10 Great Essay Writing Tips
Knowing how to write a college essay is a useful skill for anyone who plans to go to college. Most colleges and universities ask you to submit a writing sample with your application. As a student, you’ll also write essays in your courses. Impress your professors with your knowledge and skill by using these great essay writing tips.
Most college essays ask you to answer a question or synthesize information you learned in class. Review notes you have from lectures, read the recommended texts and make sure you understand the topic. You should refer to these sources in your essay.
Plan Your Essay
Many students see planning as a waste of time, but it actually saves you time. Take a few minutes to think about the topic and what you want to say about it. You can write an outline, draw a chart or use a graphic organizer to arrange your ideas. This gives you a chance to spot problems in your ideas before you spend time writing out the paragraphs.
Choose a Writing Method That Feels Comfortable
You might have to type your essay before turning it in, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Some people find it easy to write out their ideas by hand. Others prefer typing in a word processor where they can erase and rewrite as needed. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.
View It as a Conversation
Writing is a form of communication, so think of your essay as a conversation between you and the reader. Think about your response to the source material and the topic. Decide what you want to tell the reader about the topic. Then, stay focused on your response as you write.
Provide the Context in the Introduction
If you look at an example of an essay introduction, you’ll see that the best essays give the reader a context. Think of how you introduce two people to each other. You share the details you think they will find most interesting. Do this in your essay by stating what it’s about and then telling readers what the issue is.
Explain What Needs to be Explained
Sometimes you have to explain concepts or define words to help the reader understand your viewpoint. You also have to explain the reasoning behind your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to write that your greatest achievement is running an ultra marathon. You might need to define ultra marathon and explain why finishing the race is such an accomplishment.
Answer All the Questions
After you finish writing the first draft of your essay, make sure you’ve answered all the questions you were supposed to answer. For example, essays in compare and contrast format should show the similarities and differences between ideas, objects or events. If you’re writing about a significant achievement, describe what you did and how it affected you.
Stay Focused as You Write
Writing requires concentration. Find a place where you have few distractions and give yourself time to write without interruptions. Don’t wait until the night before the essay is due to start working on it.
Read the Essay Aloud to Proofread
When you finish writing your essay, read it aloud. You can do this by yourself or ask someone to listen to you read it. You’ll notice places where the ideas don’t make sense, and your listener can give you feedback about your ideas.
Avoid Filling the Page with Words
A great essay does more than follow an essay layout. It has something to say. Sometimes students panic and write everything they know about a topic or summarize everything in the source material. Your job as a writer is to show why this information is important.
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The Case for Writing a Memoir in Essays
Beth kephart on the power of fragmentation in books by sonja livingston, megan stielstra, and more.
When Sonja Livingston began to write about her life with an itinerant mother and six siblings in the raw corners of western New York, she wrote, she says , in snatches. “I wrote of living in apartments and tents and motel rooms. Of places where corn and cabbage grew in great swaths. Of the Iroquois on their reservation outside of Buffalo.”
But when Livingston tried to connect these fragments into a memoir, she told Bookslut interviewer Elizabeth Hildreth in March 2010, she ran into a problem:
I tried to connect them in [a] way that was more typical in terms of a traditional narrative. At one point, I think I had twelve long chapters. But it felt all wrong. . . . So I returned to the manuscript, and began structuring it the way the memories had come to me, in distinctive snapshots, and ended up with 122 little chapters.
The book, Ghostbread , became a kind of memoir-in-essays—a poeticized true story in which all the unnecessary things are absent from the pages. There are, indeed, 122 small chapters, plus an epilogue—some chapters no more than a paragraph long, most stretching over two to three pages. There are no forced transitions between these chapters, but there is the continuity of chronology, with the book beginning with the author’s lineage and birth and ending (just ahead of the epilogue) with her graduation from high school. Livingston never pretends, in Ghostbread , that memory unfurls like some single silk ribbon. She upholds the integrity of each “distinctive snapshot.” Singularly, these elements seduce us. Together, they relate a life.
In The Wrong Way to Save Your Life , Megan Stielstra also relies on distinct, self-contained pieces to present a sustaining view of the life she has lived. Like Livingston, Stielstra works chronologically, presenting her life in four primary sections, each pertaining to a decade lived—ten, twenty, thirty, forty. Unlike Livingston, however, Stielstra chooses to explore and present her life through longer essays (four per section) that consistently spring from her stated determination to “look at the fear.” Stielstra’s fear of being stuck. Her fear of dogs. Her fear of losing her father. Her fear of depression. Her fear of the possible outcome for a child sick with cancer. If chronology dictates the placement of the pieces, fear provides the thematic adhesive.
The memoir built of pieces is gigantically plastic; it welcomes new versions, new interpretations. In Meet Me in the In-Between , Bella Pollen explores the roots and impact of her insatiable wanderlust in narrative true stories—about the inevitable need for attention by the young middle-child version of herself, say, or about love affairs gone wrong, or about encounters with her elusive father in movie theaters—bridged by alluring graphic art that economically and emotionally relays stories Pollen chooses not to tell with words, such as the ones about her family’s transatlantic journey and her parents’ separation. These miniature graphic memoirs, created by the illustrator Kate Boxer, enable Pollen and the reader to see Pollen’s world through (as Pollen notes in the acknowledgments) another pair of eyes while also marking the passage of time. There might be a lesson here for the rest of us—the possibility that we, too, someday, will ask an artist to embolden our book with their own particular take on our lives.
Or perhaps the writer will choose, as Brian Turner does in his memoir about his experience and perception of war, My Life as a Foreign Country , to imagine one’s self as a “drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body.” Turner’s worldview has been shaped by his time as a sergeant in combat. His sensibility is that of a poet. His book operates as a series of not-always-continuous distillations of war, of family history, of reckoning. Each piece—some a single paragraph long, some running over the course of many pages, some reading like prose poems, some reading like narrative—stands on its own. The adjacencies are sometimes obvious, and sometimes less so; this is not designed to be a straightforward read. Turner, it seems, wants us to see his world as he now sees his world—in fragments, in fractions, in fever dreams. He wants to present us with the insoluble puzzle of war and its long drag on memory. The cumulative force is extraordinary and suggests a potential way in for those of us who live with competing versions of ourselves, our character, our stories.
A Song for the River takes as its primary material the years Philip Connors spent as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness. His themes are isolation, loss, and the afterlife of forests and friends—themes that might have easily been presented as a traditional collection of essays.
