How to write a memoir

Eight vital tips on how to write a great memoir

How to Write a Memoir – The Eight-Step Guide

Quick tips to bring any life story alive

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Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

Nothing deserves great writing more than a life.

The memoir genre is booming and, in the self-publishing arena especially, has brought refreshing variety while highlighting a key point: they must be superbly written. It sounds obvious, but stick with me for the details on how to write a memoir, because there are eight main ways to lift them from dull to inspiring.

That inspiration is just one of the prizes on offer, because memoir offers the most amazing books also able to enlighten, guide, motivate, move and even befriend us. 

Superb fiction transports and toys with us, but even the best gives brief escapism within the confines of a fake world. However crafted the characters, world-building and plot, we know it’s all feigned. 

But, long after fiction’s clapperboard and “Cut!”, memoir keeps rolling on real life.

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

The best writers know people are fascinated by people, and there’s nothing more interesting than our shared humanity, even if it’s a drive-by gawp at a car crash of an existence.

That means, whether it’s the snapshot of a memoir or the full life of an autobiography/biography, they’re often more memorable than fiction. I mean, it actually happened, to a fellow, beating-heart human, on our shared planet, and they’ve invited us in, to see the sugar and shambles. 

It’s a privilege to share their lives, whether they’re chronicling a family history or trying to write a bestseller, and it’s important, when working with the writer during editing, to remember their motivations vary.

Some manuscripts owe their birth to the belief summed up by the saying: “Everyone has a book inside them.” When wonderfully written, they do, but memoirs often miss the mark in the same way that saying does. It’s attributed to Christopher Hitchens, but the author and journalist’s full quote reveals it’s been hijacked. 

“Everyone has a book inside them,” he did say, adding, “which is exactly where it should, I think, in most cases, remain.”

Perhaps he’d seen some of the self-published memoirs I read, randomly, to research this article. Too many prove his point so, in showing you how to write a memoir properly, I’ve narrowed their failings to eight main issues:

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1. Write a life, not a list

Births, marriages, deaths, relationships, break-ups and the like are pivotal, but many memoirs ignore their emotional nature. One of my research memoirs, in a shopping list-type entry, has: “I divorced Lucy in 2009.”

They were married for twelve years and, apparently, loved each other, but, with a haste to shame even a quickie divorce, she’s gone in four words and a numeral.

Those words spurn a great chance to place readers in the action, sharing the author’s emotions.

I’m dramatising below to make a point, but we’d share the author’s divorce trauma more with something like: 

Lucy was cooking my favourite, a chilli, and the beef fat rippled my nose as I eased the front door shut and trudged to the kitchen with that envelope. 

She fluttered a tea towel like a doomed matador at the smoke alarm, but I recall no beeps, just the thud of my heart as she turned, lips softening to that smile, pausing her perfumed kiss, seeing the white paper, the lawyer’s stamp, and her mouth falling to a silent howl.

“Lucy, I’m so, so sorry, but …”

Cheesy, but at least that list entry lives. 

2. Edit life

Aunty Doris might be offended if she’s not included but, hey, she’ll get over it. Equally, not all events are worth including. One research memoir retold the trip to a meeting, including a service station stop. Memoirs offer the perfect chance to do something we’d love to be able to do in reality – edit our lives. 

3. Use fiction techniques

The likes of showing instead of telling can be great in non-fiction too; techniques from one genre can complement another. In point 1, above, for example, senses have been evoked, and short clause lengths have been used to mimic emotion. Writing a memoir, like fiction, is a chance to be creative. If it doesn’t work, a great editor will say so, and it can always be changed.

4. Be open and honest

Nothing seduces readers more than honesty. Warts-and-all openness lifts memoir to oxygen-sucking heights. If it’s uncomfortable to share it, it’s likely to fascinate the reader. Telling all is what I meant, above, by the genre’s ability to “befriend”, because it’s the sharing of the most intimate secrets in a way we’d normally tell no one or only our closest confidantes. 

5. Set your goals

Is it a family history book, intended bestseller or something else? This should shape the way the book’s written. A family history book, for example, wouldn’t need to evoke emotion or use fiction techniques, although they would bring the pages to life. There’s a growing memoir/autobiography movement among family members who want to leave a written record of their lives, perhaps inspired by TV genealogy shows. A book is already more personal than the lifeless public records in those programmes, but the tips here will bring it alive.    

6. Begin with your best

Starting with the earliest memories and working through chronologically is logical, but it’s insipid. Unless a celebrity’s the focus, it’s unlikely to produce a bestseller, when more creativity is needed. Some of the best autobiographies start with the most dramatic, memorable or life-shaping events, which creates natural curiosity about the life that led to them.

7. Theme tune

The best memoirs don’t only share lives: they can change them. Is there a theme, a lesson, to pass on, learnt the hard way? Could it show the power of forgiveness, love, hard work, or reveal a life-altering concept? Can that be shaped from scattered wisdom into a unified, climactic opus with an earworm melody?

8. Personal growth

This is another element from fiction, where protagonists should show change. How is the writer now different? What can they pass on? Life transforms us all physically and mentally, and that melody from above is likely to be part of a whole album. There’ll be bum notes and belters, but they’re singalongs from the lives readers love.

© Lee Dickinson, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

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