How to Write Your Memoir in 9 Easy Steps
Memoirs are often confused with autobiographies. Although both genres revolve around events in someone’s life, a memoir focuses on a singular event or a unique circumstance, whereas an autobiography is centered on the person’s entire life journey, from birth to the present.
Like autobiographies, memoirs need to be addressed to a specific group of readers. You never want to write a memoir before you first know who its intended audience is and what they’re looking for.
Unless you’re a celebrity with an large following eager to buy your book as soon as it comes out, you need to figure out what it is about your life that will cause a certain group of people to find inspiration, motivation for change, or the strength to forge ahead with a difficult circumstance in their own lives.
The more your life experience connects with that of others, the more potential for success you’ll encounter when you publish your memoir.
So, your first step before you begin writing your book is to find out who your readers are.
Step 1: Define Your Memoir’s Audience
Humans are creatures of self interest. Whenever we’re presented with new information, the first thought that comes to mind as we consider the opportunity is “What’s in it for me?” This automatic mental filter works at a subconscious level and is always activated.
When someone picks up you memoir, this is the first question that’ll come to mind the minute they a) read your book title, b) read your marketing blurb, c) browse your table of contents and d) scan your introduction. If they don’t feel there’s something “in it” for them in either of those four stages (in that order), they’ll bail on you.
So, unless your goal is to write your memoir just for your family and immediate circle of friends, you’ll need to define your target audience first. Now, in order to find said audience, you’ll need to determine how you’d like your memoir to be of service to others.
Step 2: Define Your Memoir’s Theme
Readers are attracted to memoirs from authors who are like them and who’ve been through what they’re going through yet managed to came out at the other end. In most cases (though not all) this involves a journey from suffering to healing, from challenge to overcoming, from injustice to justice, from rags to riches, and so on.
In other words, memoirs will be interesting in the eyes of readers when there’s a clear journey on the part of the author (in the world of fiction this is referred to as the “character arc”).
But unlike fiction, the journey of a character in their memoir can’t be a fantasy. It has to be something rooted in reality that readers can relate to, something that reflects where they are and where they want to be.
Therefore, in order to define your theme, think about circumstances in your life that involve a journey many others are going through right now.
- You were faced with and conquered a debilitating illness that currently afflicts a lot of other people
- You were confronted by and overcame a major societal obstacle, such as poverty, injustice or other systemic prejudice, that also affects many others in society
- You overcame a major physical or psychological trauma that many other people have also experienced
- You achieved a level or religious or spiritual transcendence than many others aspire to in their lives
If the journey you choose to focus on has a clear redeeming value for your readers, then you have a winner in the making (provided you can write with eloquence — we’ll get to this later.)
Step 3: Research Other People’s Memoirs
Now that you know who your target audience is and what journey of interest you’ll be sharing with them, it’s time to explore how successful memoirs are written. Go to the library or, if you have the financial means, purchase 3-5 popular memoirs and read them cover-to-cover — first as a reader and then as a writer.
It goes without saying that you need to focus strictly on bestselling memoirs, because you need to learn from and emulate the best out there. You need to select books that have been voted by the court of public opinion to the be best in their fields, because this means that not only are they well-written but also that they connect with their audiences at a deep level.
In your first reading pass, put on your reader hat and enjoy the books cover to cover. Make a note whenever you read a passage or a section that truly connects with you so that you can come back to it later. In your second pass, make notes about how the author is using certain descriptive devices, hooks or angles to drive their narrative.
Whenever you read a story or section that deeply connect with you, analyze it and try to figure out what it is about it that makes it work so well. Note the choice of words, the use of descriptive language, the flow of the narrative, and so on. By the time you’re done with your reading passes, you’ll be have the information you need to begin the next phase.
Step 4: Brainstorm The Events Driving Your Theme
Now it’s time to switch the focus to your life. Chronicle and catalog the life events, anecdotes, circumstances, experiences, etc. surrounding your memoir’s theme. What you want to do is turn out everything that you recall and everything that you’ve documented in diaries and journals, so that you can sift thought it all and begin formulating your memoir structure.
You want to look for:
- Stories with vivid characters that shaped you or influenced your journey
- Events that had an significant impact on you
- Anecdotes that add substance to your story
- Characters that are central to your memoir theme (both positive and negative)
- Interviews with friends and family members
In short, anything that relates directly to your theme. Take lots of notes because these details will form the foundation of your memoir. In fact, you’ll be using this information to embark on the next stage.
Step 5: Mind Map Your Memoir
Mind mapping is a technique that encourages creative thought through radial thinking. It’s triggered by taking a main idea (in your case, your theme) and placing it at the center of a mind map, like the one below:
You then proceed to break down your theme into its main drivers, branching out radially and away from the middle of the map. Next, you break down the main components into sub-components, also radiating out, and then repeat this process as often as needed.
Your goal is to take all of your self-research and place it on the mind map by first tackling the major elements of your theme, and then breaking them down further into more specific aspects. Keep in mind that this process takes time. You may end up making constant changes and small adjustments until it settles into something that feels right.
For efficiency’s sake, you can use a large table with index cards or color-coded post-it notes spread out on top so that you have the freedom to shuffle things around as you move along. I recommend that you take pictures of the evolving map with your smartphone to keep a record of your progress in case you want to go back to a previous idea.
