How to Write a Memoir: A 12 Step Guide

Are you wondering how to write a memoir? This guide shows memoir writers how to take their own life story and transform it into a marketable book.

Everyone has a story, and a memoir is your opportunity to tell that story to the world. Yet many writers struggle with how to write a memoir that is engaging and marketable. Writing a book about your own life is actually harder than you might think.

The key to doing this successfully is a good plan. With a solid outline and a good plan, you can write a great memoir. Here is how to get started.

How to Write a Memoir

How to write a memoir a 12 step guide

From the moment they open your memoir to the moment they read the last paragraph, your reader should feel engaged and inspired by your writing. So how can you accomplish this? 

Memoir writing isn't simply journaling. It takes a plan and purpose. Before you start writing your first draft, take some time to do a little planning.

1. Decide Why You're Writing

Before you even start your outline, ask yourself why you are writing a memoir. Your goal may be inspirational, feeling that you can help others by sharing your story, or it may be more practical, such as trying to earn some money or build your personal brand.

Regardless, have a specific reason for writing that you can tap into to guide your planning.

2. Choose a Focus

Many new memoirists mistakenly assume that a memoir is an autobiography. While they are similar, the two types of books are different. A memoir does not span the entire life, but rather focuses on one moment or experience.

Choose the focus of your memoir or the theme of your story. This will guide your writing as you move forward with the writing process.

3. Craft an Outline

You'll feel surprised by how challenging it is to write an outline of your own life story. Remember, you want the writing to be engaging from the first word. Before you start writing, craft a plan.

With your outline, you can make some decisions about where you will start. Not all memoirists write about their entire life. They may start with high school, college or another clear starting point where the main idea of their life story happens.

Take time on your outline, changing it as you need to. This will focus your writing well.

4. Highlight Your Turning Points

What makes a memoir memorable is not the retelling of an amazing story. Rather, it is the way the writer shows how the hardest parts of a life story become turning points that transform tragedy into triumph.

As you write, highlight those turning points and what you learned through them. This will make your personal memoir engaging and insightful.

5. Choose the Right Opening

The way you open your memoir is critical. It is your one chance to hook your reader and make them want to keep reading.

Sometimes people start with a funny story. Leading with humor, even if your overall theme is a darker one, is helpful in grabbing the reader's attention.

Leading with a dramatic moment can help too, especially if that moment is the main focus of your memoir. You don't need all the details in the opening, and you can revisit the moment later in the book, but this can be a good place to start.

6. Create Emotions

How to write a memoir
Use your writing to evoke emotion in the reader

As you write, make sure that you aren't just listing autobiographical facts about your life.

Remember, this isn't an autobiography. Use your writing to evoke emotion in the reader, keeping emotive language carefully spread throughout the piece.

7. Fill in with Details

While the main focus of your memoir is your story, make sure you fill in some details. Does the setting or time period play a role in the story? If so, make sure you include information about that.

Are there details about your job, family or backstory that make sense to include? Then add them. These types of details will flesh out your story and make it more interesting and vivid in the eyes of the reader.

8. Be Honest

You may feel tempted to make your life experience a bit more colorful than it is to create a compelling story but avoid this trap. Make your own experiences as engaging as possible, but always tell the truth. A good memoir is able to create a story out of the truth that people want to read.

That said, keep in mind that the story is the truth from your point of view, and a family member or friend who knew you at the time may have a different point of view. It is fine to tell your real life in your own viewpoint, as long as you are not knowingly untruthful.

9. Keep Your Reader in Mind, but Also Write for Yourself

In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt writes about a challenging childhood, yet he keeps his reader in mind and avoids falling into the trap of talking like a victim. His personal narrative is compelling as a result.

Many first-time memoirists find the process therapeutic, but you must keep writing with the reader in mind as well as your own needs.

10. Know Your Limits

Your memoir likely won't cover your entire life, so consider defining your limits before you start writing, instead of letting the story define it. When you know your theme and have a solid outline, you will naturally find the right limit for your memoir.

If you are having trouble, go back to your original question. Why are you telling your memoir? What is in your life that is worth telling?

When you answer this, you will know where the boundaries of your story are.

11. Write Your Opening Last

If you find yourself stuck as you try to start writing, consider writing the opening last. Once the rest of your story is on paper or computer screen, you may have a clearer idea of how to open it. This will help you move past your writer's block and simply start writing.

12. Think Like a Fiction Writer

Even though a memoir is a nonfiction book, you should try to think like a fiction writer. The main character, which in this case is you, is going to walk through the story structure. 

This means you need a plot, turning points, a setting, and character development. Write your memoir like a fiction writer, and it will be compelling.

Examples Of Memoir Writers

If you want to become great at writing memoirs, studying successful memoir writers can help. Here are some worth looking into:

1. Just Kids by Patti Smith: This book is Smith’s exploration of her young adult years and her rise to fame.

Just Kids Illustrated Edition
  • Hardcover Book
  • Smith, Patti (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages - 10/23/2018 (Publication Date) - Ecco (Publisher)

2. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: Macdonald explores grief and falconry in this poignant memoir.

H Is for Hawk
  • Grove Pr
  • Macdonald, Helen (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 03/08/2016 (Publication Date) - Grove Press (Publisher)

3. Negroland by Margo Jefferson: In this book, Jefferson discusses as an African-American socialite in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s.

Negroland: A Memoir
  • Vintage
  • Jefferson, Margo (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 272 Pages - 08/23/2016 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

4. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant: History lovers will appreciate a closer look into what made this famous man who he was.

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
  • Grant, Ulysses S. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 323 Pages - 06/03/2020 (Publication Date) - Independently published (Publisher)

5. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen: Bixen discusses her life managing a coffee plantation in Kenya and the adventures she experienced.

Out of Africa (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books)
  • Modern Library
  • Hardcover Book
  • Dinesen, Isak (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 416 Pages - 09/05/1992 (Publication Date) - Modern Library (Publisher)

The Final Word on How to Write a Memoir

Your memoir gives you a chance to dig deep into your story and the emotions it brings. It is a true story about you, and other people may see themselves in it, but stay true to who you are and what your life story tells. 

With careful planning, you can write a memoir that not only inspires others but also will sell well. Who knows? With the right outline and a compelling story, you just might be the next memoir writer to sell a million copies on Amazon! 

Check out our guides

How to Write a Book

The Best Memoir Writing Software

FAQs About How to Write a Memoir

What are the main elements of a memoir?

A memoir is a compelling story that tells a true story from the first-person point of view, often highlighting one particular aspect of the memoir writer's life story.

What are some examples of a memoir?

Henry David Thoreau's classic Walden is an example of a memoir. So is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

  • Bryan Collins runs things around here. He's also a non-fiction writer and author.

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