How to Choose the Perfect Topic for Your Memoir

You have a story to tell, and you want to write a book. Not just any book, though. You want to write a book about your life.

You love a good memoir, and you know that they are popular. You’ve lived an interesting life and you think it would translate into a remarkable memoir.

But how do you write it? Do you simply tell the story of your life, or does it need to be more zeroed in than that?

Spoiler alert! Yes! A good memoir should have some focus beyond just telling the story of your life. The good news is that you have many options when selecting a plan of attack for your memoir. Here are a few suggestions to help you figure out what your memoir should be about.

What is a memoir?

Let's start with the basics.

Before you can write a memoir, you need to understand just what makes a memoir a memoir and not an autobiography.

According to Merriam-Webster, a memoir is 'a narrative composed from personal experience.' In contrast, an autobiography is defined as 'a usually written account of a person's life in their own words.'

There are two words there that make all the difference:

A memoir is a narrative based on your life’s experiences, while an autobiography is an account of your life.

In other words, your memoir needs to be a story. That means it will need structure, plot, theme, characters, and emotion.

Another way to look at it is this: A great memoir can become a great movie, while an autobiography becomes a documentary. It’s a tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you want to keep your readers imagining what’s happening as if it’s on the big screen.

It’s all about the theme!

A memoir is a story of personal change. It’s not a chronicle of your whole life from birth to death.

It's about who you were as a person at one point in your life and the situations and actions that establish a fundamental change in how you think and act from that point on.

It may be a period of years or just one remarkably significant afternoon.

But your memoir should focus on a limited period of time when you uncovered a new truth.

Think about some of the most popular memoirs of the past few decades. Each gives you a peek into the emotional growth of the author through some significant situations. Some are broader than others, but each has a definite theme on which the narrative of the author’s life is built.

Here are a few good examples:

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen – Battling mental illness and the mental health system experience.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth GilbertEnlightening travel experiences as the author copes with divorce.

The Tender Bar by J. R. MoehringerLonging for his estranged father or some sort of father figure while trying not to become like his father as he grows into adulthood.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouRacism, poverty, and learning to love oneself.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonLife in civilization versus life out in nature.

Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch AlbomLife lessons and mentorship.

How many of those memoirs also became successful movies? Yeah, most of them. That’s what we’re talking about!

If you’re not sure what kind of theme you could use, consider some of these common, yet successful, themes found in memoirs:

  • Accepting change
  • Coming of age
  • Dealing with loss
  • Determination
  • Discrimination
  • Divorce
  • Drug addiction
  • Faith
  • Friendship
  • Forgiveness
  • Greed
  • Hard work
  • Hope
  • Leadership
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Parenthood
  • Poverty
  • Self-esteem
  • Survival
  • War
  • Wealth
  • Weight loss

This list is just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives you the idea.

There’s something bigger going on in your story than just a recounting of a part of your life. Your theme becomes the thread that holds your story together and keeps it moving forward.

What theme should I choose?

So, you might be asking yourself this question. Of course, the answer is very personal.

Your memoir is based on your life, so why not start there?

If you're struggling to come up with a theme that resonates with you, list out 5-10 major events from your life that you feel changed you somehow. What were you like at the beginning of each event, and how did you grow from it?

You may be looking for the event that had the greatest impact on your life, or you may notice that several of your events are centered around the same concept.

Keep your reading audience in mind. Whom are you writing it for, and what do you want them to take away from your story?

As you begin to outline your memoir with your theme in place, you’ll know quickly if it’s right or not.

It’s your story. Your memoir is about you, but it’s about more than you. Choose the right theme for your memoir, and you can weave a story that people will love to read over and over again.

It’s also about structure.

You may have noticed that all or most of the memoirs cited above have also been made into successful movies.

The reason they work so well as movies is because they have structured stories. They follow a standard story structure with a beginning, a rise to a climax, and a resolution.

Now, they may not be blockbuster action flicks with car chase scenes and explosions, but they're cinematic.

Keep in mind other aspects of your story such as:

  • Setting. You may have one central setting or dozens of places but choose them carefully and make them real for your readers.
  • Characters. One of the great opportunities in a memoir is the chance to showcase the characters in your life! In some cases, you may want to tread lightly so as not to offend but stay true to your story.
  • Conflict. No story is very interesting unless there is conflict. What do you want in your story, and what stands in your way? Make your readers feel the stakes and worry about the outcome along with you.
  • Emotion. This cannot be stressed enough! Whether it’s humor, grief, fear, relief, or any other emotion, it has to be a major part of your memoir. Your readers don’t just want to read about your life; they want to ride that roller coaster with you and come out just as changed at the end of the ride as you were.

If you want to write your memoir and you already believe you have a story to tell, the key is to home in on the events that had the greatest impact on you and craft your story around them. Then, start outlining your story and get the ball rolling.

Writing your memoir can be difficult and time-consuming, but it can also be a deeply rewarding experience.

And if you find that you need help with the writing, don’t be afraid to hire a ghostwriter to help.

The most important thing is that you enjoy every minute of the process!

Writing the Perfect Memoir: 5 Unforgettable Memoir Formats

“The ordinary stories of our ordinary lives have extraordinary gifts coded within them.” — Christina Baldwin

Writing a memoir often seems reserved for people with extraordinary lives. There is a perception that memoirs should tell remarkable stories about singular people.

While memoirs of singular lives are truly inspiring, the truth is that people with seemingly ordinary lives have so much to tell. Stories of so-called ordinary lives can deliver untold value to anyone who reads about them. Thus, anyone with an inner desire to tell their life story should set about chronicling their unique experience.

The question then becomes how to go about penning a memoir that truly encapsulates one’s unique experience.

5 Unforgettable Memoir Formats

1. The Desire Within

This memoir format revolves around a statement or question. The author specifically addresses a wish, desire, or goal they achieved. As a result, the entire memoir discusses the subject’s journey in attaining their desire.

Some authors prefer starting from the climactic event and working their way up to that moment.

For instance, an Olympic athlete describes their crowning achievement. They discuss their feelings and satisfaction after making their dreams come true. Then, they take the reader on the journey leading up to that crowning moment.

Other authors prefer to start from their journey’s beginning. As they narrate the story, the overarching theme is the desire to achieve something in their lives. The story eventually leads up to the crowning achievement. As a result, the climactic moment comes much later in the story.

With either memoir format,  the overarching theme revolves around the subject’s innermost wishes and desires. However, authors must ensure they do not give away too much at the book’s outset. For instance, starting the story with a climactic event only works if the narrative piques the reader’s interest. Otherwise, there may be no need to read the rest of the book if the author has already revealed the most crucial information.

