How to Write a Memoir

Everything you need to know about writing your memoirs.

Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.

Thomas M. Cirignano

I might be shooting myself in the foot here, but what the hell. Why not!

In my experience, there are two main reasons a person might want to write a memoir. One, to share with their family and friends. Two, to share with a wider audience. As I approach thirty (it’s getting ever closer), I’ve been going through a midlife crisis of sorts and it’s got me thinking, if I were to write a memoir of my life, what would it say? Would it be a story of happiness? Sadness? Triumph? Which parts of my life would I include and which would I leave out?

In my career as a ghostwriter, I’ve written a good few memoirs for clients.

They’ve varied from incredibly heart-wrenching stories, to light-hearted reads, and everything in between. What I’m trying to say, is that memoirs can be about absolutely anything. Serious, humorous, it doesn’t necessarily matter. There tends to be an audience for everything. Having gone through the process of ghostwriting memoirs for other people, I feel I have a solid grasp of how to write a memoir. That being said, I am by no means a leading expert on the subject or anything like that. I’ve simply written a few memoirs and, through trial and error, I’ve found what works. At the end of the day, I am a humble ghostwriter who is happy to tell your stories.

The best time to write your memoir is now.

Life is short and things get in the way. Why put off something until tomorrow that you could do today? You don’t have to wait for the perfect time to write a memoir because they capture one aspect of your life – an experience, or a time period, or theme. Not like an autobiography where you tell your whole life story (that’s a blog post for another day). There’s a lovely phrase that I read on The Write Life blog that summed it up perfectly, “A memoir is a slice of life…”[1]

Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Memoir

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing memoirs. But this is how I tend to structure the process. Make it work for you and adapt where you need to.

1. Decide what your focus will be.

You might already know what your memoir will focus on. If not, a great exercise is to write down all of the events that have happened in your life that are of note. Things that changed the course of your life. You can then narrow down to one or two of these events.  Eat Pray Love[2], for example, focuses on the author’s trip around the world after her divorce and what she discovered while travelling. The book doesn’t cover the author’s whole life, simply this one aspect of it. A ‘turning point’. You’ll also find that your memoir will (probably) have a very clear theme.

                                Common Themes of Memoirs:

  • Hope
  • Overcoming barriers
  • Coming of age
  • Adjusting to a new life
  • Survival
  • Poverty
  • War

Identifying the theme early on will allow you to keep circling back to it throughout the writing process, ensuring you stay on track.

2. Once you have your focus, explore this further.

Take some time to consider the theme or event that you have chosen to cover in your memoir. What happened during this time that you would need to (or want to) talk about? You might end up with a list that’s a mile long that you’ll cover briefly, or just a few things that you’ll go over in detail. How you tell your story is entirely your choice. You’ll end up with a collection of anecdotes that you will then use to write your outline.

3. Write your outline for your memoir.

This is something that I will preach over and over again. Before you start writing anything, write an outline. Not only does it help you get your thoughts in order, but it also ensures that you keep on track and don’t wander off on tangents that aren’t relevant.  Your story might lend itself to being told in chronological order, or it might benefit from being grouped by themes or events. Looking at your ideas, you’ll likely be able to see which way your memoir should be structured. If you need any help at this stage, send a message my way and I’ll help you out. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective helps.

4. Be honest.

The whole point of writing a memoir is to be honest about an aspect of your life, and what you learned as a result of it. Being brutally honest about yourself can be difficult. In the case of your first draft, write exactly as it happened. Honesty and authenticity are two key traits to writing a successful memoir. You can always go back and tweak aspects later on, adding description or other story elements.

5. Start writing.

It doesn’t matter which aspect of the memoir you start writing first, just start writing. Maybe there’s an aspect of it that stands out the most to you, that you want to write first. Maybe you want to start with the part of it that’s the most emotionally difficult to deal with, getting it out of the way. Your first draft is a DRAFT. Just write. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, get your story down on paper. That’s the aim of the first draft. The end result will definitely need work, but that’s what editing is for!

People often ask how long it takes to write a memoir. That’s the equivalent to asking how long is a piece of string. I usually suggest to clients, if they should hire me to ghostwrite it for them, it will take around three months. Alternatively, if you write it yourself, it all depends upon how much time you can dedicate to it. Even spending just half an hour each day will help you get through it. Little and often adds up.

