14 Expert Tips for Writing a Great Memoir

14 Jan 2022


“Stories have to be told, or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” — Sue Monk Kidd

Memories are beautiful treasures and documenting your life in the form of a memoir is an exciting journey. Not only are you able to revisit some of the most beautiful and enjoyable moments in your life, but you’re also able to share them with others.

Exciting as it sounds, there’s more to writing a memoir than meets the eye. It requires unique artistry of craft, technique, and storytelling that can be overwhelming for the inexperienced.

If you aren’t confident about doing a great job bringing your memories to life, you may want to ask yourself: “Should I hire a ghostwriter to write my memoir?”

But before you do that, it’s essential to know what makes an extraordinary memoir. Read on to learn more about writing a compelling memoir.

14 Expert Tips for Writing a Great Memoir

1. Decide on the Purpose of the Memoir

Memoirs are more than just a compilation of facts about your life; they are powerful tools to help you understand yourself and the lives you have impacted through your choices and actions.

When setting out to write a memoir, it's essential to first look at what you want to get out of this experience.

Are you writing for entertainment? Or do you want to document your life for future generations?

Are you fueled by the need to inspire others with your story about perseverance?

Or is writing a memoir your way to exorcise past guilt or trauma?

Whatever the reason, make sure you’re clear on the direction you want to go before you attempt any writing.

Understanding your goals will help you write a draft you can be proud of!

2. Select the Target Audience

When writing a memoir, you’ll want to keep your target audience in mind. For example, if you are writing a memoir for your family, you might want to think about how to revisit past experiences without revising the truth or offending loved ones.

However, if your memoir is intended to serve as an inspiration for readers, then you’ll need to find a powerful theme that resonates with your audience. You want them to know who you are, what you went through, and hopefully learn something from your experiences–all without boring them to death.

3. Find Source Material

A memoir built on memories alone is a memoir that is likely to fail.

You will need to put your story together through documents, photos, video, audio recordings, and anything else you can find. This will take time and effort. You will also need to reach out to family and friends for help in collating information and memorabilia about the events you plan to write about.

For example, you want to talk about an event of historical significance that happened while you were growing up and shaped the course of your life.

You may want to ask your siblings and other relatives for more information to tie up all the details.

You can also visit the library or look up newspaper archives for more facts about it.

The more facts and source material you can include, the stronger your memoir will be.

4. Create a Timeline

After you have put everything together, it will be time to establish an arc for your story, adding elements and structure as you go along. This will make it compelling and engaging. 

A good rule of thumb would be to focus on distinctly important facts and how they affect your story.

Laying out your material in chronological order can help you make connections in your story. For example, you can talk about an event that happened in your childhood that led you to develop certain qualities or characteristics–and go back to it several chapters later.

5. Decide on the Right Tense

It’s common to use past tense when writing a memoir.

Since you're writing about events that have already happened, it may feel the most natural.

However, using past tense while writing a memoir can often lead to a sense of disconnect, if overused.

After all, you want to talk about more than just what happened in the past through your memoir.

Because of this, many memoir writers now write in the present tense—focusing on what’s happening now instead of dwelling in the past.

This can cover everything from how you feel about overcoming problems to how they affect your life presently--giving readers a perspective that's true to both your past and present self.

As Sue William Silverman shares in her writing resource book “Fearless Confessions,” using present tense “reveals the raw emotions describing the person you were.” Meanwhile, writing in past tense “explains and deepens the Voice of Innocence through reflection.”

6. Choose the Theme

Every good memoir follows a running theme with the stories it tells, giving you a better writing direction while helping readers connect with you. The stories and anecdotes you share and the characters you introduce should stir up a reader’s emotion.

For example, if your memoir’s theme is all about discovering self-love, you’ll want to focus on reflecting and sharing about the experiences that led to your transformation. You do not have to tell the readers why your story is inspiring. Rather, let your readers infer the lessons you learned from your account and draw inspiration from them.

A few common themes for memoirs include:

  • Coping with Loss and Learning to Move On
  • Accepting Changes and Adjustments
  • Leadership and Making Tough Choices
  • Overcoming Adversity or Going from Rags to Riches
  • Rising From the Ashes
  • Parenthood

7. Select Your Anecdotes

Now that you know how to decide on the theme you’re going for, it’s time to sieve through your best and worst memories. What’s important is that you look for stories that fit into your theme.

Paint vivid images of your experiences. You can do this by focusing on what you were feeling at the time and your thoughts about it now.

For example, if your theme is about overcoming insecurities, you may want to share how a small comment about your weight or figure by a high school friend led you to obsess about your body image.

You can focus on your subsequent struggles until you came to the point of acceptance, healing, and recovery.

Essentially, it’s crucial to choose anecdotes that encourage your readers to feel what you felt.

Not everyone will go through the same things you have, which is why it’s essential to make sure you form an emotional connection. This allows them to sympathize with how you felt.

For example, someone who has never gone through a breakup can sympathize with you if you appeal to their sense of loss. So, instead of focusing on how a boyfriend dumped you without a second thought, you could talk about how the sudden loss affected you.