American author and columnist Caroline Knapp make a great point by saying, “By definition, a memoir demands a certain degree of introspection and self-disclosure. In order to fully engage a reader, the narrator has to make herself known, has to allow her own self-awareness to inform the event she describes.” Indeed, the writer must make herself known throughout the narrative. The key lies in providing the reader with just enough to keep them moving on to the next page.

2. The Bumps in the Road

Some of the most memorable memoirs chronicle the obstacles and roadblocks along the subject’s journey. This memoir format typically follows a chronological order, especially if the subject has to face one bump in the road after another.

Generally speaking, this memoir format takes readers along a tough road filled with valuable lessons and insights.

For instance, the subject tells the story of the challenges they faced to become famous athletes, entertainers, business leaders, scientists, military commanders, and so on.

The “bump in the road” memoir format may also focus on a specific episode in the subject’s life. For example, think of a military leader describing everything they went through during a war. The narrative gravitates around the difficulties the subject faced as they eventually overcame the obstacles they had to endure.

Neil Simon, American playwright, screenwriter, and author, offers this wonderful thought, “It’s always painful when you’re writing memoir because you’ve got to go through the dark places, but it gives you a chance to find out the person you really are, not the person you thought you were.” This valuable insight underscores a valuable element in this memoir format: the author must highlight how overcoming bumps in the road has transformed them into the person they are today. In other words, the subject would have never become the singular individual they are, had it not been for the challenges they faced.

3. The Rollercoaster Ride

The “rollercoaster” ride is a type of memoir format that takes readers on a wild adventure across a number of places, circumstances, characters, and events.

Consequently, the “rollercoaster” ride memoir format tends to leapfrog from one event, time, and place to another.

The main objective is to keep readers on their toes, so they never know what to expect. Nevertheless, the author must ensure the story’s events clearly link to one another.

Failing to link events adequately may lead to a confusing narrative.

“Rollercoaster” memoirs often “play” with time. Authors tend to move throughout time in this memoir format. They describe past and present events interchangeably.

This approach allows authors to explain why certain events happened and how those events impact the present.

For instance, a political leader’s memoirs may address several specific events that highlighted their career. Thus, the author needs to provide details explaining why those events occurred.

The rollercoaster ride forces the author to jump between the past and present in order to give readers the full picture.

Poet Staceyann Chin offers the following tidbit, “I’m a memoir writer. I try to understand the world by taking experiences I have and making them into a story, whether it’s a narrative memoir, blogging for The Huffington Post, writing poems, or talking on the screen about what has happened to me and how that related to the world at large.” Ultimately, a rollercoaster ride must relate the author’s personal story to the world at large. Their thoughts, experiences, and feelings must fit within a larger scheme. This approach enables the author to give readers an exciting and coherent view of their perspective.

4. Turning Points

The “turning points” memoir format focuses the narrative on a singular, life-changing event. These events can be either good or bad. Nevertheless, turning points tend to be tragic events that turn the subject’s life upside down.

In this memoir format, the story typically focuses on a period of the author’s life.

As a result, most of the details surrounding their childhood, family history, or professional experiences may go unnoticed unless they directly contribute to the main event.

For example, the “turning point” memoir format describes how the tragic loss of a loved one changes the author’s life. The narrative ultimately ends with valuable lessons learned, leading the author to become a better person in the end.

Blues singer Judy Collins once stated the following, “My Book ‘Trust Your Heart,’ which is the story of my life, will be followed by ‘Singing Lesson,’ a memoir of love, loss, hope, and healing, which talks about the death of my son and the hope that has been the aftermath of healing from that tragedy.” In this memoir, Collins describes how the loss of her son become a significant turning point in her life. While sorrowful and tragic, the healing process allowed her to become a better person. Therefore, despite the despondent event marking her overall outlook on life, the story offers a positive outcome.

Please note that not all turning points need to be sad. There are positive turning points that can turn the author’s life upside-down. In this approach, the author comes across a fortuitous event or singular achievement that completely changes their life.

For instance, artists describe how a hit song or part in a movie catapults them to overnight fame. Similarly, unexpected windfalls such as winning the lottery transform the subject’s life. When using positive turning points, authors must ensure they convey an important lesson. In doing so, the author can reveal how their life was never the same again.

5. Going in Reverse

Most memoirs follow a chronological order. They start at the earliest point in the subject’s life and work their way up to the time of writing. This approach works very well when the subject has lived a long and rich life.

Also, this memoir format works very well when exploring extensive periods of the subject’s life. Presidents and political leaders with long careers typically use this format.

In contrast, the “going in reverse” memoir format begins with the present time and goes back into the past.

This style is generally the most complex as it requires a consistent storyline throughout the entire narrative. If the author fails to maintain a consistent storyline, the overall narrative may become too confusing to follow.

Consider this example:

A famous entertainer begins their memoirs by describing how success and fame shaped their life after a poor childhood. The story goes back in time to highlight specific events that contributed to their success, leading them to become rich and famous. However, a series of events leads them back to where they started; poor and obscure.

Please note that this memoir format does not begin with a climactic event. Instead, the author discusses climactic events throughout the book’s narrative, eventually coming full circle to the book’s beginning. This memoir format is great when the author ends up right back where they started. Along the way, the memoir recounts the most valuable lessons learned, often underscoring transformational experiences. Thus, the subject is not the same even though they wind up back to where the story began.

Renowned writer Elie Wiesel once said, “I will say, with memoirs, you must be honest. You must be truthful.” Indeed, coming full circle in a memoir requires the author to be honest about what happened and why it happened. Without honesty, memoirs lack the personal touch readers crave to uncover.

How a Ghostwriter Can Help Produce an Unforgettable Memoir

There are times when writing a memoir may prove to be more complex than anticipated.

Writing a memoir requires time.

Authors need time to sit down to organize their ideas. They must then create an outline before putting down a single word on paper.

Once a reasonable outline is ready, the author can set about producing an initial draft. Upon completion, that draft must go through revisions before a final manuscript can emerge.

Producing a final manuscript can take months or even years, depending on time and effort. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of setting aside weeks or even months to focus on writing.

In addition, writing a memoir requires experience.

First-time writers often learn that writing is not a fluid process. In other words, writing tends to function more like stop-and-go traffic. Some days are full of inspiration and yield positive results. Some days produce very little results, even with focused writing time.

Given these potential limitations, the emergence of a ghostwriter can help memoir writers get past the most complicated hurdles. Memoir writers can choose to hire a ghostwriter to help them with some or all of the work. In particular, ghostwriters can tackle the heavy lifting, that is, putting pen to paper.

Memoir authors typically go through the creative aspect of the planning process. Thus, authors produce outlines and curate content for inclusion in the text itself. Ghostwriters can then set out crafting the literary material that comprises the text itself.

Ultimately, hiring a trusted ghostwriter helps memoir writers produce professional-quality content that truly reflects their intended message. However, there is one caveat: not all professional ghostwriters are suitable for every type of project. As a result, memoir authors ought to meet and interview ghostwriters until they find someone that shares their vision and has the right experience.

