If you’re writing a memoir, you’ll need a combination of strong writing and strong storytelling.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some elements of effective memoir?
Who’s It For?
So many writers have great life stories to tell. And so many non-writers have great stories too. But as you write your great life story, it’s important to think about your audience. Who will be your target readers? Many writing memoir think big—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet realistically, few traditional publishers will take a chance on an unknown writer without the two basic requirements of: a great story and great writing.
Where does that leave most of us? Believe it or not, your story matters and is valuable, even if a book deal doesn’t fall into your lap. Your family, first of all, needs your version of family history. Usually called legacy memoirs, these stories are often written in chronological order and may lack stellar writing skills. Yet every family benefits from these legacy memoirs. Oral stories tend to change, and details can be forgotten. If you put down the story, you preserve a bit of precious history.
Self or independent publishers are not stigmatized as they once were, and self-publishing has become relatively inexpensive. If you go the legacy route, steer clear of publishers which function as old-time vanity publishers. These outfits often ask you to put up large sums and order large print runs. Stick to well-known places such as Amazon or a hybrid publisher with good references and reputation.
A Legacy Memoir is a gift to your family.
How It’s Written
If you still think you want to pursue traditional publishers or you simply want an enjoyable and well-crafted memoir, you’ll need to learn to write in scenes. Scene writing basics are the same for fiction as well as memoir, and the technique of showing instead of telling helps immerse readers into the story. By acting out the story, scenes help readers stay glued to the page.
Yet not just any scene makes for good reading. Famously, novelist Elmore Leonard said writers need to “leave out the boring stuff.” In memoir, boring stuff is anything which doesn’t add to the story or is something readers can assume. For instance, we all get up in the morning, but unless a crucial piece of the story occurs then, you don’t need to write about getting your coffee or other routines.
A good memoir has a beginning, middle and end. Each scene must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Consider the purpose of each scene as you write. Ask yourself, “Why this event?” and “So what?” The So What test will help you decide if the scene is worthy to include. If the answer isn’t that something awful or worse will happen, leave it out.
How to Revise
After you’ve drafted your memoir, let it sit. Put it away for a few weeks. Write something else, such as a short personal essay about your life. When you have some distance, you can revisit the manuscript. Read through the entire story without stopping. Note the spots where it feels slow or confusing or too fast. After you’ve read through it, see if you can sum up the story. This story is about a person who wanted X, met obstacles of Y and overcame them to get X or not.
Consider hiring a reputable editor when you’ve done all you can do. Anyone can say they are an editor, so get recommendation and references. Ask for what you want: A macro or developmental editor will look at your overall story and its parts. A copy editor will make sure the manuscript follows proper usage, spelling and grammar rules and fix typos.
As you revise, remember that rewriting is far more than fiddling with sentences or word choices. Sure, you need a clean copy but first be sure the overall story makes sense and is satisfying. By satisfying, I mean that readers will see the outcome (resolution) as the logical ending for the story. Don’t leave readers wondering if the goal is met and whether the “I” voice is happy or unhappy about the outcome. Your memoir—whether a legacy or for general publication—should strive for excellence while it leaves out the boring parts.