The five long essays (some stretching to over fifty pages) and the final “Catechism for a Fire Lookout” of Connors’s book are bound as if by centripetal force. The characters we meet early on in one essay are met again in the next. The metaphors suggested in one essay reverberate in later pieces. Connors’s quest to understand why what he loves—a lookout friend who dies while taking a ride on his horse, environmentally minded teenagers who are killed when the plane they are flying in goes down, the forest itself—keeps disappearing is not just catalogued but magnified, until the man who is “scribbl(ing) to mark my passage through those places I have loved most” in the third essay is writing, by the fifth, “We are learning more all the time about how to love.”
Connors apportions the essays and arranges them so that the reader is able to grow with him—to watch as, despite all those losses, he extends past his naturally lonesome self. In essay after essay, Connors returns to his lookout and considers what he sees. In essay after essay, he struggles to come to terms with the changing landscape and the death of friends. By the end, Connors has become a more symphonic self—no longer isolated in his solitude, unafraid to speak of and for those he has lost, capable of hearing music in the river, capable of sharing it.
Connors, with his book, teaches us the art of iteration and the power afforded by the memoir built of pieces. He makes us believe that his discrete essays—some elements of which were first published in very different forms—are somehow aware of one another, looking back over their own shoulders, or arcing ahead, or pausing to remember what has or has not yet been said, has or has not yet been felt. Connors has done far more than simply arrange his pieces, in other words. He has deliberately and with great skill folded them into each other. In doing so, he teaches us how to study our own work for echoes and persistent themes.
From issue #73 of Creative Nonfiction , available now.
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Memoir coach and author Marion Roach
Welcome to The Memoir Project, the portal to your writing life.
How to Write A Memoir in Essays
Sorting the Stories — Memoir as Essay Collection
by Linda Styles Berkery
When I told a friend that I was taking a memoir-writing class, she replied, “Your life just isn’t that interesting.” Obviously she was thinking autobiography , not understanding memoir . I ignored her comment and continued to write about the small threads of wisdom I’ve learned.
After many edits, additions, and subtractions, I had built a wardrobe. I had a collection of fourteen personal essays—each one told through the lens of a dress. A Little Black Dress —learning compassion as illustrated by growing up in a funeral home. Memory Gown —naming mistakes as illustrated by a trip to the ER. Red Mini —seeing individuals as illustrated by teaching third grade. Ordinary dresses can bring out profound lessons.
Since all the writing pieces were in essay format, I adjusted Marion Roach Smith’s famous writing math, It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in a Z , and made a chart. To my Z factor, (essays) I added color and noted the dress: a turquoise paisley print, a navy maternity dress, an orange Hawaiian muumuu, a yellow sundress from 1941, a blue velvet jumper.
Each essay could stand alone, yet a book kept coming to mind. It was not enough to say I have a collection of “dress stories” of different length and various moods. I had more work to do. Although my structure would not be typical of a book length memoir (Act 1, Act 2, Act 3), even memoir as an essay collection must have an overall arc—a roof overhead, not just dress threads running through. Yes, memoir can be an essay collection, but it still needs structure and order.
I printed each story individually and laid them across my living room carpet. I knew which essay to put first and which would be last, but the other twelve? Originally I was tempted to group them. These three relate to my father’s WWII stories—put them together. Two had childhood dresses. My husband was mentioned in this group. But nothing really worked until my wonderful editor, Robyn Ringler, passed along tips she had learned from her own writing coach.
“Mix them up,” Robyn suggested. “Vary the word count. Don’t try to force the order, but pay attention to the emotions and lessons in the stories. Then, after you collect everything in the order you think might work, read the last paragraph of one story and the first paragraph of the following story and see if that works. You might need to do that process a few times.”
Robyn was right. I did arrange the essays a few times. But since these were, after all, dress stories, I got creative. If I had a photo of the dress, or a scrap of material from the dress, I stapled it to the printed page. Clearing a closet rod, I hung each essay from fourteen skirt hangers and started arranging them for a book. (Don’t try this at home.) I moved them and moved them until I could see a lovely rainbow arc for the entire collection.
When I was finally comfortable with the flow, I released my dress stories from their hangers and returned to the computer to cut and paste the individual essays into one long document. More edits. Moving paragraphs. Breaking up stories into parts. Adding just a bit more here and there. Writing an introduction and a final note to the reader. Two years after I wrote the first “dress story” for a memoir class, the book was published as Reflections: A Wardrobe of Life Lessons. Memoir, like a classic great dress, never goes out of style.
From the Introduction:
The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy.
At ten, I wasn’t the moody middle child wanting to be noticed, as much as the one who always seemed to notice. I was the sorter of stories, the keeper of traditions. Reaching up, or out, or down, I saw invisible threads that joined people together. I still do. Now, at seventy, I’m connecting more strands. And dresses are coaching my memory.
Three hard white suitcases live under my bed. I yank out the middle one and plop it on the blue star quilt. I’m not loading it up for a trip; it’s already full. I know what’s inside: dresses, scraps of fabric from dresses, and old photos. Clicking on the double locks feels like opening a black box of flight recordings. Messages vibrate from crinkles and creases, stains and frills. Memories rise from cotton, velvet, and silk—fibers from my journey through life.
Wisdom remains on the fold of one dress. I smooth a wrinkle and kindness appears. When I trace my pinky over white lace, I remember letting go. Hope is in there too, along with judgment, loss, compassion, forgiveness…a wardrobe of memories just waiting to be unpacked. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” I agree. But sometimes a life lesson can also be worn as a dress.
Excerpt from a middle essay: Navy Maternity
My first maternity outfit was a long-sleeved navy blue dress from Sears that I bought for my father’s wake and funeral. I wore it again on Father’s Day and then buried it under the lilac bush in my childhood backyard, watering the ground with my tears. The words from a homily echoed in my head. Ritualize where you are now . That’s what I was doing—dressing a wound by burying a dress…
The moment I stepped out of that dress, I felt different. Lighter. Aware. I was carrying a new life—had been all along—but now I could finally breathe. I glanced in the mirror and saw myself as a mother-to-be. I shoved the dress in the bag and tossed it in the car. The dress was easy to remove, but not the grief. Shifting my focus to new life, I decided to take one small step.
