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Writing Memoir


Writing Memoir and Autobiography

If you want to write a memoir you’re in good company – lots of writers want to try their hand at this category.

As with other non-fiction books, do give some thought to your market before you start, if you can. Although writers often actually write their memoir and then think about what to do with it later, it does help to know who you’re writing it for, so it’ s a good thing to sort this out in your own mind at an early stage if you can.

Research and planning

This may sound like a strange thing to say, when you’re writing your own history, but memoirs also benefit from research, which will enable you to check your memories against the historical record and also help you to relate what happened to you to wider trends. Often also research will reveal other people you can talk to or other sources you can read up or follow up on.

Most memoirs take a chronological perspective and this is generally advisable unless there is a good reason for doing otherwise. If your life has a crowning moment, then perhaps you’d like to start by covering this briefly in a prologue before going back to where it all began. Apart from that though, there’s a lot to be said for a chronological approach, which will show the natural trajectory of your life as you evolve from a baby into a child and then a teenager and young adult, and so on. It is the way that people expect to read autobiographical material and that means it’s generally a good choice.

It may be tempting to sit down and just start writing, but I would advise doing some planning first, if only to give you an outline which shows how your book will develop and which events belong where. A short chapter outline is a good start and will help you to get your material into some sort of order in your own mind.

One thing to be aware of from the start is other people’s perspective. Don’t forget that your reader will probably not understand the events of your life as well as you do and make sure you give them a bit of general information to explain the background. So, for instance, if you are writing about your early working life, take the trouble to describe the job and the workplace as a background to your life there. Your ability to describe a scene and paint a background will develop as you go along, but don’t ever forget that this account of your own life, which is a story so well-known to you, will need working on to make it come alive for your readers.

In the same way you need to describe the characters in your story. Make sure your readers know what they look like and tell them something about them.

Writing it down

For first-time writers it’s important to get started and get your life-story onto the computer. Don’t spend too much time getting every word right and polishing your prose, get it down and then go back to go through your first draft to check and rewrite. This is a good time to check for omissions and repetitions, although having a plan will help to avoid these.

It’s extraordinary what people leave out of their life stories. Even if you’re writing for a business audience, there should be some mention of your family. If your focus is on your family story, do describe also what you did at work and how you’ve spent your life. Your audience will want to hear about you in the round, so make sure you give them a full account.

Your memoir as self-discovery

You can write a memoir for yourself and many writers do find it a cathartic experience to set down their life in written form. There is a whole school of memoir-writing which is about this kind of self-discovery and a number of books which can help you with this. It can be an enriching experience, especially if it helps you to work through difficult things which are going on in your life, or which happened to you in the past. Writing a Memoir by Judith Barrington is highly recommnded if you want to take this approach.

Most people however do write their memoir for other people to read and this advice is mostly directed to them.

Finding your market

One of the things you will have to think about is the market for your work and this is something which could inform how you set about it from the start. Is it a family memoir, of interest only to your family and friends? If so, put in all the family stories you think they will enjoy and don’t forget to give them plenty of background, so that younger generations can find out about their family history. You might want to start with your grandparents, or even further back, although this may be when it turns into a family history rather than a memoir.

Either way, you will probably want to get your book into print and to be able to give copies to the family. This would involve self-publishing and it involves using print on demand to produce a small number of books.

Finding a publisher or self-publishing?

If you think your book will appeal to a wider audience, what you need to decide is whether you should self-publish it or try to find a publisher. Try to be realistic about this, as it can be a dispiriting slog trying to interest a publisher in something which doesn’t really have a wider market. Just having a distinguished career or even an interesting life does not mean that a publisher will want to take on your memoir. Publishers are looking for strong stories with unusual angles and, unless you’re a celebrity of some kind or have had a really exciting life, they are unlikely to be interested in your story.

This leaves you with self-publishing, which is a very good way to approach your memoir, especially if you know there is some interest in it out there, perhaps among a group you’ve been involved with, in your neighbourhood, community, profession or workplace. Self-publishing will enable you to keep the cost and financial risk down but also to promote your book yourself, using all your contacts, local booksellers or other specialist outlets and the internet. If the book does interest these audiences, you could find a steady, if not large, market for it.

So, good luck with writing your memoir and I hope you find it an enjoyable experience.


Writing a biography or autobiography (series)

Research - Writers' Factsheet 4 by Michael Leggat

The web as a research tool

Other articles in this series:

Writing Crime Fiction

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

Writing Romance

Writing Historical Fiction

Writing Non-fiction

© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2010