8. Put Yourself in the Readers’ Shoes

Remember that captivating your audience takes more than just sharing important experiences you’ve had. And compiling all these experiences in an interesting manner can be difficult, making it hard to connect with your reader. After all, it’s not exactly easy connecting with a complete stranger.

It’s therefore important to put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Make sure you try to understand what they need to hear and what they want to read about.

For example, if you’re writing a memoir for women who want to know how you became an author at such a young age, you should focus on telling them how to get through hurdles like writer’s block.

Writing your memoir allows you to dig deep into a central or focal event in your life and lets you dissect it to explore how you felt the way you did, why you felt a certain way, and the lessons you learned. And it is these lessons that will be the takeaway for your readers.

9. Focus on Key People and Events

Not everything and everyone you meet in your life needs to be mentioned in your memoir. Rather, it’s better to focus only on the key people and events that helped shape your story.

Rambling will only add to the pages, not to your readership, so pick and choose your points of interest well.

If your focus is on incidences that shaped your life, there's no point talking about your college years or your first relationship unless they directly relate to the theme of your story.

Even if you are a public figure, remember that very few people would be keen to read every minute detail about your life from the cradle to where you are currently. Instead, writing about key and transformative events in your life can have more impact.

10. Create a Compelling and Emotional Journey

Since your readers want to connect with your journey, consider incorporating a dramatic arc into your piece. For example, if you’re writing a story about overcoming addiction, it may not be necessary to share the pleasure you got from it.

Focus instead on how you realized the negative effect of the addiction on your life and family. You can then lead up to the incident that compelled you to turn your life around. Even just one pivotal event can serve as compelling material you can weave into an exciting narrative.

11. Use Vivid Language

Memoirs can be mentally and emotionally draining for both the writer and the reader.

That being said, you'll want to make your experiences livelier by adding images and vivid descriptions to your piece.

You can do this in many ways--depending on the situation.

For example, f you're talking about an experience that's embarrassing or awkward, you can inject a dose of humor into it.

This will make it easy for your readers to laugh with you as they picture themselves in similar situations.

Or, if you're talking about learning to cook from your grandmother, adding pictures of the food and then describing the smells and flavors will help your reader feel like they are right there in your family kitchen.

12. Emphasize Your Growth

A major part of memoir writing is showing your readers where you began and how far you’ve come. If this story touches on an obstacle that’s still in your way, you can reflect on that, too.

For example, if you are writing about what it was like living with your parents, it wouldn’t be appropriate to share everything they did that seemed like an obstacle to you.

Instead, consider sharing how their personalities have influenced or continue to influence your decisions and what your readers can take away from them.

13. Choose an Appropriate Title

To create a memoir that's worth reading, you have to have a title that hooks your reader’s attention.

A title that is too generic won't help your readers figure out what the book is about. Stick to something that's easy to understand and resonates with who you are as a person.

Here are some tips you may find helpful:

  • Base your title on a problem that you want to solve.
  • Make your title easy to remember.
  • Start with something witty.

14. Avoid These Common Mistakes

Many memoirs fail not because they aren’t interesting enough but because they simply don’t feel right. To make sure you’re on the right path, here are some mistakes you should avoid:

  • Revenge writing. While it’s a good idea to let the past fuel your passion for becoming your best self, it’s never a good idea to write a memoir just to get back at someone. Your memoir should focus on how you’ve grown as a person and not how your high school bully is out there pumping gas while you’re writing successful books.
  • Starting your story about the day you were born. No one needs to know exactly what happened in the delivery room. In most cases, the story of how and where you were born doesn’t really impact your memoir in any way, so it’s best to stick to something else, unless your birth circumstances were truly unique.
  • Not plotting. Making sure your events follow the correct order will help build substance in your story. This way, you aren’t only able to weave stories that make sense, but you can also connect them with your underlying theme or narrative.

Final Thoughts

Writing a memoir isn’t for the faint-hearted or a project to be taken lightly. It’s a story about your experiences, your wins and losses, and how you’ve grown as a person.

It requires vulnerability, unflinching honesty, tremendous courage, and an unwavering determination to use your life lessons to inspire others to turn their lives around.

It will call for hours of introspection, writing, and then rewriting.

And most importantly, the skill of having a way with words.

But that does not have to stop you from your dream of writing your memoir. Hire a ghostwriter today and get started on penning your life story for posterity.

Debbie Y. Tayo-Odeshilo 
Debbie has been working with clients for almost 10 years providing copywriting, editing, proofreading, rewriting, coaching, and content marketing services. She started her career as an ACCA Certified Accountant with a multinational where she developed an eagle eye for detail and zero tolerance for errors. However, her creativity needed expression, and she made a career change into Content Marketing & Communications. She now uses her skills, expertise, and passion to provide writing, editing, strategy, and marketing solutions to help brands and business owners gain more visibility and profit.

She enjoys life being a happy wife, and loving mom to an active toddler and a Lhasa Apso. She also loves being in nature, relaxing to gospel music, and soaking up family time.

Related Content

  • 1 Comment

One thought on “14 Expert Tips for Writing a Great Memoir

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *