How do you write a memoir?

How do you write a memoir?

You’d think writing a book about your life would be easy. You’re just sharing the stories of your personal experiences, after all. This isn’t an epic fantasy novel where you’re inventing whole new worlds to write about. Writing a memoir is just about remembering what happened, and then writing it down. Easy, right?

Wrong. As anyone who has tried knows, writing a memoir is one of the most challenging projects you can undertake. Not that you shouldn’t do it, but just make sure you’re prepared when you start. 

When I started a memoir about a real-life adventure story I had in Paris, I thought it would be easy, that it would take me a few months. Five years, a lot of sweat, and too many tears later, my book Crowdsourcing Paris is finally published. 

Why did it take so much longer than I thought it would? Because writing a really good memoir is hard, a lot harder than you think.

I want to help make writing easier. In this article, I’m sharing every tip I learned about writing a memoir. All of these come from actual breakthroughs I made over those five years. The hope is that by using these tips, you can write a great memoir, as I did, but in much less time.

Let’s get started.

Memoir Tip #1: You Can’t Write About Your Whole Life

A memoir is about a specific situation, not your whole life story.

A memoir is not an autobiography. It’s not a description of everything that’s ever happened to you. A memoir is about a specific situation. It’s closer in form to a novel, which is usually a story about a specific situation.

If you want to write an autobiography, that’s great. But unless you’re a famous historical figure like Benjamin Franklin or Iggy Pop, don’t expect anyone to read it.

If you want to write a book about your life that people will actually want to read, then let’s go to tip #2.

Memoir Tip #2: Choose the Most Specific Situation Possible

Instead of writing about your entire life, choose a specific situation. 

For example, in Wild, Cheryl Strayed wrote about her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about the dissolution of her marriage, how she traveled the world to reinvent herself, and how she found someone new.

In my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, I wrote about the real-life adventures I had in the City of Light, and the memoir began the day I arrived in Paris and ended the day I left. 

Choose a specific situation, with as short a period of time and as narrow a scope possible.

Remember, this is a memoir, not an autobiography.

Memoir Tip #3: Choose One Major Life Lesson

Memoir is a combination of two forms: a novel and how-to. That means that memoir is about what you’ve learned, and how those life lessons can help the reader.

However, like any how-to writer knows, you can’t write about everything you’ve ever learned.

The same way that you chose a specific situation, choose one major life lesson to write about.

Memoir Tip #4: Put Everything Else Into Future Books, Articles, or Blog Posts, NOT This Book

Here’s an obvious statement: You have lived through more than one situation and you’ve learned more than one major life lesson.

Your memoir must be about only one of those situations and life lessons, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t write future books about those other situations and lessons.

Choose a narrow scope, but then put everything else into future books.

Memoir Tip #5: Before You Do Any Writing, Set A Tight Deadline

Before you start writing, set a tight deadline to finish your book. First drafts are best finished in a rush. If you spend too long thinking about your draft, you probably won’t finish.

How long should your deadline be? 

“I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season,” said Stephen King.

In my 100 Day Book program, I walk people through the process of writing a book in a 100 days,  which I find to be a good amount of time. Longer than that, and you lose the urgency and focus it takes to write a book. And while I’m not against NaNoWriMo, I find anything much shorter than 100 days doesn’t end up reading very well.

The important thing is to set a deadline that feels a little too tight for you to finish comfortably. A little panic will help you finish.

Memoir Tip #6: Set Weekly Deadlines Too

In addition to a final deadline, I also find it helpful to set weekly deadlines. After all, you can’t write a book overnight.

First, I figure out my word count goal (not sure how long your book should be? Here’s a word count goal guide for several different genres).

Then I divide the total word count by the number of weeks to my deadline. The result is the number of words I need to write each week to hit my goal.

Setting weekly deadlines helps you create an achievable process to break up your writing. 

Memoir Tip #7: After You Set a Deadline, Create a Consequence

A deadline alone, though, isn’t enough. 

After all, writing is hard, and writing a book is really hard. It’s much easier to just let that deadline go by, promising yourself you’ll finish your book later.

Instead, what you need to do is make it more painful to not meet your deadline than it is to procrastinate.

How do you do that?  You create consequences.

A consequence is something bad that happens when you don’t meet your deadline.

For example, to finally finish my memoir, I wrote a check for $1,000 and made it out to the presidential candidate I most disliked (this was in 2016). Then I gave it to a friend, telling them to send the check if I didn’t hit my deadline (or if I missed a total of three weekly deadlines).

I wrote and finished my memoir in nine weeks. It was the most focused I’ve ever been. 

In addition to setting one major consequence, like my $1,000 check, I also recommend setting smaller consequences for my weekly deadlines. For example, maybe you give up watching TV or playing your favorite phone game if you miss one weekly deadline. Maybe you give up Facebook or Instagram if you miss two.

This helps create an accountability framework that will make it really hard to not finish your writing.

Memoir Tip #8: Set Your Writing Intention

Where are you going to write? When are you going to write? How much are you going to write? 