The following week, on my final day of teaching elementary school, I drove to my childhood home only two blocks away. I pulled the navy maternity dress from the white plastic bag. My mother was at work. But I didn’t need her. I knew where my father’s garden tools were kept. I grabbed a shovel and began digging in the dirt near the lilac bush—Dad’s favorite bush. It didn’t take long to scoop a hole big enough to bury a death dress…
Excerpt from the final essay: Dressing for a Reunion
At the Hyatt Regency Hotel near Dulles Airport, I’m wearing the same tri-colored dress that I wore for my 50 th high school reunion in 2016—it’s mostly blue, with bands of black and white. I call it my past-present-future dress. The dress is making an encore appearance in 2017 at a different reunion tonight. Can it really be called a reunion if we’ve never met? My husband tells me to hurry. We exit the elevator and enter a full dining room. The celebration begins.
Arms reach across the table to shake my hand. A shoulder nudges close. I feel a tap on my back. Legs move toward me. Fingers clasp. Another arm extends around my waist. Then hugs, so many embraces and tears. I am aware of my middle-ness. I am a quiet middle child, in the middle of a loud story. I am in the middle of history, in the middle of generations, in the middle of Danish fishermen and American flyers. I’m standing in the middle of memory and expectation because I did what middle children do best—I made connections…
Author’s bio: Linda Styles Berkery holds an M.A. from Russell Sage College. Linda taught third grade, led retreats and worked in parish ministry. Her writings on faith/life have been published in various magazines, blogs and books. Her new book is Reflections: A Wardrobe of Life Lessons.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir. It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by. Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight on May 15, 2019. Good luck!
- Writing Lessons: Picking Small Topics To Write About
- Writing Lessons: Finding Time to Write
- Writing Lessons: How to Write About A Difficult Subject, by Bette Lynch Husted
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Amy Laundrie says
April 14, 2019 at 7:37 am
I found this extremely helpful. I’m a columnist for “The Wisconsin Dells Events” and am searching for a way to connect my “Slice of Life” columns into a second memoir. My first, “Laugh, Cry, Reflect: Stories From a Joyful Heart” includes pieces on nature, my pet ducklings, antidotes about my teaching career, and family stories. I appreciate the tips on how memoirists should make sure the last paragraph of one piece ties in with the first paragraph of the next and I think using dresses as a uniting metaphor was brilliant. I’m eager to read your book.
April 14, 2019 at 10:50 am
Dear Amy, I appreciate your kind words. I had a lot of fun using dresses as a thread through the essays. I would love to read your own slices of life columns. Marion has helped all of us go small. Linda
Susan Davies says
April 14, 2019 at 8:05 am
I love this concept! I have been so stuck in my writing, feeling overwhelmed. I had contemplated this approach but was so unsure….this lesson just gave me that push! Wish me luck! Thank you for your lessons! I enjoy them so much!
April 14, 2019 at 10:54 am
Susan, This is great news. I found all the writing lessons to be so helpful in my own work and I am honored that sharing my experience can help nudge you today. It is so good to give back. My editor, Robyn Ringler shared these tips from her own writing teacher so we are helping each other to gain movement. Linda
Laura McKowen says
April 14, 2019 at 8:09 am
Your content is so very helpful, Marion. About nine months ago, I read your book, and then I was on one of your calls. What I learned helped me focus, organize, and finish my manuscript for my first book, a memoir about sobriety. I sent it to my publisher last week. :) Thank you!
April 14, 2019 at 10:57 am
Marion’s content has always been so helpful to me too. Congratulations on completing your story.
David Sofi says
April 14, 2019 at 8:10 am
Excellent lesson and piece by Ms. Berkery. Especially resonating was the bit about Robyn’s advice from her writing coach. I will have that posted on my Writing Wall. I also tingled with her modification of The Algorithm (That is my personal emphasis of Marion’s lesson, it is so insightful and meaningful.)
Linda Berkery says
April 14, 2019 at 8:31 am
Marion’s writing math made each essay possible and I held it in mind throughout the entire book. Robyn RIngler’s advice pulled the entire collection together. Thank you for your comments.
April 14, 2019 at 8:14 am
I want this book! Not only for its content, but because it illustrates the principles Marion puts forth.
April 14, 2019 at 11:34 am
Careen, I hope you continue to find help from the writing lessons and the wisdom from Marion. I surely did. Linda
Ginger Hudock says
April 14, 2019 at 8:16 am
This was wonderful post! The book would be something I could relate to because my age (61) and the metaphor of dresses. This is a great and doable way to structure a book as a series of essays. It seems much more doable for me. I am comfortable writing blog posts and magazine articles, but the thought of a long book is overwhelming sometimes.
April 14, 2019 at 11:01 am
Ginger, I am with you on the thoughts of a long book. It seemed too much for me. I was so happy to find that a series of essays was a reachable goal and Marion gave good feedback when I shared that I was attempting to do just that – she reminded me that I still needed an overall arc in order to print them together as a book. I hope you continue.
April 14, 2019 at 8:30 am
Breaking up the writing into smaller, more manageable pieces seems to tame the bigger writing project, sticking to the algorithm in each section. I loved seeing the process of finding the structure of the book, which is my biggest challenge.
April 14, 2019 at 11:40 am
Dear Beth, Smaller pieces worked so well for this collection. And yes, with each essay I made sure to follow the writing math. I kept asking myself what is this about ? Although told through the lens of a dress, it wasn’t about the dress… it was about a universal theme. Thank you for your thoughts. Linda
April 14, 2019 at 8:35 am
I can’t tell you how often I used Marion’s book and notes from her course as I was completing this book. Such good advice.
April 14, 2019 at 8:38 am
I flipped through my closet in my mind – many ideas there for essays, including the ban on trousers for women in my high school in the sixties, and the godawful bloomers for gym class. Thank you!
April 14, 2019 at 11:09 am
Oh Elizabeth, Our minds must run similar. There is a story about those gym “dresses” from my first P E class at Russell Sage College. And oh yes, a mini dress from my teaching days, when women were not allowed to wear pants, but COULD wear a mini dress three inches above the knees. Keep flipping through your closet in your mind. Clothing is so rich to draw out the memoir essays. Thank you for your post. Linda
Ruth Crates says
April 14, 2019 at 8:59 am
I continue to look for a way to write my memoirs. Essays might be a good fit for me. I love how Linda used an unlikely subject…. dresses – to relate her life experiences. If I don’t win the book, I will buy it…I loved the exerpt about burying her grief. We can all relate to that.
April 14, 2019 at 4:30 pm
Dear Ruth, I do hope that you will continue to write memoir. I found that essays were a perfect length. Mine ranged from about 800 to 1200 words in the book. Some had several parts but each one could be read alone which helped me continue. I am happy whenever someone considers the book, the proceeds are going to assist a local thrift store, called ReStyle, from Unity House in Troy. When we have some book signings we are also inviting readers to donate a gently used dress. So my unlikely thread of dresses is really being put to good use. Linda
April 14, 2019 at 4:34 pm
Isn’t it amazing how an idea can take off in so many directions! A wonderful way to help others.