Final Thoughts

A memoir is a deeply personal exercise. Memoirs help transmit learning experiences that can enhance readers’ lives. Seemingly ordinary people have extraordinary tales to tell. Therefore, the challenge becomes to find the most appropriate format to reflect the journey. The right format can make a story come alive from page one.

The right memoir format can take a person’s journey through life and translate it into a universal language, understandable to people from all walks of life. The trick lies in ensuring memoir writers find the most suitable format. That process often requires some experimentation. Nevertheless, the outcome is certainly worth the effort.

Who Is on Your Memoir or Autobiography Team? Why You Need the Right Members

“A memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, this is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it.” — Jeannette Walls

You are thinking about writing your memoir or autobiography to record your life experiences and share them with the world.

That is a wonderful idea!

Your first instinct might be to go at it alone. So, you sit down at your computer and fire away. Then, you realize that a project such as this is not quite as straightforward as you thought.

Of course, you have a head full of ideas. But you may have some difficulty translating them into an articulated text. Moreover, this may be the first time you set out to write something of this magnitude.

For many folks, writing a memoir or autobiography is a unique undertaking. Sometimes, they lack the experience and expertise necessary to complete a writing project of this scale.

Then, there is time. Indeed, some folks do not have the time to produce a full-length book. As a result, admirable projects like memoirs and autobiographies languish. Eventually, they remain incomplete.

However, a failed project is not the worst tragedy.

The worst tragedy is depriving the world of your valuable and meaningful contribution. After all, we all have worthwhile stories and experiences to share.

With a writing team on your side, your memoir or autobiography is sure to become a reality. So, stay tuned for some great tips on how to build the right team for your writing project.

Why Should You Write Your Memoir or Autobiography?

Founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.”

Well, what if you have done something worth writing? Then, it is time to write something worth reading.

Undoubtedly, we all have something to share with the world. We have stories, anecdotes, experiences, wisdom, and lessons to share. Moreover, other people are interested in hearing what we have to say.

The question should not be why should you write your memoir or autobiography. The real question is why shouldn’t you!

The reality is that there is no reason why you should not put pen to paper. You have absolutely nothing to lose by communicating your singular life experience to the world.

By holding back, you deny others the wealth of your wisdom and insight. So, the real issue becomes how to get started.

Getting Started with Your Memoir or Autobiography

The first major hurdle to clear is defining whether you wish to write a memoir or an autobiography. You must first have a clear idea of which approach best fits your goals.

Memoir

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a memoir as a “narrative composed from personal experience.” In short, a memoir emerges from your personal account of your life. As such, a memoir must contain first-hand knowledge.

Of course, supporting information can help boost your narrative’s credibility. Nevertheless, a memoir should be your narrative above any other information source.

Also, a memoir is more akin to a snapshot of your life. It generally serves to chronicle a specific chapter in your life or career.

A classic example is the choice of former presidents: Often, ex-presidents write memoirs about their time in office. These memoirs serve a dual purpose. First, they help preserve a former president’s legacy. Second, the memoirs allow readers to gain first-hand insight into what transpired during a specific administration.

Please note that the value in a memoir lies in the privileged access to information readers get. Access to this information would not be possible without the author’s willingness to pen their life experience.

Autobiography

Now, let’s consider what an autobiography is. Merriam-Webster defines an autobiography as a “written account of a person’s life in their own words.”

As you can see, we are talking about a person, writing about themself, using their words. Thus, an autobiography is a first-person narrative that takes readers through an entire life experience.

Herein lies the biggest difference between a memoir and an autobiography.

If you aim to chronicle your entire life journey, then you must consider writing an autobiography.

However, if are interested in focusing on a specific chapter of your life, you must concentrate on writing a memoir.

Once you have made the biggest decision regarding your project, it is time to assemble your writing team.

Why Do You Need a Writing Team?

Producing a full-length book is no easy task. Therefore, you must consider all the elements that go into producing a top-notch publication.

To begin with, producing a book takes time. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time to research, write, edit, proofread, and prepare a book for publication.

Additionally, these tasks require a certain degree of experience and expertise. While you are certainly an expert in your field, you may not have the necessary knowledge and familiarity with the publishing industry.

Here is where your writing team comes into play.

Your team can handle the heavy lifting for your memoir or autobiography. They can help you translate your ideas and vision into a neat package that is ready for publication.

Furthermore, your writing team allows you to concentrate on the most important task: getting your story out to the world.

They can help you take notes, write a rough draft, and polish the final manuscript into a finished product. This endeavor is similar to polishing a diamond. You have produced the most precious part of the process already. Your team will make sure your diamond is ready to present to the public.

Putting Your Team Together

A successful writing team consists of various members. Each one plays a key role in the content’s development. Moreover, they should all work together to form a seamless unit. Ultimately, they can help you produce the high-quality material you envision.

Let’s take a look at each member in detail.

Hiring a Ghostwriter

When you hear the term “ghostwriter,” you may not be entirely sure what it means. You may have even heard negative stories about ghostwriters. However, a professional ghostwriter can mean the difference between your project gathering dust and having it come alive.

Let’s be clear about something. A ghostwriter is not going to write your memoir or autobiography for you.

A ghostwriter will merely take your ideas and thoughts and translate them into professional-grade copy. In other words, a ghostwriter has the linguistic tools to articulate your ideas in the most suitable way.

A ghostwriter’s linguistic ability makes hiring this professional a worthwhile investment in both time and effort.

First, hiring a ghostwriter saves time in terms of penning the narrative. In particular, a ghostwriter can drastically cut down the time needed to produce the bulk of a draft.

Please bear in mind that there is a specific reason behind this assumption. Professional ghostwriters measure their productivity in terms of time. An experienced ghostwriter will strive to get the job done as quickly as possible. Therefore, a talented ghostwriter will do their best to produce quality material efficiently.

Second, a professional ghostwriter will seek to get the job done right the first time. This approach prevents wasted time with lengthy revisions and costly rewrites. Ultimately, hiring a professional ghostwriter greatly facilitates the entire production process.

Renowned actor Bruce Boxleitner once remarked, “So I had a ghostwriter, they call them, or somebody who is an experienced writer, to help. I’ve got the ideas in my head. It’s getting them properly on paper.”

Indeed, these words encapsulate the role a ghostwriter can play on your team. They can make the difference between an idea floating around in your head and a work of art coming to life.

Recruiting a Historian

Historians play a key role on an autobiography or memoir team. They can help fill in gaps in ways ghostwriters cannot. By definition, historians are familiar with events surrounding specific points in time. Consequently, they can provide accuracy and credibility to any book.

At their core, memoirs and autobiographies contain first-hand accounts.

However, these accounts may require corroboration to ensure their accuracy. But this is not to say that you need to “prove” your story.

