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How to Write a Memoir? The 5 Things You Need to Know

Photo credit: Tracy Hart

So, you’re writing a memoir. And maybe you’re not sure how to start, or you just want to make sure you’re doing things right before you go off in a cave, or on retreat, to get it done. There are 5 mistakes I see all the time in memoirs:

1. Too broad a scope

2. Rambling

3. Telling

4. Overreliance on visual details

5. Generics

You won’t have to make those mistakes when you keep these 5 points in mind:

1. This isn’t an autobiography: An autobiography is about a famous person, like a president or celebrity or sports figure, and tells the story of their life. Your memoir should read more like a novel, from a specific period of time. Often, a short period is more dramatic and compelling. Flashbacks can help you fill in important childhood details—or other details from the past. Click Here to Tweet This.

2. Clarify your theme: What’s your book about? The theme of your book will make it easier to know what should go in the book and what to leave out. You’ve heard the expression “murder your darlings”? While you’ll need to let go of  beloved scenes or side-splitting stories that don’t serve the theme, you don’t have to commit any violent acts. In fact, you can save those babies and use them in a blog post—or another book!

3. Trust Your Readers: Novice authors tend to summarize and draw conclusions. A good memoir lets the reader draw conclusions based on the picture painted by the words. For example, let your real life characters’ actions, idoscyncracies, body movements, expressions, dialogue and thoughts speak for themselves. You often don’t need to be the intermediary to interpret.

4. Come to Your Senses: Novices tend to rely on one sense—the sense of sight. A stronger writer uses all the senses, but not all at once. Click Here to Tweet This.

5. Get Specific and Quirky: It’s easy to write a “boy,” “dinner,”  or “a dog” but your work comes to life when the 5-year-old towhead feeds his turkey tetrazzini to the poodle under the kitchen table. The quirkier or more unusual the detail, the more your memoir will ring true as life and become real for your readers.

You may also find these posts helpful: Do You Include Backstory in Your Memoir? and How to Publish a Memoir and this post has some additional publishing tips from Literary Agent Regina Brooks.

Ask your questions below and I will answer!

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions


    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Dr. Joelle,
      Sorry for the dealy. I somehow missed a whole slew of comments while traveling and just realized it!
      My courses are best for self-help, how-to and business books. I do work with some memoirists who feel especially guided to take my Bring Your Book to Life(R) Program, but it’s most fit for self-help, how-to and business books.

  1. Hazel says

    Dear Lisa,
    I need your help, I am writing a memoir and basically promoting and highlighting the importance/presence of fatherhood in the lives of children growing up.
    1. I am struggling with keeping it in the past tense- should I write it in present tense?
    At one of my writing club meetings-one woman suggested I keep it in the present tense. Your thoughts!
    2. I wrote it using sub titles- should I keep it as an ongoing story? Each chapter paints a different picture of growing up.
    Your thoughts.
    3. I need some help with the structuring of the chapters/layout!
    4. Are there grants available to help to secure a publisher?
    Thanks for providing your feedback!
    Hazel Thomas

    • Lisa Tener says

      HI Hazel. Generally, past tense is a good idea. It can be harder to sustain a memoir all in present tense.
      1. You could try present tense and get feedback from a number of beta readers (or an editor) and see what feedback you get, but generally, past tense is best.
      2. I’m not sure what you mean here. Can you clarify? What do you mean you “wrote it using subtitles”? Do you mean it doesn’t have chapter numbers? And what do you mean about whether you should keep it as an ongoing story? Do you mean should you write it in chronological order?
      3. Structuring chapters would be developmental editing. I can recommend an editor. I’ll email you to help with that.
      4. Generally, it would be hard to find a grant – do you mean a grant to hire an editor? Or to help you with a book proposal? Traditional publishing is competitive and you would need excellent writing and a compelling case for the book. And convince publishers you will sell a lot of books. So you might consider self-publishing but of course that takes some budget. Have you looked into Kickstarter or another Crowdfunding website?

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