April 14, 2019 at 4:40 pm
If you are in the Albany-Troy area look for several benefit book signings on the Facebook page: Reflections: A Wardrobe of Life Lessons
Cynthia C says
April 14, 2019 at 9:04 am
Incredibly helpful hearing about the writing process! I love reading how these authors make decisions about how the final product will look.
April 14, 2019 at 4:36 pm
Cynthia, I always loved reading the writing lessons from Marion’s posts. I was fascinated with the whole process of structure. Linda
Cassandra Hamilton says
April 14, 2019 at 9:41 am
Great post. I appreciate Linda Styles Berkery sharing her process. By breaking her subject into essays she was able to work ideas in smaller sections. I like how when she focused on the larger piece, the book, she turned to a visceral and visual method: hanging up her essays, each represented by a dress, to sort and rearrange until she felt they were right. I would think the photos of the dresses also evoked in her thoughts and feelings and helped her to pack her writing with vivid descriptions. I’m inspired with her process and how she cleverly teased us with snippets of her new work. Thank you!
April 14, 2019 at 4:44 pm
Dear Cassandra, Thanks for your comments. You are right about the visual part. It really helped me to organize the flow of the essays and the overall arc of the book. (And at one point when I realized that I didn’t have a green dress – it brought up a life lesson from an old memoir of a green gym dress!) Linda
Cheryl Hilderbrand says
April 14, 2019 at 10:08 am
Since the excerpts offered here resonated so strongly, I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. Is it just women our age who grew up with dresses who are so emotionally connected to fabric, and tucks, and gathers? A quilt made from childhood dresses keeps me warm, but I worry that I should put it away so that it’s scrapbook, memory-spurring nature can be preserved. The advice from Ms. Berkery’s editor was something I needed to hear . Thank you Marion, Linda, and Robyn.
April 14, 2019 at 4:49 pm
Dear Cheryl, I do think that dresses meant a lot more to us than they do to the next generation. My own adult daughters rarely wear dresses, but they still have emotional and memories attached to clothing. My husband saved his race t-shirts and had them made into a quilt! He no longer runs, only walks due to an injury, but that quilt hangs over his couch reminding him of all those races. Robyn Ringler’s insights (my editor for the book) were so valuable in getting this collection to print. I am glad to pass her advice along. Linda
Jen Chambers says
April 14, 2019 at 10:17 am
I find this very helpful- it solidifies a concept that I’ve been working on for some time of using essays as memoir in my own work. Using a literal thread to hold the narrative together made a great metaphor here. I am intrigued by the structural ideas and hope to get the book!
April 14, 2019 at 5:18 pm
Dear Jen, Thank you for your comments. I hope you continue to use essays as memoir. It really helped me to keep going.. I could focus on one essay at a time. Indeed I kept them in separate folders on my computer until I recognized how to make “dress stories” into a literary closet collection. Best regards,’ Linda
Debbie Morris says
April 14, 2019 at 10:28 am
I’ve had an idea brewing for years now, and this style has opened up a completely new way to join them yet keep them separate. I thoroughly enjoy the teachings here as well as that wonderfully inspiring sampling of essays. I feel energized, thank you!
April 14, 2019 at 6:03 pm
Dear Debbie, Thanks for the comments. I hope this idea keeps brewing and maybe finds a similar outlet. Linda
Barbara Womack says
April 14, 2019 at 10:38 am
I love this concept and have been inspired to use a similar approach in my own (somewhat stalled) writing.
I can’t wait to read this book!
April 14, 2019 at 6:06 pm
Dear Barbara, I am glad to hear about your writing. I wish you well on the journey and am happy that you found this approach to be helpful. Linda
Ann Hutton says
April 14, 2019 at 10:44 am
Excellent! I’m sharing this with a memoir writing group I facilitate. Meanwhile, I call out a “Yes!” to visually laying out your pages to really SEE what you’ve got and how it might fit together. Once I taped 260 pages to three walls in an empty office in order to look at the structure of a memoir manuscript. That’s when I realized that I did indeed have a beginning, middle, and ending! And looking for repetitions or other glaring mistakes was easier this way, rather than trying to read through pages on a computer screen.
LInda Berkery says
April 14, 2019 at 6:11 pm
Dear Ann, Wow that must have been some wall sight! Yes, I think we sometimes need a visual way to keep us moving forward. Glad that worked for you and thank you for the comments. Best to your writing group. If you send me a personal message on Facebook page for the book. I will send you my “chart” with all the essays. My editor used that page for a talk she was giving on memoir writing. Linda
Merrie Skaggs says
April 14, 2019 at 10:49 am
Linda’s wardrobe structure is brilliant. I learned that I might be able to include an essay I wrote about my dad in my memoir. Also, Linda’s words spoke to me on several levels, or with various threads as she might say. I am still in the unraveling stage of my memoir writing and relish the connections since I am a Marion disciple, have seen my 70th birthday, and taught third grade. I learned much from your charming writing and the lessons you shared. Thank you, Linda, and thank you to our guru Marion. I’m not going to wait to win your book; I plan to buy it, read it, and learn from it now. “. . .bury a death dress. . .” My heart strings are still vibrating.
Linda Styles Berkery says
April 14, 2019 at 11:13 am
Dear Merrie, I am so happy to meet another over 70 writer of memoir. My father’s journey through his WWII experience rescued in the North Sea by Danish fishermen and as a POW is another thread through the collection. The proceeds from this book are also being used to help ReStyle, the thrift store run by Unity House in Troy, NY – my hometown. So buying the book supports a great cause. Thank you. Linda
Carol Gyzander says
April 14, 2019 at 11:00 am
I love the connecting device of the dresses! The first essay excerpt was interesting, but then I found myself curious about how it would be used in the next…and the next…
April 14, 2019 at 4:53 pm
Carol, I am so glad that you found yourself curious about the dresses used and the lessons they told. Sometimes I found myself pondering how a certain dress or saved piece of fabric could bring out so many memoires. What was going on? – You start writing and then you find more and more life experiences coloring the page. Linda
Jan Duffy says
April 14, 2019 at 11:15 am
Thank you Marion for another excellent post. The idea of basing a series of personal essays on a collection of dresses is so good. As I was reading the excerpts I felt as though I was Linda’s alter ego, experiencing every emotion that she did. Good work, I hope I can be as successful in my writing endeavors.