The point goes beyond that.

Crafting the entire context around the events in your narrative helps the reader understand its underpinnings. Readers need to see the broader context to grasp an author’s circumstances fully. Without this context, the reader might miss important elements of your story.

Consider this situation.

An autobiography set during the civil rights movement needs to expand out to the broader social context of the 1960s. Otherwise, the reader may not fully appreciate how meaningful the content truly is. It is the larger picture that helps readers gain a full understanding of the situation around the author.

Historians can help craft that context accurately and concisely.

Like a professional ghostwriter, a historian can help you bring your story to life. Of course, your account is compelling enough on its own. Nevertheless, a historian will help you place your narrative within its rightful historical context.

Choosing an Editor

No team would be complete without an editor. A professional editor helps you refine your book’s content. Editors play a crucial role, especially if you hope to release your book through an established publisher.

Please note that editors are not merely proofreaders.

A proofreader checks for spelling and grammar mistakes. An editor does so much more than that. A professional editor can take your narrative and provide insights on various levels.

First, an editor can provide a “developmental edit.” This type of edit consists of providing suggestions and ideas on a manuscript’s contents. For example, the editor might suggest introducing a climactic event earlier in the book. Also, an editor may suggest changing the tone or pacing of the book.

Second, an editor can provide an “editorial assessment.” This is a list of recommendations on a draft that aim to make the finished product more engaging to a target audience. For instance, an editorial assessment may suggest you use a lighter tone if you want to reach a younger audience.

Now, here is a remarkable characteristic of your autobiography or memoir team: Your chosen editor and ghostwriter can work in tandem to produce your book. This approach saves a considerable amount of time and effort. By the time a manuscript reaches your hands, you will find a neatly polished work. Then, you can provide your input.

Once you feel satisfied with the finished product, you can confidently release it.

Deciding to Hire a Proofreader

Traditionally, editors handled the proofreading process. However, the use of automated proofreading tools nowadays has drastically facilitated the proofreading process. As such, you can choose to have your writing team use automated tools to check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Alternatively, you can choose to hire a professional proofreader to go over the content.

Please note that the difference between a proofreader and an editor lies in the suggestions they make.

While an editor suggests changes in the story and the narrative’s structure, a proofreader only highlights linguistic issues. Consequently, a proofreader should never make suggestions on the writing itself.

If you prefer the human touch, a professional proofreader can deliver the plus that no automated tools can.

Bringing Your Team Together

Generally speaking, there are two ways to bring your team together.

The first approach is to hire individual members. Note that you will need time to reach out to ghostwriters and editors. Then, you will need to evaluate their track records and interview them. Lastly, you will need to meet with your entire team to review your ideas.

Once you have your ideas out there, you will most likely need to share any writing you have already done or record your stories. From there, the ghostwriter will set pen to paper. Meanwhile, a historian can conduct research to provide the ghostwriter with the elements they need to craft the narrative. Finally, the editor can review the entire narrative.

The second approach is to hire a writing agency. Writing agencies typically have an in-house staff in place. As such, they are essentially a one-stop-shop. You only need to engage with a single point of accountability while ghostwriters and editors work in the background. In the end, you can involve yourself as much, or as little, as you see fit.

Whichever approach you choose, it is important to consider bringing in a writing team for your memoir or autobiography. If you decide to go at it alone, that is perfectly fine. Nevertheless, a writing team may be exactly what you need.

Conclusion

Producing an autobiography or memoir is a dedicated labor of love. It is an endeavor that requires careful planning, time, and attention. Unfortunately, you may not have the luxury of spending days, or even weeks, in front of your computer devoted solely to writing.

Suppose you feel that you cannot get around to completing your autobiography or memoir? In that case, you must consider hiring a team to help you produce your book. Hiring a professional ghostwriter, editor, historian, and proofreader can help you bring your project to fruition.

As the great poet Maya Angelou once said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

So, what are you waiting for to get your song out there? A writing team can help you get that song out of your head and into the world.

What’s in a Name? 8 Helpful Tips for Finding the Best Title for Your Memoir

“A good title is the title of a successful book.” — Raymond Chandler

As the renowned American minister Frank Crane once said, “Next, in importance to books are their titles.”

Indeed, while a book’s content is its most significant attribute, a bad title can do a book a huge disservice. After all, readers judge books by both cover and title.

If an author wants their memoir to have a chance, they must first give it a good title.

But what makes a title “good”?

In this article, we will explore eight helpful tips for finding the best title for your memoir.

8 Helpful Tips for Finding the Best Title for Your Memoir

Tip #1: Keep it Simple

Frequently, authors feel tempted to incorporate outlandish titles for their books. The aim is to shock and awe would-be readers.

The rationale is to pique readers’ curiosity just enough to give their books a chance. However, this strategy can backfire quite easily.

Firstly, an extravagant title, especially for a memoir, may not convey the subject’s personality appropriately. Consequently, it may build an inaccurate image.

Secondly, over-the-top titles may not necessarily reflect the book’s content. Therefore, readers might misunderstand the memoir’s general message. As a result, readers may choose to pass on it.

Consider this example:

The Wild and Unforgettable Life of the One and Only John Doe.

The title above is certainly eye-catching. Nevertheless, it fails to express what the book represents. After all, would readers be truly interested in this character’s remarkable life?

As Leonardo DaVinci famously put it, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Opting for a title such as “An Extraordinary Life Journey by John Doe” better communicates an essential element: John Doe’s life was an extraordinary journey. As such, readers can expect to go on a journey as they read the book.

In the end, readers can expect to come away with a singular experience.

Tip #2: Focus on Tone

Often, titles miss the mark by not settling on the memoir’s tone. After all, memoirs can have a myriad of tones. Some are solemn; others are hopeful. Some memoirs are serious, while others are fun and playful. Therefore, the title must match the book’s tone.

Consider this example:

Emerging from the Shadows: A Journey from Obscurity to Prominence.

What tone does this title convey?

Initially, one might assume the title signals an inspirational story. Hence, readers would assume the memoir is filled with stories about overcoming struggles.

However, if readers find a collection of disjointed anecdotes masquerading as humor, they may find the book disappointing at best.

Ideally, a memoir’s title must give the reader a good sense of the book’s overall tone. In the example above, perhaps a less serious title would serve the book best.

Consider this possibility:

How I Made It: My Journey to the Top of the Mountain.

In this version, the reader can glean an inspirational story. However, the title is less solemn and more lighthearted. Thus, the memoir’s contents would better match its title.

The renowned Israeli writer Etgar Keret summarizes this by stating, “I think tone gives birth to the story.”

Undoubtedly, giving a title the wrong tone does a major disservice to the project’s entire purpose.

