It’s often said that everyone has a book inside of them. While that may be true, it’s not true that anyone
can write a professional memoir—at least not without some help. If you’re interested in writing a
memoir geared toward mass publication, the following tips can help you strategically consider your
steps, organize relevant material, and create an income-earning memoir.
Begin at the action, not at the beginning. Keep in mind you are writing a memoir – not an autobiography.
● Is about an aspect, theme, event, or choice in a life
● Can start or end anywhere in a life
● Is personal, not entirely factual
● Can be written by anyone
● Details an entire life
● Starts at the beginning and progresses chronologically to the end
● Is historical, factual and date-specific
● Is usually about famous people
Consider the aspect, theme, event or choice that will be the heart of your memoir, and focus on the
Use your settings as tools to tell your story.
Consider the time, place, house, city, country, and world where your memoir takes place. Growing up
poor in California would be a completely different story if the character grew up rich in Dubai. Explore
unique flavors by considering what is particular about your story and using it to help you speak.
The era matters too. The world of our grandparents differed from that of our parents, and our era differs
from that of our children’s. How were people expected to behave in your setting/era? What can you
suggest with your characters keeping with or breaking from the norm of their time?
Combine facts with story-telling.
Being a memoirist requires skill in weaving, and if you don’t have it to start, you’ll develop it while
writing your memoir. Creating art from actual life requires story-telling talent, excellent memory, and
skill in combining the two.
While it’s easy to record events, thoughts, feelings and interpretations in a diary or journal, the
recording of actual events and people isn’t always interesting. You must weave the threads of reality
into a tale that others will find compelling. You can interlace facts with creative description, and events
with ring-side interpretation. Characters and events can be presented and sometimes shaded as the
memoirist sees fit. You needn’t tell the reader anything in particular, and can merely present, or just
partially describe without definition.
Get creative when locating material.
I keep an informal computer journal, just as I kept a handwritten diary for thirty years. No one reads it
but me, and it’s not fancy. When I’m ready, I copy the entries into what will become a memoir. Then I
rewrite, delete or decorate the words, ideas and thoughts as needed. Very few entries, if any, are
interesting as originally written. They have no style in the beginning: they take form and develop
substance as the style of the memoir develops itself. Only sometimes (okay, never) is the style initially
and consistently apparent in a first draft.
I copy emails I’ve written into my memoirs. I have a close friend I regularly email and when I’m
struggling to recall how a moment felt, or what was said, I can often find it in our email exchanges.
Letters and photographs are also excellent sources of material and of great help in finding your voice.
Include conversations, and make them realistic.
It’s unlikely you’ll be including the exact wording of conversations as they happened, so designing
conversations is a fantastic opportunity to be creative. Once you’ve written your conversations, read
them aloud to ensure they make sense. Pay particular attention to:
Using the character’s names should not be more often than one does in genuine conversation (which is
usually only upon greeting, trying to get someone’s attention, or departing.)
Using slang should be realistic and not overdone unless it’s important for character development.
Using verbs such as said, hinted, whispered, should not be included with every statement.
Using any word other than ‘says’ or ‘said’ should be very limited. Words such as exclaimed, shouted,
emoted, pouted, cried, yelled, screamed, whispered, etc. should only be used when absolutely
Consider your audience as you’re writing.
What do you want to communicate? What are your goals? Imagine the emails you’d like to receive
from your readers. Are they thanking you or identifying with you? Have you taught them something?
Did you make them laugh or cry?
It’s never too early to think about your audience. Consider who will buy your books. Who is the typical
reader you have in mind? Is the reader male or female? Young, teen, middle-age, mature? Where do
they live? What do they do? What is their history? What is their economic status? Consider their daily
lives. Their hobbies. Hopes. Dreams. Fears.
How will reading your book affect your reader? Are you teaching or enlightening? What would your
reader like to get from your book: lessons, sympathy, empathy, inspiration, healing, entertainment,
Now write directly to them.
Allow your characters their privacy.
Publish nothing you couldn’t read aloud to the very person you’re discussing. Think of the adage ‘you
can’t unring a bell.’ Once you’ve put the words out into the world, they are there forever.
The biggest challenge I’ve found as a memoirist is hiding a character’s identity. This issue has proven
so impossible in several instances that I’ve had to cut some really juicy story material from my book for
fear of exposing someone I did not wish to identify. Unfortunately, burying a character in another
period or another country just doesn’t prove to be enough of a disguise.
Now write your draft.
Think of the draft as the fun part of planning a memoir. It’s where you get to lay out your ideas about
how you think your story will progress. Think is the key word, as you will undoubtedly need to make
some changes along the way – so be easy on yourself. Consider this draft a rough-sketch of how you
plan your story to be. Don’t be afraid to dream: your draft is your own private playground where no
bullies exist and you will win every game, run the fastest and be chosen first for every team. This is
your field of victory—so be wild, go big and lay it all out there.
Keep your memoir within the parameters.
According to my research, books are approximately 50,000 words on the short end to 110,000 words on
the longer end. Memoirs run around 70,000 to 80,000 words. Of course there are exceptions. If your
memoir is one of them, make it worthwhile.
Don’t fall into the trap of including absolutely everything that happened just because it did, and you
feel you need to be truthful. Remember, you are creating a work of art with your life story and it should
compel and entertain your readers.
The final and most important step will differentiate ‘the story everyone has inside them’ from a
professional memoir: hire other professionals to do what they do best.
When I was in the marketing consulting business, we called this, ‘Pay others to do their best and
highest good.’ Don’t waste your time trying to do a less than first-rate job. These professionals include
at the very least an editor and a cover designer.