April 14, 2019 at 2:31 pm
Dear Jan, You are most welcome. Isn’t this a lovely, helpful post? Linda did an excellent job with this and with the book. I am delighted to see you here. Please come back soon. Best, Marion
Thank you Jan and Marion for your kind remarks. Several readers have commented that they felt they were standing right with me as they read. So we touched universal topics – close to our hearts. Linda
Karen Elizabeth Lee says
April 14, 2019 at 11:42 am
Thank you for writing this piece. I have been struggling with structure for my memoir for almost a year! writing short pieces as that is how it seems to be unfolding but then questioning myself – “Is this the right or acceptable format?” “Can I do it this way?” Your insight gives me the courage to follow this path – the essay path – to see where it will lead me! thank you.
April 14, 2019 at 4:57 pm
Dear Karen, I never started out to write a book or a collection. I just began with one essay of a brown plaid dress – a short piece for a writing assignment. I casually remarked, “I could probably write a lot more essays through the lens of a dress…” and I received such encouragement to continue. See where the short pieces lead you. Perhaps you have a collection rather than a traditional memoir book. Blessings for your good work. I am happy that this piece could encourage you. Linda
Cheryl A Kesling says
April 14, 2019 at 2:19 pm
Thank you, Linda, for sharing your story. I’m a 72-year-old struggling writer working on a memoir since 2014. It seems life keeps flying in front of me to the point of building a wall too high to see over. I’ve journaled, keeping track of unimaginable tragic moments and survival. I’ve written words on paper for a critique group but never seems to hit the mark, or at least to my satisfaction. Maybe I’m too hard on myself. Your memoir essay structure is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time but I know that each essay needs a reason or a lesson learned, and that is been my problem. Knowing what lessons I’ve learned is hard to put on paper when one holds back emotions. I’m sure reading your book would be helpful. Maybe making a chart as you did from Marion’s math and color coding for different periods ( as told in a Z- the essay) and using one metaphorical object to push the essays along is the answer for me as well. Thank you again.
April 14, 2019 at 5:06 pm
Dear Cheryl, Thank you for your heartfelt comments. Some essays (lessons) needed space and time before I could write about them. We all tend to be hard on ourselves. Keep writing. and Keep journaling. I found that going back to journals and circling some key memoires allowed me to move toward an essay. But journal writing is different than writing for print and I had to allow some pieces to stay in a journal and not try to force them to be an essay. But making the chart using X, Y, and Z was the most important formula I learned from Marion.
Etty Indriati says
April 14, 2019 at 3:11 pm
I love the excerpt of Linda’s book as it reflects the “what it is about” in Marion’s online course The Memoir Project that I took; and Linda cleverly wrote her book into chapters of personal essays. It makes me want to read the whole book! It is also inspires me to not giving up writing a memoir.
April 14, 2019 at 5:09 pm
Dear Etty, Marion’s outline is a wonderful way to start. I hope you can read the whole book and please don’t give up writing memoir in whatever form it takes. I think reflecting through writing is a blessing. Thank you for the comments. Linda
April 14, 2019 at 7:23 pm
Linda, thanks so much for sharing aspects of your writing process! Cut and paste, and I really mean printing the pages, cutting where needed and rearranging, gluing them on another blank page, was my graduate advisor’s way of writing and editing articles, reports and proposals. That’s how I wrote my thesis too, hands on, feeling it. Looking at a dress as a metaphor, so clever! Looking forward to reading your book :)
April 14, 2019 at 7:36 pm
Seems like I did something like that old fashioned cut and paste on my TYPED thesis back in the day. Thanks for your kind remarks. Linda
KRISTA L RUSKIN says
April 14, 2019 at 7:28 pm
OMG. I’ve been struggling with not having lived “an important life” and yet wanting to write a memoir for my kids. My father died when I was 31. I often wished I had received more lessons from him and had them for my kids. In recording my own, 20 years later, on the upside of my life lessons, I’m hoping they see the possibilities for their lives even in The dark days. The idea of writing bits and and pieces of varying length and letting them tell me how to structure the book is liberating. Thank you!
April 15, 2019 at 9:00 pm
Dear Krista, I am happy that you can see your life as memoir worthy as it surely is. My father died when I was 26 and yet his influence is strongly felt in this collection. I wish you all the best for your writing. Linda
Lisa Sonora says
April 15, 2019 at 8:43 am
So many take aways here!
I haven’t read all of the comments, but skimmed, so hope to offer something not shared yet.
First, that you ignored your friends comment about writing about your life.
Then… using Marion’s algorithm for each of the essays (described in the second paragraph) —brilliant!
I too, am a student of Marion, and have been so STUCK on trying to figure out the algorithm for my memoir.
Your piece gave me the idea to look closer at the individual pieces within the book and trying to name what those are really about.
I just love the image of you hanging up your essays like dressed in the wardrobe, and laughed out loud at “don’t try this at home”. Because, yeah, I would try that at home — it make sense to give the writing some physical form that relates to the subject to help see it differently.
Congrats on the publication of your book, Lynda — I cannot wait to read it!
April 15, 2019 at 9:07 pm
Dear Lisa, Thank you for such great comments. Yes, hanging up those dress stories was crazy but a fun way to really see them in place. And it was wonderfully refreshing too. We often need to trust our own instincts sometimes more than the voices of dear but sometimes bossy friends! Best to you for your own writing. Linda
Cathy Baker says
April 15, 2019 at 8:47 am
I love everything about this post as I’m working on a book with mini-memoirs on our building my future writing studio, Tiny House on the Hill. After reading this post, I might consider having fewer chapters with a higher word count. I always learn so much from you, Marion, as well as those you coach. Thank you!
April 15, 2019 at 9:09 pm
I love the idea of mini-memoirs! Great! Thanks for your comments. I have also learned so much from Marion and her writing posts. Linda
Tammy Roth says
April 15, 2019 at 11:51 am
I’m always looking for clever ideas of arranging memoir topics and this is just brilliant. Thank you for sharing the process.
April 15, 2019 at 9:14 pm
Dear Tammy, Arranging those memoir essays was made easier using Robyn’s advice along with Marion’s wisdom. I was honored to share the process with so many interesting writers. Thank you for your comments. Linda
April 16, 2019 at 8:35 pm
Oh my! This came at the most perfect time. I am trying to write a memoir and it keeps running through my mind that I should try doing it in essays. I lost my son to suicide, so it’s about grief, hope, and faith. I loved what Robyn shared with you about connecting the last paragraph of one to the beginning of the next. The excerpts are wonderful. I can’t wait to read the book. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.