Tip #3: Choose A One- or Two-Part Title

Most book titles nowadays consist of two parts. This practice is highly common in the nonfiction domain. Many authors believe it is necessary since it enables them to narrow down on the book’s precise contents.

As for memoirs, they are seemingly in the middle of the fiction and nonfiction domains. On the one hand, memoirs are factual. On the other, they are artwork. As a result, authors must ask themselves, “Is my book more art or more fact?” The answer to this question would reveal the way to go.

Memoirs scripted as novels should consider a one-part title. For instance:

A Memorable Walk Through Life.

In this one-part title, the author looks to communicate an artistic rendition of the subject’s life. As such, readers can expect facts wrapped up in colorful prose.

Now, consider this alternative:

Great Business Leaders: The Life of Jane Doe.

This two-part title indicates that Jane Doe was a great business leader. Therefore, readers can expect a more journalistic, matter-of-fact approach with this memoir. Indeed, this title resonates much more like a nonfiction title than a novel.

Like tone, a one- or two-part title must accurately reflect the book’s purpose. Serious works benefit more from a two-part title, whereas creative narratives do well with a unique one-part title.

Tip #4: Tell the Truth

Telling the truth pertains to accurately representing the book’s core message.

Unfortunately, some authors believe that using misleading titles will translate into more sales. Their rationale focuses on enticing readers. Once readers pick up a copy, the sale goes through, and the money is in the bank.

However, word gets around quickly. Consequently, misleading titles will kill book sales in a heartbeat.

Some authors also use salacious titles to drive public interest. The expectation that builds on such titles may initially drive sales. However, the book had better deliver on its title. Otherwise, the disappointment could leave the book dead in the water.

Consider this title:

The Secret Life of King John Doe: The Untold Tales.

A title this scandalous suggests a collection of titillating stories never heard before. As such, the book needs to deliver. Anything short of outrageous stories will miss the mark.

Additionally, a shortage of “untold” stories would certainly kill the book’s momentum.

Motivational speaker and bestselling author Larry Winget offers this insight:

“I write titles that are confrontational. I write titles that make people want to pick up a book and find out more about it. I write good books; I write great titles though.”

A “great” title on a “good” book may come up short. Ideally, authors should strive for a great title on a great book. That aim is possible when the title accurately represents the book’s contents.

Tip #5: Get to the Point

There is nothing more counterproductive than an ambiguous title.

An ambiguous title defeats a memoir’s purpose by confusing the reader. After all, an unclear title makes it hard for the reader to ascertain the book’s contents.

Consider this title:

An Amazing Life Story.

The title above, while certainly poetic, does not tell the reader what the story contains. Consequently, the reader may not feel compelled to pick up a copy of the book.

In contrast, a well-crafted title would make it much easier for the reader’s curiosity to kick in.

Book publishing consultant Nancy Peske offers this succinct tidbit: “Think about word combinations that capture the heart and soul of your story.”

Indeed, the aim is to capture the memoir’s heart and soul. For that to happen, however, the writer must be clear on what that heart and soul are.

Memoir writers must understand the message they want to transmit. Often, this message gets lost in a sea of anecdotes. Thus, the title can serve as a guiding beacon for the writing process.

With the above example, a two-part title can help drill the point home. Consider this alternative:

An Amazing Life Story: Success in the Face of Disability.

This alternate title indicates the memoir’s message. The reader can expect to find an inspirational story of someone who overcame their disabilities to find success in life.

Tip #6: Do the Research

Inspiration can hit at any time. And a great title can suddenly appear when least expected.

However, there is one catch: The amazing title you just came up with may already be taken by someone else.

Undoubtedly, coming up with a great title is the first step in any great book. Nevertheless, it is crucial to do a cursory online search to determine if the title already exists.

In the worst cases, the title is already in use, or another very similar form of it. Therefore, there is a need to change the title to avoid copyright issues.

On top of that, there is another more compelling reason to check out memoir titles. Book publishers tend to frown upon book titles that are too similar to that of another already published book.  

When this happens, publishers are often quick to change the book’s title, especially if they like the content. This situation could lead to unwanted conflict between author and publisher.

Thus, it is best to do away with all the drama. Once again, Nancy Peske offers this insightful piece of advice: “Let’s say a quick Internet search reveals that no one has used your memoir title except perhaps for one article and certainly not for a book. That’s a good sign that you have or are close to having a terrific title for your memoir!”  

An original book title is crucial to a great memoir’s success.

Tip #7: Don’t Forget About Marketing

At its core, a title is a book’s first line of marketing. Naturally, a great title will drive sales. In contrast, a bad title may hold sales back. When sales are a primary objective, a great title is an essential tool.

Seasoned memoir veteran Jerry Wexler provides this highly useful reflection: “If a book’s title tickles my interest, I move to the next step. I look at the blub or description and read reviews online. If still curious, I look up the author’s home page, blogs, and social media. However, I continue to rely on the title as the centerpiece for all this interest.”

This reflection pinpoints the importance of a book’s title. Readers do not focus on reviews, comments, or even visit an author’s website unless the book title somehow appeals to them.

It should not come as a surprise to see interest dwindle due to a bad title. Of course, great reviews may rekindle interest. However, good comments may not be enough to overcome a bad title.

Great titles usually have a catchy component to them. That component often comes from somewhere in the book.

When authors struggle to come up with a title, they can resort to the text itself. It is quite common to find some phrase or line that encompasses the memoir’s spirit. As such, authors should not be afraid to borrow from their own ideas.

Tip #8: Create a Personal Connection

Undoubtedly, generic book titles will derail any momentum a book can generate.

A title such as The Life Story of Jane Doe is as bland as it gets.

Needless to say, titles such as these do little to forge a personal connection with the reader.

A personal connection should also emerge with the author.

After all, this is the author telling their story through their voice.

As a result, the title must materialize from within the author.

Jerry Wexler has this to say about the personal connection a memoir can create in the reader:

“After we close the book for the last time, we continue to associate the story with its title. So, when you look for the best possible title, consider the image it will leave. The title should haunt readers, please them, and continue to evoke images. Ideally, the title should roll off the reader’s tongue when friends ask for a recommendation.”

This savvy piece of advice encapsulates the purpose of a superb title. When a title creates a personal connection, it will “haunt” readers well after they have finished the book. In some cases, their connection may last a lifetime.

Something deeply personal such as Uphill Battle: How I Beat the Most Challenging Enemy of my Life has the potential to strike an extremely personal chord with readers. The outcome may well be a profound link between reader and author.

Conclusion

International bestselling author J.K. Rowling once said, “I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

Of course, this quote goes beyond the obvious connection with the magical theme of her books. This quote underscores how significant a book can become in a person’s life.

All of that begins with a great title. A great title should not just be a piece of great marketing copy. It should also be a personal message the author wants to communicate to their readers.