6. Read through and edit your first draft.

Look back through your memoir with a critical eye. Which parts of the story do you need to build upon? Which parts feel a little dry? Would the story work better in a different order? Go back and add, detract, change, whatever you need to. You will likely do this a couple of times (if not more). I know, I’m sorry, editing is a necessary evil I’m afraid. At this stage, I highly recommend using the ‘read aloud’ function on MS Word, as it will allow you to catch sentences that don’t read quite right.

7. Proofread what you have.

Download Grammarly, it’s free, and it will help you catch a lot of those pesky typos. You’ll not catch everything, unless you’re a professional editor, but it will help you to polish your work to a certain standard.

8. Share your memoir with people and ask for feedback.

If you have friends and family who are willing to read your memoir and offer feedback, take them up on it. Alternatively, you can usually find beta-readers, people who read your manuscript and provide feedback, (also a further blog post) on many different freelancing websites. You will have to pay, but it’s worth doing if you don’t have people around you willing to do it for free.

9. Edit based upon your feedback.

Remember, that everybody’s opinions are different. If your gut tells you not to change something based upon feedback, then keep it as is. Otherwise, work through the feedback provided and complete a final proofread.

10. Publishing!

The age-old publishing conundrum. To bastardise Shakespeare, to traditionally publish or to self-publish, that is the question. Thankfully, your friendly neighbourhood ghostwriter wrote a blog post on that: Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing. I won’t go into detail here, because this isn’t the place, but rest assured, there are benefits to each.


What are the legalities of including other people in your memoir?

Writing a memoir can be tricky in terms of legalities, as it will be based upon real-life people and situations. I’m not one for wasting time, so here’s a good link that tells you all about it: Essentially, the main advice is to not provide any distinguishing features if you’re describing an actual person. Change their name, their appearance, everything you can while keeping your story intact. The inclusion of a disclaimer that says everything is as you remember it, and is written in good faith can be helpful too.  

What if I don’t feel confident writing it myself?

Hello! Hi, I’m Sarah, your friendly neighbourhood ghostwriter. Jokes aside, hiring a ghostwriter is common practice in writing a memoir. Ghostwriters can help you through the process, whether writing the whole thing from your memories and storytelling, or supporting you with certain aspects of the process you’re not comfortable with. Ideally, you want to hire a professional ghostwriter who aligns with your views and who you actually like (you’ll be spending a lot of time talking to them). A quick Google will bring up plenty of options. Look at reviews for whatever ghostwriter you wish to choose. Hiring a ghostwriter, and deciding whether you should hire a ghostwriter, can be a difficult decision. Take some time to explore your options. Talk to the ghostwriters and get to know them. They should be more than happy to discuss your project with you before taking it on. I always am!

Should I hire an editor?

The short answer is yes. At some point along your journey, your manuscript will need to be edited. If you’re going the traditional publishing route, this will be sorted by the publishers. If you’re self-publishing, hire an editor. A copy-editor, like myself, will get your manuscript into publishable condition and ready to go. Believe me, many self-publishers fall at this hurdle. It is costly to get a manuscript copy-edited, but it’s worth it.

What if the outline doesn’t come together?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It can be hard to be objective about your own story, which bits to include and which to throw in the bin. The first option is to tell your story to a friend and ask them to help you with the outline. Ask them to be ruthless, which is difficult, I know, but it will make life so much easier. Alternatively, you can reach out to a professional writer or editor (*cough*) and they can support you to write the outline. If you chose to reach out to me, there would never be any pressure for me to be involved in any other part of the process. I won’t ask you if you want ghostwriting, or editing, but you know I’m there should you need anything else. I know some people worry about asking for help with the outline because they think a ghostwriter will interfere with the rest of their project. A professional ghostwriter, or copy-editor, shouldn’t do this.

What should I do after I’ve written the manuscript?

First, congratulations! Second, put it to the side for a few days and let it rest. Then go back to it and have a read through and tweak anything you need to tweak. Then you’re onto the publishing aspect of writing a manuscript, which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. If you think it will be beneficial, I’ll do a blog post on reaching out to publishers and agents, so just let me know.

Writing a memoir is difficult. I won’t pretend it will be easy. It is your personal story and will likely come with a boatload of uncomfortable emotions. That being said, the pride you’ll feel when it’s completed will be immense, no matter what you choose to do with your manuscript.

I will always be there for support if you need to talk something through. I’ll offer advice where I can, but I love hearing your stories so definitely contact me whether you need a ghostwriter or not. There will never be any pressure from me to buy my services. If you want to, that’s awesome. If not, that’s cool too. Writing a memoir is deeply personal and you have to do what’s right for you.

As always, wishing you love and books that make your heart skip a beat,

Sarah Jules



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