April 16, 2019 at 9:01 pm
Dear Faith, I am glad that Robyn ‘s idea might help you find your way through a collection of essays. She suggested the last paragraph and the first one should flow for the reader but they can still stand alone as individual essays. I wish you blessings in your writing. Linda
Naomi Johnson says
April 16, 2019 at 10:51 pm
I LOVED the wonderful advice from her editor, while she was still working out the overarching structure: “pay attention to the emotions and lessons in the stories . . .. Then . . . read the last paragraph of one story and the first paragraph of the following story and see if that works.”
April 17, 2019 at 7:00 pm
Thank you for your comments. Robyn Ringler and Marion offer such valuable suggestions. And I am grateful. Linda
April 17, 2019 at 2:49 pm
I’m in the process of structuring my next book now. I was right there, with descriptions of white suitcases containing “…fabrics from my journey through life.” I could hear the crinkle of crinoline, and I was reminded of one of my absolute favorite couplets by Joni Mitchell: “Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes…” As I enjoyed all the other places the piece had taken me, I asked myself, “Do I have milestones (like these dresses) that mark the milestones of my life?” And I realized, I DO! I am a songwriter, so of COURSE, every milestone has a song! Thanks, Marion & Linda for such beautiful and inspiring work.
April 17, 2019 at 5:23 pm
You are most welcome, Melanie. Please come back soon. Best, Marion
April 17, 2019 at 7:06 pm
Thank you for your comments and the great quote! Love it. And nice for me too as my maiden name was Styles. I am glad that you found yourself asking questions about your own milestones.
Teresa Reimer says
April 20, 2019 at 9:12 pm
What a wonderful idea to hang each story and it’s inspiration on a clothes hanger. Organization and expanding on the theme! Can’t get much better than that.
April 22, 2019 at 6:15 pm
Teresa Thanks for your comments. Yes it was definitely different but fun! Linda
Donna P says
April 29, 2019 at 11:36 am
Your ideas, along with Marion’s brilliant advice, strike a real chord with me. I, too, have been struggling with the concept of essays within a memoir. Due to health issues, I have not given my book as much attention lately. I’m going to paste this article to my forehead to keep it top of mind! Truly inspirational at a time when I really needed it. Thanks to you and to Marion. I will definitely buy the book.
April 29, 2019 at 12:34 pm
Dear Donna, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Marion’s advice really helped me stay focused on each individual essay. And I am so happy to know that sharing my experience making a collection of essays could help you move your own writing along. Best to you for your writing. Linda
Gail Gaspar says
Essays in the form of a wardrobe of dresses, yes. I am wondering if my memoir will take the form of essays unified by a theme (I adore metaphors) and you have illustrated how it can done. As a coach, I am happy you listened to your inner voice and not to the friend who remarked, “Your life just isn’t that interesting.” I appreciate how you show, don’t tell, about what each dress represents. The image of your dress stories hanging in your closet is an excellent reminder of how creative and expansive the writing process can be – when we allow it.
May 1, 2019 at 3:10 pm
Marion – This is my first visit to your blog and site. So much info! Thank you! I too am working on a memoir that right now is a collection of stories. This truly resonated with me as I am stuck as to how to pull them together into a book. Linda – your insights and suggestions couldn’t have been more on target. I have already printed them out and moved them about – but I think I need to write a few more – and then piece them together – reading the last para / first para – and adding bits as you suggested. I LOVED reading the excerpt of the book – what a wonderful way to tie the stories together by the dresses. As a writer – I loved that creative idea to tie it all together – and as a reader – each except you shared – I could apply to my own life and my own past closet of dresses! Well done! I would be tickled to win the book and read more!
May 1, 2019 at 5:47 pm
Dear Laurie, Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. Finding Marion’s blog and site is certainly a real gift. I was fortunate to take a class when she was teaching in Troy before everything went online. But look how many more people can be reached. I am delighted that you could relate to the dress stories and find memories arriving from your own closet. I loved making the book a collection/ wardrobe of stories. All the best to you with your own memoir. Linda
May 2, 2019 at 11:52 am
What a lovely way to seamlessly piece together a book! I’m in awe of your process and inspired by the concept! I’ve always struggled to let go of certain garments because of the memories associated with them. Now I understand why: Not only does each one offer a memory, but you’ve proven each one tells a story. I can’t wait to visit your story-closet and read more!
May 2, 2019 at 8:59 pm
Dear Susan, Thank you for your kind remarks. I hope you do visit my “story-closet” as well as peek at some life lessons from your own wardrobe. Linda
Maggie Yoest says
May 3, 2019 at 10:57 am
I am new to memoir writing and have been encouraged by Susan and Marion. Hopefully, as I stay with this, some of the fear will dissipate and the courage to share myself and my view will grow. Thank you both!
May 3, 2019 at 4:00 pm
Maggie, I hope you continue with memoir. Marion is a wonderful guide. Linda
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How to write a memoir essay
If you’ve been reading my emails and posts for awhile you’ll know my favourite strategy for getting a book deal. Why is it my favourite strategy? Because it’s empowering! Let’s face it, publishing can be slow, elitist, confusing, and secretive!
My favourite strategy for getting a book published is not…
- Spending five years on your manuscript,
- Spending two years on your book proposal….
- Paying for endless critiques or constantly workshopping either of the two….
My favourite strategy is to leverage a published non-fiction piece – say, a blog post, an essay or an article – and turn it into a book deal.
This is how I found an agent and publisher for A Letter From Paris , it’s how dozens of authors I know have secured incredible book deals. You also earn money (if you pitch to a paying publication), improve your writing skills, build your platform and make impressive connections, learn a lot, and more.
Publishing a non-fiction piece either in a top publication or even a lesser-known outlet is also a great way to boost your writing profile (AKA that dreaded thing called ‘platform’ for the introverts among us!), gauge interest in your memoir topic or particular threads of the story, improve your google-ability (yes this IS a thing – be assured any agent or editor will google you before they do anything else!), add fantastic clips and extra material to your book proposal , finesse your story and improve your writing skills.
So how do you write a memoir essay?
In this post I’m going to give you the key points you need to remember to write a memoir essay – this is super important if you’re hoping that it will lead to a book deal for your memoir.
1: Clarify your Hook
The most important thing you need to get right for your memoir essay is also the most important thing you need in a book-length memoir: a strong hook.
Put simply, a hook is something unique, unusual, contrasting, strange or compelling about your specific personal story. I’ve talked about the hook in many of my blogs and webinars, but really, your hook is that part of your story that your friends say “WTF?” when you explain that the same day you lost your dog and your husband, you won the lottery.