A creative narrative should explore a unique one-part title. This title should encompass the very essence of the book’s message. By the same token, a more solemn memoir should consider a two-part title. The title would then provide enough material to entice the reader’s curiosity.

Ultimately, great titles boil down to sharing the author’s internal passion. With such efforts, the title can haunt the reader well after flipping through to the last page.

Writing a Travel Memoir: How to Capture Unforgettable Moments

Traveling is one of the most memorable occasions in a person’s life. Discovering new places can create memories that last a lifetime. And for some travelers, these adventures are so meaningful that they decide to chronicle them in a journal or diary.

Written descriptions of places and experiences can provide the perfect complement to breathtaking photographs. And in some instances, journals and diaries can become the source of a great travel memoir.

In this article, we will discuss the elements that comprise a compelling travel memoir and the importance of chronicling timeless moments in a person’s life. As T.S. Eliot once said, “The journey, not the arrival matters.”

Travel Memoirs 101

When dissecting a travel memoir, it is best to start with what is not a travel memoir. On the whole, a travel memoir does not constitute a guidebook or generic description of a destination. Moreover, a travel memoir is not merely a collection of random anecdotes pertaining to a trip.

A travel memoir is so much more than a collection of experiences and descriptions of unique places. A travel memoir encompasses a personal journey that culminates in a singular location. According to Writer’s Digest, a travel memoir is “… a delicate mixture of recollection and reflection that reveals how a journey, or a series of journeys, transformed the writer.”

This succinct description underscores the transformative nature of a travel memoir. Therefore, the memoir must highlight a “before” and “after” in the author’s life.

On the surface, a travel memoir should reflect the beauty of its unique location.

Deep down, it should reflect the author’s personal interaction with that singular destination.

As a result, this interaction leads to a metamorphosis within the writer. The memoir should record how an exterior change leads to an interior one. It should narrate how the author’s transformation took place because of the journey.

Also, a travel memoir is not a blow-by-blow account of a trip. A wonderful travel memoir should not waste precious space on inconsequential details and events. Instead, it should focus on the specific moments that led to the author’s awakening. Hence, the trip itself ought not to be the memoir’s main focus. Instead, the author’s experience, feelings, and thoughts should permeate the story.

A great travel memoir must deliver an enthralling story. The story needs to begin with the author’s life prior to the journey. Readers need to know what motivated the author to embark on the journey. From there, the story must take the readers through the entire process of self-discovery.

The climax of the story must highlight that special moment of awakening. Readers must be privy to that intimate moment in which the author reaches their ultimate transformation.

At the core of an indelible travel memoir is the overarching theme. This theme must clearly reflect what aspect of the writer’s life changed forever.

For instance, the author got over a past love or gained a new lease on life following a tragic loss. Whatever the theme, the memoir’s narrative must unmistakably reflect it.

In the words of Saint Augustine, “The World is a book. And those who do not travel read only one page.” A travel memoir brings those pages to the reader. It enables the writer and reader to come face-to-face with one another while being miles apart.

Making the Decision to Write a Travel Memoir

Choosing to write a travel memoir is a deeply personal decision. Any individual who chooses to write a travel memoir must be willing to bare their soul for readers to see. The intensely personal nature of a travel memoir must communicate a profoundly life-altering message.

A gripping travel memoir must reflect a profound journey of personal growth. The travel experience is solely the vehicle enabling the personal transformation to take place.

Journalist and published author Alexis Grant has this to say about a travel memoir’s message: “Your memoir should be about more than your trip; you need an overarching theme that readers relate to, a story arc that includes personal growth.”

Indeed, a travel memoir must connect with readers at an intense level. This connection can only happen when a travel memoir explicitly lays out the writer’s transformation.

For some authors, penning a travel memoir is a cathartic process. It enables them to vent their emotions creatively.

The outcome is to reflect the author’s process from pain and suffering to healing. In such cases, writers must be willing to be honest with their readers. Readers will swiftly smell out embellishment or exaggeration.

A compelling memoir, travel or otherwise, must depict the writer’s moments of weakness. Doing so will provide enough support to the overall outcome.

Not all travel memoirs have to be about the transition from pain to healing. A great travel memoir can serve to help others achieve their dreams.

A classic example is Julia Child’s My Life in France. This book depicts Julia Child’s time and experiences in France. In particular, the story chronicles the beginnings of her extraordinary culinary exploits.

To Julia, France was a spiritual homeland. It was the site where her personal transformation began into one of the world’s most renowned chefs. It is safe to say that Julia Child would not have become the celebrity she did if she had never been to France. Thanks to this transformational journey, Julia Child found her true calling in life. As such, her memoir shows readers just how meaningful her time in France was to her.

The decision to write a travel memoir ultimately boils down to a genuine desire to help others undergo a similar journey. The destination itself is not the main purpose. The journey of self-discovery and transformation is the key element. The destination serves as the backdrop for the journey.

While the destination is certainly meaningful, the writer’s awakening to a new reality makes the entire journey a life-changing one. This message needs to resonate throughout the text. If successful, readers will walk away inspired to pursue their own dreams.

Structure of a Travel Memoir

Authors must be careful not to confuse a travel memoir with a chronological description of events. While a timeline format is useful in developing the story, a compelling travel memoir is a story. Therefore, the narrative must reflect this characteristic. This approach explains why chronological order is not necessarily a requisite structure.

First and foremost, a travel memoir is a tale. Thus, it should sound like a work of fiction, even though it is not.

In this regard, a memorable travel memoir uses the writer’s message—their transformation—as the core element around which all other events revolve. Consequently, places and events should serve to frame the story. However, the book should not be about the place itself.

The story’s overall narrative should take readers through the author’s entire transformative process. This process must reflect the motivations for the trip. Ultimately, the destination is secondary insofar as the author’s inner metamorphosis. Throughout the metamorphosis, the memoir’s theme must become evident. The theme sets the stage for the specific events that will accentuate the protagonist’s singular journey.

The most important decision travel memoir writers must then make is selecting the theme. The theme ought to emerge from a motivation within the writer that led to the trip itself. For example, a writer fed up with the corporate world chooses to leave a six-figure job to embark on a volunteer work tour. By the end of the tour, the writer discovers that the meaning of life helping others and not making money. This discovery could not have been possible without the trip.

The characters in the story must also directly contribute to the author’s transformation. The decision to include characters depends largely on their role. As such, great characters provide some support along the writer’s trek. For instance, they may provide eye-opening advice or meaningful encouragement.

Additionally, specific characters may serve as the catalyst for the author’s decisions. A classic example is the end of a romantic relationship. Thus, the writer’s romantic partner catalyzes the transformative process. It is worth noting that no other character should overshadow the author, regardless of their role’s importance. The author is the main character. Hence, all events need to revolve around the writer.   