By thinking through each of these questions, and actively imagining them, you’ll be more likely to follow through actually accomplish your goals.

Memoir Tip #9: Decide Who Will Be on Your Writing Team

We have this myth about writers that they’re lone geniuses. We picture the writer in his Paris attic apartment or cabin in upstate New York, slaving away at a manuscript until it’s a work of art.

But the reality is that almost all of the great writers throughout history were part of communities of other writers. They weren’t successful on their own. They were successful because they were part of a community.

In my experience, every book I’ve ever finished has been because of the people around me, encouraging me along the way. Without them, I would have quit so many times (and I have quit so many times when I’ve tried to do it on my own). 

Every writer needs a team, and a good team usually contains three different groups of people:

    1. Other writers who can encourage you when you get stuck.
    2. Readers who can give you feedback and tell you they’re excited to read your writing.
    3. Editors who can give professional feedback (Wondering how much it costs to hire an editor? Check out this editor cost guide).

No one writes a book alone. Plan out from the beginning who will be on your team.

By the way, one of the best ways to build your team is by attending writing retreats. Derek has a great list of the best writing retreats here.

Memoir Tip #10: Find at Least Three Commercially Successful Books Similar to Yours to Study

We learn to write books by studying other great books. And if you’re going to write a memoir, the best books to study are other successful memoirs.

By the way, it’s not enough just to read these books. You need to study them, looking especially at how the authors structured and paced their books.

For Crowdsourcing Paris, I had three other books that I studied and one film. When I got stuck I would go back and read certain chapters again and again to figure things out. These books became a lifeline to me in the writing process.

Memoir Tip #11: Create a Reader Avatar

Write your memoir to one person. Think about it like a letter (a really long letter) addressed to one person you know needs it.

Who will that person be? Is it someone you know? Or someone you make up?

This is your reader avatar, and by directing your writing energies to that one person, you’ll not only come out with a better memoir, but it will give you energy and drive so you don’t quit when the writing gets hard.

Memoir Tip #12: As Early as Possible, Start Thinking About the Publishing and Marketing Process

Most people wait until they’re finished writing their book before they start thinking about how to publish and market their book.

This is a huge mistake.

Publishing takes months, even years. Marketing a book takes even longer. And you need to start preparing for it now, before you finish your book, rather than after.

Think now about whether you’re going to self-publish or traditionally publish. Go to writing conferences and talk to agents and get book marketing advice. Read publishing tips from industry insiders. Study book marketing advice.

All of this won’t just make you more prepared when you get to that point in the process. It will actually help you finish your book because you’ve planned through every step in the writing and publishing process.

By the way, one of the best, first things you can do to prepare to publish is creating an author website. That, at the very least, is something you should accomplish before you finish your book.

Memoir Tip #14: Map Out Your Life Events, but Discard the Ones That Don’t Fit Your Situation and Life Lesson

Now that you have a premise and you’ve planned each stage of the writing process, create a list of every big life moment you think might be a good fit for your memoir.

After you’ve created that list, discard every event that doesn’t fit the situation you chose in tip #2 or the life lesson you chose in tip #3.

These situations might be a good fit for a future memoir, but they’re unlikely to fit in this memoir.

Remember, memoirs are not about your whole life story, and part of writing a great one is being ruthless about what gets into your memoir and what is cut. (By the way, this tip alone can save you hundreds of hours!) 

Memoir Tip #15: Write the First Draft as Quickly and Imperfectly as Possible

The biggest mistake that I make in my writing comes when I’m trying to write a masterpiece instead of just writing. Perfectionism has killed more of my writing projects than anything else.

The writing process is iterative. Your first draft will almost always be terrible. The second draft will be a little better. The third draft a little better still. It might take you three to five drafts, but by the end, if you follow these tips, you’ll have a good book! 

But you can’t get to the second draft until you write the first.

So write. Write badly. Don’t worry about comma splices, misspellings, grammar issues. Just get the words on the page. 

Your first draft is not for perfection. Your first draft is to tell the story. Writing a good book can come in your second and third and fourth and fifth drafts. For now, just write.

Never Quit

It took me five years to finish my memoir. Five years is a really long time to be working on a book. In the middle, I almost quit countless times. I stalled, I procrastinated, I complained, I wanted to give up, I hated my book, I thought it was the worst book ever written, I made progress one week only to hit obstacles the next. 

Writing a memoir was hard. Like, really hard.

In the end, though, I didn’t give up. I trusted the process. I finished my book.  Now, Crowdsourcing Paris is published. It’s a #1 New Release on Amazon. People are loving it. It took five years, but it was worth it.

If you’re in the middle of writing your memoir, or even if you haven’t started yet, whatever you do, I would encourage you to never quit. 

You can finish your book if you keep working on it. The only way to never finish your book is if you quit.

Good luck, and happy writing.

Joe Bunting is the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in Paris, now available here. If you’re writing a memoir, you can also click here to get a free guide with 10 tools every memoir writer needs. You can also follow Joe on Instagram (@jhbunting).


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