Tips on Writing a Memoir From Start to Finish

Kevin Ott
Senior man writing

There is something uniquely rewarding about writing a memoir and documenting a particular time period or aspect of your life. Develop and refine the satisfying journey of writing a memoir with a few steps and exercises.

Begin With an Inspiration Exercise

The structure and focus of a memoir is similar to a great movie. Most films focus on only one event or theme in a character's life. A fun way to get inspired for this task is to make a list of five films you love. Answer these questions about each film:

  1. What is the primary goal of the protagonist (the main character)?
  2. What major conflict (or conflicts) get in the protagonist's way?
  3. How does the protagonist respond to the major obstacle? (Poorly at first? Better later?)
  4. How do the conflicts get resolved?
  5. Does the protagonist achieve their goal?
  6. How is the protagonist different by the end of the film?

Going through this exercise will help you get in a good mindset for structuring your memoir.

Decide on the Event or Theme

Decide on the Event or Theme

It's time to get more specific. Which event or theme from your life will be covered? For example, it might be about:

  • Love and romance: You can tell the story of your romantic relationships. This is an example of how a memoir might dip into every time period of your life while remaining focused on a single theme.
  • Coming of age: This is an example of focusing on a specific time period. In a coming of age story, your memoir would focus exclusively on an event or a series of events in your early adolescence.
  • Career-related drama: If you've had an interesting experience working in a company or organization, you can focus on the behind-the-scenes story of your experience.

Prepare Lists Using a Helpful App

Prepare cards for listing memories related to the event or theme. Grab some notecards, either physical ones or virtual ones on notecard-styled organizer apps such as Trello. Every good story, whether memoir or movie, unfolds in three acts. Start with three notecards with the following headers (just the words in bold):

  • Act 1 - The Exposition: You introduce the reader to yourself, the primary goal during this time of your life, and the early events that lead up to the major conflict at the center of your memoir. Sometimes this event moves you to create the primary goal.
  • Act 2 - The Conflict: This is the life-changing event and the primary source of tension. It is either a major obstacle to a goal you had already set or it is the catalyst for creating a new goal.
  • Act 3 - The Resolution: In the final act, the reader learns how you reacted to the conflict, how it was resolved (by you or someone else), and the closing events that show how the resolution of the conflict changed you and affected your life.

Once you've created a card for each act, list as many memories as you can that related to each act during that period of your life.

Add Six More Cards

Once you have nice long lists of memories relating to each act, create six more cards. On each card, write one of the six questions you answered about the movies. Make a list of memories or facts that answer each question. Write as many memories or related events as you can until you have a detailed sense of how your memoir would answer those six questions.

Begin Writing (But Not Necessarily in Order)

Use the nine cards you've created as guides for structure. This does not necessarily mean you have to start at the beginning of the three Acts and write the book chronologically. The goal is to avoid writer's block at all costs. If necessary, start with the event or memory that jumps out at you the most and screams, "Write about me!" the loudest.

Final Revisions and Word Count

After you finish the book, go through the entire manuscript several times. Look for spelling and grammatical errors. Find awkward sentences and re-write them. This is a good time to get the word count trimmed down (or beefed up) to an ideal length. Your memoir length could be about 80,000 words (i.e. 20 chapters with 4,000 words each). Aim for something close to that if you plan on submitting to a publisher or literary agent. If the memoir is for personal satisfaction or just friends and family, make it as long or short as you want.

Tough Love Makes Better Books

If you're writing with commercial publishing goals in mind, you'll have to be tough on yourself as you edit the manuscript and prepare it for submission with a proposal. However, let the tough love come in the later stages of revising. In the early stages, the goal is to avoid writer's block at all costs even if the writing is awful. Do whatever is necessary to keep the writing flowing until the book is finished.

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Tips on Writing a Memoir From Start to Finish