As for narrative style, travel memoirs need to resonate to a deeply personal degree. Therefore, a first-person narrative style would be most suitable. This narrative style gives readers the impression they are hearing the author’s voice. After all, this is the author’s journey. Thus, readers expect to hear the author’s words as they would have spoken them.

This idea underscores the importance of keeping the narrative style as close to the writer’s own words as possible. Fancy prose may help the story come alive, but it may not be a true reflection of the author’s personality. Please bear in mind that this is an individual process. Furthermore, the narrative must make the reader feel as if they were sitting right next to the writer, listening to their story.

Mistakes to Avoid when Writing a Travel Memoir

Penning a travel memoir can be a perfectly imperfect endeavor. For first-time authors, it may prove to be a complex exercise. For experienced writers, the process may be simpler to manage. Nevertheless, producing a travel memoir requires close attention to specific pitfalls. By avoiding these pitfalls, writers can reduce the likelihood of failing to meet their goals.

When an individual first thinks of writing a travel memoir, it helps to plan.

Ideally, anyone thinking about producing a travel memoir should keep a diary of the trip itself. Diaries help keep track of events, and most importantly, personal reflections throughout the trip. Without a diary, writing the memoir would rely on memory.

Often, this practice may lead the writer to omit valuable details from the story. Mainly, the aim of a diary is to capture feelings as they occur. The power of these feelings may be lost when writing after the fact.

Also, writers must strive to focus on themselves as the main character. After all, a travel memoir is about the author’s own life and experiences. Therefore, focusing on other individuals takes away from the purpose of the memoir. Consequently, attempting to tell someone else’s story may shift the readers’ attention from the author to someone else. Ultimately, shifting focus away from the author defeats the story’s purpose.

A common mistake is trying to force the narrative. By “forcing” the narrative, writers may try to recreate a surreal environment using overly creative prose. In reality, authors should try to maintain a narrative consistent with their personality. The aim is to take readers inside the author’s soul. As such, the narrative should reflect this reality as faithfully as possible.

A great rule of thumb is to be humble at all times.  Attempting to embellish a travel memoir may lead readers to question the veracity of the accounts in the story.

Lastly, writers must be careful with including intimate details. While the aim is to provide readers with an insider account of the journey, there are boundaries to consider. Mainly, intimate details should be off-limits unless they somehow contribute to the story’s development.

Inexperienced writers would do well to seek assistance once completing a rough draft. Enlisting the help of an editor goes a long way to polishing up a final draft. In doing so, potential book agents and publishers will get a look at a neat product before making a decision.

Conclusion

A travel memoir is a deeply personal endeavor aiming to depict a profound transformation.

Writers seeking to produce a travel memoir should strive to recreate their journey as faithfully as possible. And they should adhere to the story as closely as they can.

In doing so, readers can get a sense of what the author went through. Ultimately, readers should be privy to the struggles and triumphs represented in the story.

The narrative ought to reflect the writer’s own voice.

Attempting to embellish a story with ornate prose may cause the reader to question the accuracy of the accounts in the story. Consequently, keeping a humble attitude is always the best approach.

This approach should enable the story’s theme to resonate throughout the journey. As the theme becomes evident, the book’s underlying message will strike a chord in the readers. A successful memoir will transport the reader into the author’s life. A great narrative will leave readers feeling a deep connection, perhaps motivating them to seek their transformation.

Does my autobiography/memoir need a narrative arc?

At its best, a memoir or autobiography is more than just a retelling of someone’s life. It pulls you in and makes you feel what they felt and compels you to cheer them on, hoping for a happy ending.

It’s not a checklist of events, it’s a story. Perhaps it’s your story.

It’s not always the actual events of one’s life that make for a great book, but the way you lay out those events in your book.

In 2005, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, J. R. Moehringer, released his memoir The Tender Bar. Believe it or not, his life as a journalist is but a small part of the third act.

His story is that of a boy whose father is nothing more than a voice on the radio, a disc jockey who moves around a lot. As you read The Tender Bar, you follow J.R. as he tries to learn how to be a man. And instead of his father, a group of men at the local tavern become his father-by-committee and the bar becomes his sanctuary.

The beauty of The Tender Bar is the natural story arc. It keeps you reading and wondering how the story will end. Does he ever connect with his father? Will the bar, in the end, become a blessing or a crutch?

The characters are mesmerizing, and the story has everything you’d want in a feature-length movie. In fact, George Clooney is making that movie right now!

The Tender Bar is a memoir, but it reads like a novel because it has a wonderful narrative arc. If you want your story to stand out and compel readers to keep turning those pages, finding your narrative arc is the ticket.

What is a Narrative Arc?

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Simply put, a narrative arc is the structure of a story. One of the most basic models you’ll see is the 3-part model that consists of a beginning, a middle, and the end.

However, you can get a little better understanding if you think of it like this:

1. Inciting Event – This happens in the first part of the story and it’s the event that puts everything else in motion.

2. Climax – The climax is the peak of the action, the big dramatic moment where everything is at stake. It can be a big battle scene or an emotional encounter, but it is the moment everyone has been waiting for.

3. Resolution – Once the climax has come to its conclusion, it’s time to deal with the new reality. What has the climax created?

Let’s take a look at an example most of us would be familiar with: The Lion King.

Inciting Event — Scar lures Simba and Nala to the elephant graveyard where his hyenas try to kill them. He also lures Mufasa to the scene where he can kill him. The death of Mufasa, makes Simba run away, both out of fear and guilt.

Climax — Simba returns to the Pridelands. Scar and Simba have an epic fight. Scar tells Simba that he, not Simba killed Mufasa. This marks both a climax in action as well as an emotional climax as Simba finally learns that his father’s death was not his fault. Of course, Simba wins the fight.

Resolution — Simba takes the throne of the Pridelands and restores peace, harmony, and Hakuna Matata-like feelings for all.

Autobiography vs. Memoir

One of the primary factors you’ll want to consider when deciding if you want to follow a narrative arc in your book is whether you are writing an autobiography or a memoir. Here’s how they differ:

Autobiography – More straightforward and chronological. Usually covers the subject’s whole life. As a step-by-step telling of the facts, it may be less inclined towards a narrative arc, but it can still be done.

Memoir – Usually focused on one portion of the subject’s life. This can be a specific time or a theme. Regardless, memoirs tend to be less formal and rely heavily on emotion and personal realizations. This makes them a natural fit for narrative arc structure.

Examples of Memoirs with Narrative Arc

Memoirs have boomed over the last 30 years or so and many of the most successful ones were later turned into movies. Why? Because they told a story worthy of the silver screen that could captivate an audience. Here are just a few examples.

Eat, Pray, Loveby Elizabeth Gilbert

Rather than a retelling of her entire life, this book focuses on a journey of self-care and self-discovery that connected emotionally with millions.

Inciting Event – Gilbert recalls sitting on the floor and thinking, “I don’t want to be married anymore.” This leads to the journey of self-discovery.

