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Writing Tips: How to Write a Memoir

The memoir is an increasingly popular form. Three parts history, one part imagination, a well-written memoir can be a window into experience that many would never otherwise have. A well-written memoir is a tricky thing, and so in this post, we’re going to tell you how to write a memoir.

Read how to write a memoir

Memoir Versus Autobiography

First thing’s first – a memoir is not an autobiography. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Yes, you’re telling your life story in both but here’s the difference: an autobiography is an historical look at an entire life; a memoir is more concerned with theme and emotion, and can focus on one particular time or event. A memoir is not necessarily as concerned with precise facts, dates, or events. Because of that, it can sometimes read like fiction.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely read a few memoirs that I didn’t even realize were memoirs at first! I thought they were just works of fiction, and was shocked (and impressed) to learn that it was actually a true story. Now that’s good writing. Side note: I just had this experience with A Wolf at the Table, a memoir by Augusten Burroughs. Great read!

Find Your Theme

Now that we understand what a memoir is, it’s time to start writing, right? Not so fast. As with any writing, you’re going to have to do some leg-work beforehand. Specifically: determine what event or aspect of your life you want to be the focus of your memoir. Perhaps you had a difficult childhood that you would like to explore through your writing, or maybe the story of your school days is interesting or humorous. The more focused your story, the better it will be.

Because this is a personal, true story, the pre-writing process might be difficult. You’re going to have to bring up old memories that could be painful. Let yourself feel the emotions – analyze your memories, and try to see them from a perspective other than your own. Your memoir will be richer for it.

Cast Your Characters

Just like in a work of fiction, you must create engaging, dynamic, and realistic characters. Just because your characters represent real people in your life doesn’t mean they will automatically seem interesting – that’s your job as the writer. Don’t write boring characters – people aren’t boring in real life, no matter what they may seem at first. Also, don’t include every Tom, Dick, or Harry you’ve ever come across in your life. Try to stay as focused as you can.

I suggest doing a character sketch of each person you want to include in your story – figure out what makes them tick, what their defining characteristics are, what are their strengths, and what are their faults. Try to be as objective as you can, and pepper these little details throughout your story for more three-dimensional characters.


Depending on how you’re writing your memoir, your research will probably include talking to family members or other people who were in your life at the time of your story. Look through old photographs, read old letters and journals, and anything else you can get your hands on. Go through the newspapers from the time to put your life into context of major world events.

Research is an important step, and not one to be passed over. It can help trigger memories you didn’t even know you had, and fill in gaps in your narrative.

Take a Course

When it comes to writing, guidance is always a plus. It gives your writing structure, and is also a great motivator to get words on paper.

Winghill Writing School offers an entire course in Memoir Writing, which will take you through the writing process with the help of your very own personal tutor. Learn more about the course here.

Classic Memoirs to Add to Your Reading List

Read a few of these great memoirs, and learn from the best! As you’re reading, determine what you find engaging about their stories, and where you lose interest.

–          Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
–          Night, Elie Wiesel
–          Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
–          A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
–          Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen
–          The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
–          A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
–          I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou