3 Approaches to Writing a Memoir

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Writing a memoir is not as simple as recounting major life events chronologically. First of all, that’s boring—no one wants to read about everything that has happened in a person’s life, especially if it’s delivered matter-of-factly. Even in nonfiction books, great stories are the pillar of an engaging read. Second of all, a memoir is not a biography—it focuses on one aspect of someone’s life or a specific experience they have had. A memoir might zero in on traveling to a remote place, witnessing a historical event, losing a loved one, or other key moments in someone’s life. Of course, you can make your memoir about more than one event, but you should have a consistent theme underlying the book.

How do you go about writing a memoir? How do you frame your story so that the reader understands it? Here’s something that might surprise you: Most people who publish memoirs don’t write them themselves. Whether world-famous celebrities, renowned politicians, or everyday people, they tend to turn to ghostwriters—professional writers who tell others’ stories anonymously. The client still gets the credit, with their name prominently displayed as the author, even though they didn’t write the words. The arrangement is perfectly ethical because all the content comes from the client—the ghostwriter simply helps them organize it and convey it effectively.

If you have the time and the writing experience and want to tackle crafting your memoir on your own, that’s fine. In case you need a nudge in the right direction, read on to learn about common memoir narratives, the themes they focus on, and the best way to structure them.

Should you decide this is a task best left to the experts, get a free memoir consultation to see how we can write the best version of your story.

Basic types of memoirs and how to write them

While these are certainly not the only approaches to telling your story, the three types of memoirs we’ve listed below are narrative styles common to the genre, and the tips we’ve provided can help you decide how to frame your story.

Whatever type of memoir you want to write, you can start anywhere and move along your timeline however you want. That said, we provide suggestions for the structure we think works best for each type of memoir. At the very least, you can use our suggestions as a guideline to put together a structure that works for you.

1. Memoirs about a life-changing event

Focus of this type of memoir

This type of memoir focuses on a pivotal experience in the author’s life, something that has shaped them into the person they are today. A life-changing event can be either positive or negative: a trauma, a windfall, or a wake-up call. The core premise is a major shift in the author’s life. This type of memoir focuses on a transformative experience and the healing or growth the author has undergone.

If you choose to share a negative life-changing event, be prepared to get raw, emotional, and vulnerable. If you’re writing about the sudden death of your child, for example, you won’t do the traumatic event justice with surface-level emotions. You may also appear cold and unfeeling if you don’t dive deep into your feelings. Readers want vulnerability and real emotions, so be ready to plumb the depths of your own psyche.

How to structure this type of memoir

With this type of memoir, there are two approaches that can work equally well. Choose the one you deem best for your story.

Option 1: Start at the beginning. Begin the memoir before the life-changing event, providing context for your life prior to it. Then, describe the event and its immediate effects. End with your life after the event and how the experience has transformed you, and reflect on how you’ve changed as a person. If you choose this structure, make sure you start with a hook to draw the readers in—don’t throw up several pages detailing a boring, problem-free life and expect them to want to continue reading.

Option 2: Start in the middle. Begin at the life-changing event to grip the audience, and then go back and build up to that moment. This gets the reader invested right from the start, and they’ll be more interested in your “before” life because they know what’s coming.

2. Memoirs about facing obstacles

Focus of this type of memoir

This type of memoir focuses not on one event but a series of events, dealing with the adversities someone has faced during their lifetime and the way they overcame difficulties to get to where they are. For example, a memoir of this kind could be written by someone struggling in school because of a learning disability and later becoming a leader in their field of study or someone encountering prejudice due to their gender and working to dismantle biased systems. You don’t need to be famous or to have achieved anything monumental to pen this type of memoir, but you do need some sort of resolution or “solution” to end on.

A memoir of this kind will cover more of the author’s life than a memoir about a life-changing event since it details numerous obstacles over the course of their life. However, the events should be linked, so include only experiences that contribute to the narrative. Stay focused on your theme, and keep everything aligned with it.

How to structure this type of memoir

Start at the beginning. A linear structure makes the most sense for this type of memoir. The reader will want to experience the journey from humble beginnings to success. However, don’t go sharing all your childhood memories—make an outline before you begin writing to help you determine which stories make the most sense to include.

3. Memoirs about achieving a goal

Focus of this type of memoir

This type of memoir focuses on a goal or a dream of the author and what they did to achieve it. Examples could be building an extraordinary career, winning a prestigious award, or doing something most people never will (like climbing Mount Everest). The focus is on the journey to achievement, on the determination and the sacrifices required to realize the dream. Thus, even though your memoir revolves around your success, the bulk of the book should deal with the struggles you encountered to get there.

How to structure this type of memoir

Start at the end. Just as with a memoir about facing obstacles, a memoir about achieving a goal will detail the pitfalls along the way to realizing the dream, so you could choose a more linear narrative and start at the beginning. However, it’s often more compelling to start at the end, with the goal being reached. Describe a scene where you’re giving your acceptance speech or where you’re on top of a mountain scanning the horizon. Entice the reader to learn how you got to that point. You can juxtapose your success and your humble beginnings—this is especially effective if you started in a place where such success seemed unattainable.

The quicker, easier way to publish a memoir

Whether you experienced a life-changing event, persevered through adversity, or reached an impossible goal, there are readers out there for your memoir. You only need to know how to focus and frame your experience into a compelling story. However, that’s easier said than done, especially if you don’t have much writing experience under your belt. Investing in ghostwriting services is usually the best way to get your story out there, allowing you to publish a high-quality, professionally written book quickly and easily. The cost may initially feel too high, but a great memoir will pay off in book sales, speaking engagements, and clout.

Not convinced you can write your story? Hire a professional ghostwriter and let this expert identify the type of memoir that will best suit your unique life experience.

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