Climax – Gilbert comes to terms with her ended marriage while in Ashram, India. Acceptance.

Resolution – Now that Gilbert is more self-aware, she is able to fall in love again.

Angela’s Ashes – by Frank McCourt

This Pulitzer Prize winner doesn’t even make it to McCourt’s 20’s. It’s the tale of his childhood and the hardships he endured until he finally made his way to America at the age of 19. It’s a story of perseverance, hardship, and more than a little humor as well.

Inciting Event – The McCourt’s move from New York back to Ireland.

Climax – McCourt confesses his many sins and accepts absolution.

Resolution – McCourt finds his way back to New York to start a new life.

A Walk in the Woods – by Bill Bryson

This memoir is about just what its title says: a walk in the woods. Okay, so it ends up being around 800 miles of walking on the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail, with an out-of-shape and obnoxious buddy for companionship. Hilarity ensues and life lessons are learned.

Inciting Event – Bryson moves back to the U.S. after years of living in Europe. Excited to rediscover his country, he decides to take on the Appalachian Trail.

Climax – Bryson loses track of his hiking partner, finally finding him wounded, but safe enough.

Resolution – The pair admit defeat and return to their lives but retain a bit of pride for the distance over the Appalachian Trail they did travel, and the lessons learned.

These are just a few examples of memoirs that became movies, but that doesn’t mean that all memoirs with narrative arcs are full-on film fodder.

The key take-away here is that they were books first and written so well that they became bestsellers and then eventually movies. That only happens if the story is good, and the emotions reach readers. 

It’s Your Life, Your Story

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So how can you (or your ghostwriter) incorporate this into your memoir or autobiography?

Think about it this way – how does your book end? Your life is a journey, and even though it’s not done, your book will be finished. What’s that ending spot?

Once you know that, you can think about how you got there. Was there an inciting event that set the wheels in motion? When did things come to a head?

Map it out before you start writing and you may be surprised to find that your story has a nice, clear narrative arc if you choose to follow it.

Your life is more than just a string of events. It’s a story. Your story. Tell it like one.

Copywriter Q&A: Jessica Stautberg Discusses the Art of Writing an Unforgettable Memoir

With over a decade of writing experience, Jessica Stautberg has written content for everything from websites and blogs to books and press releases. At The Writers For Hire (TWFH), Jessica serves as our lead copywriter, and is also one of our experts on writing memoirs and autobiographies.

In this installment of our Copywriter Q&A series, we talked to Jessica about what defines a memoir, and asked for her tips and advice for ensuring that your memoir is unforgettable.


TWFH: Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?

JS: A memoir has a more specific topic or time period. For example, a veteran might write a  memoir about his/her experiences during war, or a recovering alcoholic might write about his/her struggle with the disease. An autobiography encompasses more of a person’s entire life story.

TWFH: How do you decide if you want to write a memoir or an autobiography?

JS: Ask yourself what you want the reader to know about you. Are you giving them an account of your entire life? Or are you trying to give them a sense of what it feels like to be, for example, someone struggling with cancer treatment/growing up in poverty/breaking a barrier, etc.

TWFH: Can you talk a little about how memoir and fiction are similar?

JS: In addition to being more specific and not all encompassing, a memoir relies more on emotion and feeling to convey the writer’s experiences. So, it might read more like fiction by using more metaphors, imagery, etc.

TWFH: How much “truth” does a memoir need? Is it more important to tell the facts or to get the “essence” of the story and make sure that the emotion comes across?

JS: I think both are important, but people can’t remember all the minute details that writers often use to create a scene or convey a feeling. When writing a memoir, I think you should get the big, important facts right (as much as possible), and take liberty with descriptive details and dialogue.

TWFH: Is there ever a point when you can embellish too much or take too many liberties? A point where it’s no longer a memoir?

JS: Yes, I think once you’re starting to fictionalize some of the bigger plot points of the memoir, then you’re heading into “fictional work based on real life” territory.

TWFH: How do you keep a memoir interesting – especially if you’re writing one for an “average” person (not a celebrity or someone who has lived a super-exciting life)?

JS: Apply some of the elements of a novel to your memoir: You have a protagonist with a specific motivation who faces conflicts over the course of the story, culminating in a climax and resolution at some point. Write about your own struggles and really fill out a peak point in your story.

For example, maybe something like a divorce, a medical procedure, or a new career changed the course for your life. Give the reader all the drama surrounding that event. Talk about the relationship conflicts before the divorce and the strain on your life during and after it. Talk about your health issues, feelings, and fears before your medical procedure and the road to recovery afterwards. And talk about how you overcame the obstacles of your career change.

TWFH: What are some common subjects/themes for memoirs?

JS: Coming of age; friendship; overcoming adversity; parenthood; survival; adjusting to new circumstances; hard work; grief; faith…

TWFH: What kind of research goes into writing a memoir?

JS: It doesn’t hurt to research things like plot creation and structure so that you can properly organize your story. Also, I always think it’s useful to read books that are similar to the one you want to write.

TWFH: Do you ever use historical research/facts to pad or enhance your memoirs?

JS: It’s sometimes helpful to do historical research while writing a memoir. Often, the writer’s memory will fail on certain historical details that become important in positioning their story in time. For example, maybe your memoir includes fleeing the war-torn city of your childhood. You probably don’t remember exactly which months out of the year those events occurred, and maybe you weren’t aware of the political events that were important to the scenario. It’s helpful to the reader to look up those details and include them.

TWFH: How do you handle writing about other people in a memoir? Do you need to ask permission? Use fake names? Should you let them read what you’ve written? Is it OK to create composite characters and use them as stand-ins for real people? 

JS: If you say something overly negative about someone, then you open yourself up to defamation allegations. If someone plays a large part in your memoir, then it doesn’t hurt to ask permission. It also doesn’t hurt to have a lawyer review your book, just in case. 

TWFH: How do you organize a memoir? Do memoirs have to be chronological?

JS: Memoirs do not have to be chronological! That being said, autobiographies don’t either. You can certainly shift back and forth in time in either genre, although I think it’s more common in memoirs.

TWFH: Do you have any suggestions for avoiding confusion when shifting back and forth between time periods?

JS: Many memoirs will add a date and place at the beginning of a new section to help orient the reader. I like to do section breaks and then add a label like “July 6, 1967, New York City,” for example.

TWFH: What elements do you think are necessary for a good memoir?

JS: Memoirs need a theme, which we discussed above. It also needs conflict to keep it interesting, and a writing style that reflects you (since the reader will probably picture you telling the story). It also needs storytelling elements such as setting, character development, and a plot.

TWFH: Do you have any other suggestions for people who want to write a memoir?

JS: Figure out what lessons you’ve learned in your life and use your memoir to try to teach your reader those lessons in an interesting way.


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