It’s that part of your story that beggars belief but also elicits intrigue from your audience. It raises questions and interest.
Of course, you may not have lost your dog and your husband but also won the lottery on the same day, but the most human experiences can be given a strong hook. Find a common experience – right now, it’s the global pandemic. Throw in something unique to contend with or to assert: For example – you were on your second date when the lockdown was announced, and suddenly you had to decide whether to move in together or risk breaking the law or breaking up.
See what I mean? Practise finding your story hook by talking about your story with friends. What do they find most compelling? What is the question at the heart of your hook? You will spend the rest of the essay or article or series of blog posts exploring this.
Tip : Don’t just say “the essay is about my mother.” Or – “the essay is about my hunt for a house”. There has to be some kind of contrast. Even in a lyrical, prosaic essay, you need to explore the internal grapplings with something – well, gripping.
Bonus tip: Start observing yourself when you watch a movie – how is the beginning of the story presented? How quickly do you learn the hook? Usually, it’s right, front and centre. For example: The Bourne Identity – Jason Bourne wakes on a boat in the mediterranean with amnesia, bullets in his body…. We have all these questions with a strong hook, we want to continue with the story…
2: Include both an inner and outer journey
Christopher Vogler in one of my favourite writing books, The Writer’s Journey says:
“Good stories show two journeys, outer and inner…”
When I read a compelling memoir essay or article, I’m struck by how the narrator weaves the inner journey with what’s going on in their physical or outer world, and how the two reflect and build upon eachother. Have you read this essay by Lauren Hough ? What’s so human, and so compelling (and by the way, it led to a book deal for her forthcoming memoir from Vintage!), are the contrasts between her physical and working environment (being a “cable guy”) and the internal life she leads: left-leaning, queer, empathetic… These contrasts keep you reading (as well as the vivid examples she gives!). The characters she meets in her job (external) show who she is and what she believes (internal). Do you see what I mean?
Coming back to the hook element – it’s not enough to ‘explain’ something that happened to you – eg. I did this, I went here, I felt like this…. Plenty of these pieces get published. They’re clickbait, they’re quickly-forgotten, and you don’t want them on your clip list. Instead you need to deep-dive into how the external influenced the internal – to show those two journeys, inner and outer… To explore your own empathy, if you will.
Tip: Use the outer to provoke the inner. What do I mean? If you’re writing a story about meeting your real father for the first time at age 19 in a dive bar in New Orleans, relate the external reality of being in New Orleans with why and how you came to be meeting your father there…
3: Only include what’s relevant
I’ll come back to this, but a key pointer to an early versus a later draft is including relevant material. Essays need to be clean and concise – you don’t have an entire chapter to introduce a character, you have a few sentences or a paragraph. Even in longform essays, the story needs to be relatively tight. So, if your essay is about meeting your father in New Orleans (as the above example suggests), only include anecdotes, references, observations and material that relates to said meeting or how you dealt with said meeting.
Tip: Often (always?) you need to write out a whole heap of irrelevant material before you can get rid of it. You need to ‘write’ your way into the story. That’s fine! But make sure you leave it for a couple of days so you can assess what needs to go, when you come back to edit it.
4: End on a summary and/or show a clear transformation
The most important part in a memoir essay is that you show some sort of transformation in your character or point-of-view or change from beginning to end of the story. While you might be exploring a topic, question or theme in your story, you need to show that you, as a character, have changed or at the very least learnt and reflected from your journey. If it’s a non-fiction article, the ending will generally be a summary of what you’ve learnt, but with memoir it can be a little more subtle. You could end with a surprise realisation or moment of movement, to leave the reader on a high note.
- Never ever send your first draft to an editor – leave your memoir essay or article for a few days and come back to it.
- Get some feedback . Truly – if one piece could mean you start fielding offers from agents and editors, wouldn’t you want to make it the best it can be?
- Edit for repetition and relevance: It always amazes me how much I repeat certain words in my writing. You only see this when you’ve left it a few days, and if you use that wonderful ‘search and replace’ tool in Word. So look for repetition of certain words and delete or change them, if need be. Be ruthless.
- Relevance – As I touched on, above, if you’re aiming for a word count of 1200, for example (very standard for essays in publications such as the New York Times Ties section), and trying to lop 400 words off, what is LEAST relevant chunk to the main question or theme of your article? Remember: You can include the whole story in your book. This is a strategic published piece to elicit interest and engage in the most compelling elements of your story.
- Don’t take a huge ‘run up’ – Just as a huge issue many editors see in memoir manuscripts submitted to publishing houses is that they take too long to get to the point of the story – so you should jump right into the inciting incident, or compelling event, in the beginning of your essay. Don’t write three paragraphs of beautiful poetry about what you did the day before the big event. You don’t have a lot of words to waste in an essay or article.
- Study other essays – this should really be my number one piece of advice. Whatever outlet you choose to pitch to, study what has been published there and what has gone well.
- Read it out loud. This is a great tip one of my first newspaper editors gave me (particularly when you have a low word count). Reading out loud helps you see what needs to go, and what doesn’t work, very quickly.
Hi The detailed blogs are extremely helpful for memoir writing. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and the effort. much appreciated. ive been trying to download things and its unsuccessful.
Hi Annie – you’re welcome. I can see you signed up for the checklists but you need to confirm your email – check your spam as it might have ended up there?
Thank you so much for the response. You’re right! All your mails went into spam . Sorted and looking forward to accessing the masterclass. Thank you for the blogs. Informative and precise. Wishes from Scotland Annie
Argh – I find that a lot with gmail emails, their filters are annoying. Enjoy the masterclass!
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How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide
Zining Mok | October 4, 2023 | 22 Comments
We start the road to writing a memoir when we realize that a story in our lives demands to be told. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
How to write a memoir? At first glance, it looks easy enough—easier, in any case, than writing fiction. After all, there is no need to make up a story or characters, and the protagonist is none other than you.
Still, memoir writing carries its own unique challenges, as well as unique possibilities that only come from telling your own true story. Let’s dive into how to write a memoir by looking closely at the craft of memoir writing, starting with a key question: exactly what is a memoir?
What is a Memoir?
A memoir is a branch of creative nonfiction , a genre defined by the writer Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.” The etymology of the word “memoir,” which comes to us from the French, tells us of the human urge to put experience to paper, to remember. Indeed, a memoir is “ something written to be kept in mind .”
A memoir is defined by Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.”
