How to Write a Memoir: Do's and Don'ts

Memoirs are among the most powerful books on the market in terms of their ability to positively affect their readers. The basis of memoir writing lies in an author with a story worth telling, whether about an accomplishment or struggle. But while memoir authors often have many life lessons to share, it’s important that they don’t stray into the more prescriptive world of self-help writing.

Follow these do’s and don’ts, and you’ll be well on your way to writing a memoir that can compete toe-to-toe with the best on the market. 

Tell a Story

DO THIS: Establish a story arc. Even though it’s a story about your life, it still has to have some of the elements and structure of fiction to make it compelling. Consider how you will tell your story based on what elements you’re trying to emphasize. Remember, you still need character development, a compelling struggle, and a resolution.

NOT THIS: Include every detail of your life in your memoir. If you’re focusing on your relationship with your siblings, don’t put unnecessary details in about your college years or your European vacation with friends unless it relates directly to the story.

Show Don't Tell

DO THIS: The inspiration needs to come from the story. If you’re writing an inspirational memoir, it’s the story, the characters, and the action that should incite emotion. When you read an amazing memoir, it’s not uplifting because the author is telling you it is; the inspiring nature of the book is written into the story.

NOT THIS: Tell the reader why the story is inspiring. Don’t say things like, “In overcoming my illness, I finally realized how strong I was.” Show your readers how you felt, and let them infer from your storytelling the lessons you learned. This is an important distinction between self-help and memoir, and a key place where authors unintentionally blend the two.

Highlight What's Unique

DO THIS: Find your hook and emphasize an element of your story that makes it unique and marketable. Telling about your struggle isn’t enough. Research comparable titles and figure out an angle for your book that is new and different from what is already out there.

NOT THIS: Write a very broad book about overcoming a difficult situation. For example, instead of a book about addiction, write a book about beating alcoholism with your supportive, madcap Southern family at your side.

Writing a self-help book? Learn what makes it different than a self-help book here