’m not suggesting you lie. But there is a difference between saying, “I would have loved for you to enjoy the same satisfaction I had as a lawyer and take over my firm, but I can see that you have made your own way and found your own satisfaction,” vs. “It was a mistake for you not to work for me. Instead you’ve wasted your time struggling to make ends meet.”
5. Be true to yourself
Good writing is often characterized as feeling natural. It’s easy to read, not because it has a simple style, but because the flow of the words makes sense. You’re not asking your audience to do extra work trying to understand what you mean.
It will be very hard to accomplish the feeling of natural writing if you are not being true to yourself. That’s why worrying about grammar and “doing it right” are such a detriment to good writing. The truer to yourself you are, the stronger your voice and your writing will be. Readers will respond accordingly.
The honesty that comes across when you are effectively channeling your thoughts into writing has a powerful impact. Robert Frost summed it up well when he said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” It’s hard to avoid feeling vulnerable when writing about yourself. What is the benefit in fighting it?
Writing is hard work. I hope the information I’ve shared will help you get your memoir or autobiography written. If you need more help, there are plenty of free and premium resources available online and in local libraries. You can easily find a multitude of classes and books on the subject.
Now that you know you want to start, I am here to help you. I am a memoir ghostwriter and have been helping people publish their stories since 2016. Contact me today at 215-645-7766 for a free consultation to determine exactly what you have in mind and to discuss the various options available.
Whatever course you choose, I wish you good luck on your memoir writing adventure!