The Complete Guide to Writing a Memoir
Writing your book doesn’t have to be a difficult, complex process.
Writing a memoir can feel like a monumental task, especially when you do it on your own. There’s a whole world of design choices and printing options that you need to navigate before your book finds its audience. Count on Palmetto Publishing to guide you along the way.
Considering writing your memoir? You’re not alone. A recent survey revealed that 62% of people want to write their own memoir someday — and each one of these people has a powerful story to tell.
Some memoirs are dramatic and exciting. Others are powerful in their everyday relatability.
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, one of the most famous memoirs ever written, tells the story of a working-class family in Limerick, Ireland. All Creatures Great and Small is about a village veterinarian in rural England.
Whatever you’ve learned and experienced, you can and should share it with the world. But you have to write it first.
This guide will help you get started writing a memoir. It covers what a memoir is and isn’t and gives you step-by-step instructions for getting your story on paper. You’ll also learn about your publishing options so that you can put your memoir in the hands of readers.
But first, let’s talk about why your memoir matters.
What is a Memoir?
A memoir is a personal narrative drawn from your life experiences. It tells the story of who you are, what shaped you, and the lessons you’ve learned. A memoir usually centers on a common theme and may focus on a specific period or challenge in the author’s life.
Memoirs are nonfiction, but the most engaging memoirs read more like novels. They recount events in vivid detail and convey strong emotional messages to the reader.
For example, in his Pulitzer-nominated memoir When Breath Becomes Air, author Paul Kalanithi recalls dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis as a 36-year-old neurosurgery resident. And in the best-selling memoir Educated, Tara Westover writes of pursuing formal education after a minimally homeschooled childhood.
Some of the most insightful and impactful books ever published are memoirs. And some of the most life-changing true stories can compel even the most jaded reader. Autobiographies can be compelling too, but memoirs are the personal stories that cut to the heart.
Memoir vs. Autobiography: What’s the Difference?
Memoirs and autobiographies are both book-length stories of the writer’s life, but they read very differently.
An autobiography is a factual account of the writer’s life, told from birth to the present with as little left out as possible. It can be deeply emotional and touching, but it’s a chronological narrative.
A memoir has a narrower focus. Instead of telling their entire life’s story, the memoir writer focuses on events that connect to their theme.
For instance, if someone wrote a memoir about immigrating to a new country, they might write about their first holiday in this new country or share something they miss about their homeland. Although they’d have many childhood memories, they’d choose those that emphasize the contrast between their two homes.
The other main difference is a memoir’s emotional message. An autobiography is a history, but a memoir focuses on creating meaning from the past. That meaning is how readers connect to your story.
Perhaps they’ll pick up your book because they connect personally to the subject matter. Maybe they’ll read it to learn more about the human experience. Either way, you, as the writer, need to draw them in and capture their interest.
Writing a Memoir Step-by-Step
You don’t have to be a bestselling author to write a memoir, but you’ll have an easier time writing if you’re purposeful in your approach. You’ll also craft a more successful book.
This step-by-step guide will serve as your road map. Don’t worry about memorizing it — you can always bookmark this page or print it out for future reference. Right now, focus on visualizing your writing journey.
Step 1: Choose Your Theme
Memoir writers who get stuck usually have one thing in common. They sit down with the intent to “share their stories,” but they don’t have a clear focus. They try to say too much and go in too many different directions. This makes for a confusing book — or worse, an unfinished one.
To be well-crafted and engaging, a memoir needs a powerful unifying theme. A theme will give your memoir direction and help you choose the most impactful stories to include.
- What emotions do I want to spark with my story?
- What message do I want to convey?
- What life lessons have I learned that others could benefit from?
Don’t worry if you can’t think of any unique or exciting life experiences. Some memoirs are powerful because they’re relatable to other “ordinary” people.
Maybe you’ve learned a lot from raising your children. Maybe you’ve learned important lessons from the relationships you’ve formed in your lifetime. These themes can make powerful and popular books.
Take the compelling memoir She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg. This 2013 book focuses on the joy, pain, and power of female friendships. People of any gender can see their friendships in this book’s 304 pages.
That’s what makes it powerful.
Step 2: Make a List of Anecdotes
Memoirs aren’t about listing everything that’s ever happened to you. They’re about conveying a message through relevant and intriguing personal stories. Before you start writing a memoir, you need to choose the stories you want to tell.
Many interesting things have happened to you. Right now, the important ones are those that fit your theme. Look at the theme you’ve chosen and start listing the events in your life that relate. Chronological order doesn’t matter at this stage — you’re simply brainstorming.
Begin with the events you know you want to include. These are probably the experiences that inspired your memoir. If you get stuck, think about why you chose your theme: what happened to teach you that lesson or see that topic as important?
Once you have your “highlight reel,” go back through your life and think about what other experiences you want to share. You might find it more helpful to work forward or backward chronologically. Think about what led you to where you are.