Step 6: Outline Your Memoir
When you’re done working with your mind map, it’s time to turn it onto your memoir’s outline. To do so, simply turn each branch coming out of your theme into a chapter and each sub-branch into a sub-chapter, as follows:
A- Branch 1
1- Sub-branch 1-1
2- Sub-branch 1-2
3- Sub-branch 1-3
B- Branch 2
1- Sub-branch 2-1
2- Sub-branch 2-2
C- Branch 3
1- Sub-branch 3-1
2- Sub-branch 3-2
and so on…
Your outline will serve as a working table of contents and as a source of writing prompts to get your creative juices flowing when you begin to write your memoir.
Step 7: Begin the Writing Process
Time to begin the writing process! By having completed the mind map first, you’ll notice that the book will begin to write itself. Keep in mind that all the knowledge and wisdom you need to write your memoir is already inside of you. The right prompts will get this information out of your brain and onto the written page.
Your mind map-generated outline will ensure that you never run out of inspiration! All you need now is to develop the focus and discipline necessary to see you through your writing project.
Step 7.1) Make Sure to Write Every Day
Professional authors write every day and so should you. There’s no substitute for rubber to the road when it comes to book writing. You already know what to write (your outline) so you need to put in the time to do so, and this time has to be allocated with a strong sense of purpose.
In other words, you need to budget a set amount of writing time every day, and like most day jobs, it needs to begin and end at the same time every day. What you don’t want to do is to write like a mad person for 6 hours straight until you’re creatively or physically exhausted, and then to take the next couple of days off.
Consistency is key here, especially if you’ve never done a project like this before. Now, how long should you write each day? I recommend between 2 and 3 hours but no longer than that. Not unlike going to a gym, you want to work out the muscle and then rest it so that it can rebuild before the next workout.
It’s critically important during this time that you have no disruptions, either external (phone calls, notifications from electronic devices, people walking in and asking you for help, etc.) or internal (answering emails, making phone calls, browsing the Internet, etc).
So, enlist the help of those around you, turn your smartphone and tablet to airplane mode, and mute the sound in your laptop.
Step 7.2) Write With Your Authentic Voice
A memoir is by definition personal, and as such it demands an author who’s willing to be intimate with their thoughts and vulnerable with their emotions. Remember that people will be reading your book to feel motivated, inspired and uplifted and if you hide behind your words you just won’t be able to connect with readers.
And the only way to truly connect with your audience is to be authentic — to share your authentic self, warts and all! You’ll be encouraging people to overcome their difficulties by giving them permission to be vulnerable themselves through your example.
People will read your memoir because they need you to be their guide to what’s possible in their lives. They’ll want to live vicariously through your life until they can build the courage to face their own challenges (through your inspiring story!).
Step 7.3) Protect Your Characters’ Privacy
Finally, since you’ll be writing a memoir you’ll likely have no choice but to bring other people into your narrative, perhaps family members, perhaps friends or even total strangers.
In all cases, your job is to protect their privacy at all costs. For those people who you portray in a positive light, make sure you get their permission in writing to include them in your book. And for those who you have no choice but to portray in a negative light (deservingly so), as well as those people on the “good” list who wish to remain anonymous, make sure that you fictionalize their characters.
And when I say fictionalize, I mean changing your story in a way that they cannot identify themselves in it. For this purpose you may have to not only fictionalize their names, but also their gender, age, relationship to you (e.g. a father becomes a sports coach or a boss), time and place.
While this may seem, well, fictional in nature, what matters is that the foundation behind your theme remains intact while removing the risk of an expensive lawsuit for defamation and injury to someone’s character and reputation.
Step 8: Hire a Professional Editor
When your first draft manuscript is complete, it’s time to begin the revision process, which should take you several weeks if done right. You want to revise each chapter and each section several times, walk away and “sleep” on the changes and then go back to your manuscript the next day.
The revision process is as creative as the original writing process, but in a different way. While your initial writing is more of a stream of consciousness type of thing, the revision process is more about being a painter putting in the fine strokes to add detail and nuance to your piece.
However, at some point you’ll reach a point of diminishing returns and this will be the stage where you need to hire the services of a professional editor. Professional editors are central to the success of all books, whether published by first-time authors or authors with long, illustrious careers.
No author worth their salt would dare publish an unedited book and neither should you. Your memoir will be inextricably linked to you and your personal image, and you don’t want to publish a book that has great content but that’s presented in an unpolished way (unedited) or worse in an amateurishly edited way (that is, done by non-professionals).
So, make sure you budget for a professional editor to take your diamond in the rough and make it shine! You’ll never regret making this important investment.
Step 9: Hire a Professional Book and Cover Designer
Before readers see your book, they’ll first see your book cover — if you fail to catch their attention at this point, you’ll fail to catch them at all. Unfortunately, all books are judged by their covers (and second to that, their internal layout). So please make sure not to do this important work by yourself, no matter how tempting the available tools may be.
Most word processors offer attractive layout templates and many apps allow you to easily create a book cover with minimal (or no) expense. My strong advice is: take a pass! Book layout and cover design is a multifaceted art. Not only do professional designers have as strong visual sense, but they also know a lot about book marketing.
Some colors may look great to you (perhaps your favorite color?) but don’t work at all for your particular genre in the market. The same goes for font styles and font sizes. Leave this important work to the pros and you’ll never regret making this investment.
Best of luck on the journey to your first memoir!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.