How to Write a Memoir
This article is all about how to write a memoir, what you’ll need to include, memoir word count, memoir page count, how to write a memoir query letter, and other considerations of writing creative nonfiction.
How to Write a Memoir
If you have a story to tell, and it just so happens to be your story, you may be wondering how to write a memoir. Writing a memoir can be some very challenging, yet very rewarding work. However, the first thing you need to do is adjust your perspective. Most people who set out writing a memoir forget that they’re not just scribbling down their lives, journal-style. By learning how to write a memoir, you are actually learning how to tell your story to a wider audience than just you, your friends, and your family. You are, in fact, hoping to get complete strangers interested in your life.
That means you have to think of yourself as a character, and your story as a plot, because a lot of fiction writing craft ideas also apply to memoir. Sometimes, writing a memoir can actually be more difficult than writing fiction, because aspiring memoir writers often feel limited in terms of how they can “shape” their stories. They are trapped in the prison of “What really happened” and don’t feel like they can change or rearrange information.
Of course, you want to commit to truth in storytelling when you write memoir, and I’ll talk about that a bit more, below. But you are also allowed to combine characters, rename characters, omit events, fictionalize dialogue, compress or combine events, and otherwise manipulate time in the interest of telling a more compelling story. This is where the idea of “shaping” really comes into play. As long as you are honest about what you’re doing, if you’re doing this, readers will come along for the ride.
Perhaps the best advice on writing a memoir is to choose which slice of your life you want to work with. You are not going to win over readers, memoir literary agents, or publishers by telling the story of your life from birth to the present moment. This type of storytelling has long ago gone out of style. You need to pick which facet of your life you’ll talk about. You will notice that Cheryl Strayed focused on her hike as the backbone of Wild, even if she did go into other backstory. But the narrative always hinged on the hike. So is yours a self-discovery and empowerment memoir? A triumph over adversity memoir? An addiction memoir? A relationship memoir? The story of one important event and how it changed your life?
You should aim to start with an event that summarizes who you are, and what the crux of your story will be, or your theme. Then pick an outline of events that you want to discuss that all tie into the theme. From there, the focus of writing a memoir becomes letting readers into who you are. This is done with a lot of interiority (or access to thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggle) and through carefully chosen flashbacks and backstory that add on to the present narrative.
The best way to internalize how to write a memoir is to read in the category. Find a series of names who are writing like you want to write. Are you a thirtysomething confessional like Nora McInerny? A funny essayist like Sloane Crosley? A women’s empowerment advocate like Elizabeth Gilbert? A chronicler of childhood trauma like Augusten Burroughs? Find your tribe and read them, then start writing your own story using what you’ve learned.
Memoir Word Count
Memoir word count tends to be right there in the same range as novel word count, or 60,000 to 80,000 words. Shorter than that, and you may not have enough substance to truly excite readers, you may not be going deeply enough into your story, or telling enough of it. Longer than that, and there’s probably cutting that you can do. This range is really the sweet spot, and while you see examples of outlier memoir word count, your goal is to write a consumable memoir that’s engaging to read and quickly paced. That’s best accomplished at this memoir word count range.
Memoir Page Count
Memoir length varies quite a bit, as you can see, and with it, memoir page count. Especially since page counts in published books are so diverse to begin with. Memoir page count is highly influenced by factors such as font size, book layout, and other formatting considerations. That’s why most unpublished manuscripts are discussed in terms of memoir word count, which gives a much more accurate measure of memoir length than page count. However, rough guidelines are always helpful, so the average memoir length is between 250 and 400 pages. Longer projects are, obviously, going to take up more pages. Shorter projects, as mentioned above, can be problematic, but will take up fewer.
Special Memoir Considerations
Memoirs are in a special group that bridges the divide between fiction and nonfiction. Technically, memoirs are considered nonfiction, but you’ll often see them referred to as “narrative nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction,” and this is a nod to memoirists using fiction storytelling techniques to better package their stories for public consumption.
But the idea that you’re writing creative nonfiction rather than straight nonfiction brings up a good question: What is a memoirist’s relationship to the truth? In terms of personal experience, the very idea of “truth” is subjective. If you and I sit at the same coffee shop, our experiences, what we notice, how we feel about it ... all will be surprisingly different. So it’s important to remember that, when you’re writing a memoir, you are telling your story as you experienced it. That means the fight with your mother? Your version is probably quite different from hers. But you are telling your story, so your version is what goes into your memoir.
Memoir readers realize that narrative nonfiction isn’t reality as if recorded by a security camera. Memories can be faulty. Writers might take creative liberty, combine characters, change names, or play with timeline. Most memoirs come with a, “These are the events as the author remembers them,” type of disclaimer. The real problems come if you claim that something is 100% the truth, but it isn’t. Otherwise, some creative liberty is allowed in creative nonfiction. For a more in-depth discussion of writing memoir and where the truth fits in, read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.
Many memoir writers agonize over whether they can tell their stories. Maybe they’re worried about their reputations, or potential retribution from someone who doesn’t get a sympathetic portrayal. Publishing under a pen name is always an option. But often, people find that writing a memoir is liberating and cathartic. Only you can decide what your relationship with the truth will be, and how you will tell it.
How to Get a memoir published
Throughout this article, I’ve discussed common threads between memoir and fiction. These continue when you start wondering how to get a memoir published. Most memoirs, especially from debuts, are sold as complete manuscripts, like novels are, rather than with a memoir book proposal. (You can read more about writing and selling a book proposal here.) More experienced writers are often able to sell with a memoir proposal, with only a few sample chapters. This also depends on what memoir publishers are looking for.
Once you have a complete memoir manuscript or a memoir book proposal, you can approach memoir publishers directly, or seek out memoir literary agents. Remember how I suggested you find your memoirist tribe, earlier? This will help you figure out where your story goes in the larger memoir scene. Think about approaching memoir publishers or memoir literary agents who have worked on similar stories or voices, or published for similar audiences. You may find kindred spirits there. To pitch to either party, you will need a memoir query letter that introduces either your manuscript or memoir book proposal. Here, focus on the type of memoir you’ve written, and your theme. Frame yourself and your story in an interesting way. Include a bigger bio paragraph than you would for your novel, and go into detail about your marketing platform, if you have one. Remember, with memoir, you aren’t just selling a story, you are also selling yourself.
Going out on submission is a unique topic that merits more discussion, and you can read more about it here.
hiring a Memoir editor
If you’re new to memoir writing, it helps to have an experienced set of eyes on your work. Check out further resources on how to find an editor, and get insight into estimates of editorial service rates.
Please don’t hesitate to check out my writing craft book or reach out for editorial services via the contact form, below.
Click here to purchase Writing Irresistible Kidlit, my book on fiction craft for MG and YA novels, out from Writer's Digest Books. This will show you my writing craft philosophy and give you lots of valuable advice, including tips for the novel revision process and self-editing. There are over 35 example novels cited and discussed throughout. It’s a valuable resource for any writer’s toolkit.