Choose the stories that support your message. For example, if you’re writing a memoir about becoming a doctor after age 30, your notes might include things like “when dad convinced me to major in accounting” and “asked to watch my knee surgery.”
Don’t worry about developing these stories just yet — there will be time for that after you’ve organized your book.
Step 3: Create an Outline
Your anecdotes are the bones of your story. Now, you need to shape them into a skeleton.
An outline is that skeleton. It doesn’t have to follow a particular format or use complete sentences — it exists purely to help you stay focused and on track.
Remember, your goal is to engage readers and hold their interest. Don’t jump forward and back in time too often.
A flashback or flash-forward here and there is fine if it highlights a critical moment. However, stick with a linear narrative for most of the book. Readers will follow your thought process better that way.
As you outline, follow any thoughts that inspire you to go deeper. Maybe you’ll have a new insight about something that happened or recall a memory you didn’t think of earlier. Write it down — you can always edit or remove it later.
Step 4: Write Your Story
Once you have your story organized, start writing. You can begin at the beginning, but it’s not mandatory. If you feel compelled to start with Chapter Four because it’s where you write about a life-changing moment, go with it.
You have your outline to keep you on track, so trust it. This is the time to dive deeply into your story and make it as compelling as possible.
Write Like a Novelist
Novels engage people because they paint detailed pictures. You want readers to connect to your memoir in the same way. So, write it like fiction.
Most importantly, flesh out your “characters” — yes, they’re real people, but the reader doesn’t know them yet. Bring them to life and show the reader their mannerisms, appearance, and way of speaking.
The more vivid you are, the more readers will connect to the people in your story.
Show, Don’t Tell
This may be the most common advice in writing, but it bears repeating, especially for memoir writers. It’s easy to become the narrator of your life, but readers will engage more if they can see the scene unfold.
Instead of telling readers what happened, paint a picture. Imagine you’re watching a movie of your life and describing it. What did you see, hear, and do? Help the reader understand what it was like to live that experience.
Step 5: Read and Edit
After you write the last word, put your manuscript aside for a few weeks. Then come back to it and read it through from beginning to end, just like a reader.
Chances are, you’ll find things you want to change. That’s a normal step on the way to a good book. You might add details to an anecdote, take one out completely, or change where it appears.
Maybe that story about your sixth-grade science fair win doesn’t seem as important anymore. That’s okay — if it strengthens your message, it’s a good edit.
Look at your writing style as well. Does it flow well and incorporate vivid detail? Try to be objective, as difficult as that may be.
Step 6: Have Someone Read It
Having other people read your book is an important step in any book writing process. Authors are limited in how critical they can be of their own work, especially memoir writers. It’s the story of your life, and it’s impossible to read with a truly outside viewpoint.
After you’ve read through your finished book at least once, and ideally more than that, give it to someone else to read. Try to choose someone who isn’t intimately connected to you — no spouses, children, parents, or siblings.
They know your story too well to be stand-ins for strangers.
Instead, give your book to an acquaintance or even a newer friend. Ask them to read it and offer their reactions — what worked, what didn’t, and what was confusing.
Take their feedback to heart and make the appropriate edits, then hand it off to someone else to read. You can even have the same person reread it if they’re willing.
After a few “beta” reads, you’re ready to have a professional look at your work.
Publishing Your Memoir
Once you’re satisfied that your story is ready for the world, your next decision is whether to publish it yourself or find a traditional publisher.
Many memoir writers dream of releasing their books through major publishing houses. Getting a book deal does come with bragging rights, but the reality is that many memoir writers will never have the opportunity.
Memoirs are hard sells for publishers, especially if you’re an unknown author. You might find a publisher who believes in your story, but there’s no guarantee. There’s a good chance the road will be paved with rejections.
How good of a chance do you have? The Fiction Writer’s Mentor says that publishers accept only about 1% to 2% of manuscripts— and that includes manuscripts from proven authors.
If your goal is to share your story with the world, self-publishing is a much stronger option.
When you self-publish, you don’t have to start by convincing a stranger to share your story. You can put your work out there and let it speak for itself.
Self-publishing gives you more control over your work; you have the final say on everything from edits to cover design. And once it’s done, you can get it out into the world faster — sometimes within a week.
You also keep more of your profits. Traditional publishers take up to 93% of a book’s royalties, but as a self-published author, you get it all.
How to Self-Publish Your Memoir
Self-publishing doesn’t have to be a solo journey. Palmetto Publishing is here to help with everything your memoir needs, including:
As a top publisher, Palmetto offers professional book design services that give your memoir a polished look. From the book title page to the back cover, we’ll make sure it’s something you can be proud of.
We even offer book layout help and a user-friendly book layout guide. By the time you’re ready for book marketing, everything about your memoir looks professional. If you’re interested in writing a memoir, drop us a line— even if you haven’t started writing it yet. We know you have a powerful story inside you, and we’re ready to help you share it.