For a piece of writing to be called a memoir, it has to be:
- Based on the raw material of your life and your memories
- Written from your personal perspective
At this point, memoirs are beginning to sound an awful lot like autobiographies. However, a quick comparison of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love , and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin , for example, tells us that memoirs and autobiographies could not be more distinct.
Next, let’s look at the characteristics of a memoir and what sets memoirs and autobiographies apart. Discussing memoir vs. autobiography will not only reveal crucial insights into the process of writing a memoir, but also help us to refine our answer to the question, “What is a memoir?”
Memoir vs. Autobiography
While both use personal life as writing material, there are five key differences between memoir and autobiography:
Since autobiographies tell the comprehensive story of one’s life, they are more or less chronological. writing a memoir, however, involves carefully curating a list of personal experiences to serve a larger idea or story, such as grief, coming-of-age, and self-discovery. As such, memoirs do not have to unfold in chronological order.
While autobiographies attempt to provide a comprehensive account, memoirs focus only on specific periods in the writer’s life. The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.
The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.
Autobiographies prioritize events; memoirs prioritize the writer’s personal experience of those events. Experience includes not just the event you might have undergone, but also your feelings, thoughts, and reflections. Memoir’s insistence on experience allows the writer to go beyond the expectations of formal writing. This means that memoirists can also use fiction-writing techniques , such as scene-setting and dialogue , to capture their stories with flair.
Another key difference between the two genres stems from the autobiography’s emphasis on facts and the memoir’s reliance on memory. Due to memory’s unreliability, memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth. In addition, memoir writers often work the fallibility of memory into the narrative itself by directly questioning the accuracy of their own memories.
Memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth.
While readers pick up autobiographies to learn about prominent individuals, they read memoirs to experience a story built around specific themes. Memoirs, as such, tend to be more relatable, personal, and intimate. Really, what this means is that memoirs can be written by anybody!
Ready to be inspired yet? Let’s now turn to some memoir examples that have received widespread recognition and captured our imaginations!
If you’re looking to lose yourself in a book, the following memoir examples are great places to begin:
- The Year of Magical Thinking , which chronicles Joan Didion’s year of mourning her husband’s death, is certainly one of the most powerful books on grief. Written in two short months, Didion’s prose is urgent yet lucid, compelling from the first page to the last. A few years later, the writer would publish Blue Nights , another devastating account of grief, only this time she would be mourning her daughter.
- Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a classic coming-of-age memoir that follows the author’s move to New York and her romance and friendship with the artist Robert Maplethorpe. In its pages, Smith captures the energy of downtown New York in the late sixties and seventies effortlessly.
- When Breath Becomes Air begins when Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Exquisite and poignant, this memoir grapples with some of the most difficult human experiences, including fatherhood, mortality, and the search for meaning.
- A memoir of relationship abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is candid and innovative in form. Machado writes about thorny and turbulent subjects with clarity, even wit. While intensely personal, In the Dream House is also one of most insightful pieces of cultural criticism.
- Twenty-five years after leaving for Canada, Michael Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka to sort out his family’s past. The result is Running in the Family , the writer’s dazzling attempt to reconstruct fragments of experiences and family legends into a portrait of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives. (Importantly, Running in the Family was sold to readers as a fictional memoir; its explicit acknowledgement of fictionalization prevented it from encountering the kind of backlash that James Frey would receive for fabricating key facts in A Million Little Pieces , which he had sold as a memoir . )
- Of the many memoirs published in recent years, Tara Westover’s Educated is perhaps one of the most internationally-recognized. A story about the struggle for self-determination, Educated recounts the writer’s childhood in a survivalist family and her subsequent attempts to make a life for herself. All in all, powerful, thought-provoking, and near impossible to put down.
While book-length memoirs are engaging reads, the prospect of writing a whole book can be intimidating. Fortunately, there are plenty of short, essay-length memoir examples that are just as compelling.
Short Memoir Examples
- “ The Book of My Life ” offers a portrait of a professor that the writer, Aleksandar Hemon, once had as a child in communist Sarajevo. This memoir was collected into Hemon’s The Book of My Lives , a collection of essays about the writer’s personal history in wartime Yugoslavia and subsequent move to the US.
- “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” So begins Cheryl Strayed’s “ The Love of My Life ,” an essay that the writer eventually expanded into the best-selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail .
- In “ What We Hunger For ,” Roxane Gay weaves personal experience and a discussion of The Hunger Games into a powerful meditation on strength, trauma, and hope. “What We Hunger For” can also be found in Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist .
- A humorous memoir structured around David Sedaris and his family’s memories of pets, “ The Youth in Asia ” is ultimately a story about grief, mortality and loss. This essay is excerpted from the memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day , and a recorded version can be found here .
So far, we’ve 1) answered the question “What is a memoir?” 2) discussed differences between memoirs vs. autobiographies, 3) taken a closer look at book- and essay-length memoir examples. Next, we’ll turn the question of how to write a memoir.
How to Write a Memoir: A-Step-by-Step Guide
1. generate memoir ideas.
how to start a memoir? As with anything, starting is the hardest. If you’ve yet to decide what to write about, check out the “ I Remember ” writing prompt. Inspired by Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember , this prompt is a great way to generate a list of memories. From there, choose one memory that feels the most emotionally charged and begin writing your memoir. It’s that simple! If you’re in need of more prompts, our Facebook group is also a great resource.
2. Begin drafting
My most effective advice is to resist the urge to start from “the beginning.” Instead, begin with the event that you can’t stop thinking about, or with the detail that, for some reason, just sticks. The key to drafting is gaining momentum . Beginning with an emotionally charged event or detail gives us the drive we need to start writing.
3. Aim for a “ shitty first draft ”
Now that you have momentum, maintain it. Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write. It can also create self-doubt and writers’ block. Remember that most, if not all, writers, no matter how famous, write shitty first drafts.
Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write.
4. Set your draft aside
Once you have a first draft, set it aside and fight the urge to read it for at least a week. Stephen King recommends sticking first drafts in your drawer for at least six weeks. This period allows writers to develop the critical distance we need to revise and edit the draft that we’ve worked so hard to write.
5. Reread your draft
While reading your draft, note what works and what doesn’t, then make a revision plan. While rereading, ask yourself:
- What’s underdeveloped, and what’s superfluous.
- Does the structure work?
- What story are you telling?
6. Revise your memoir and repeat steps 4 & 5 until satisfied
Every piece of good writing is the product of a series of rigorous revisions. Depending on what kind of writer you are and how you define a draft,” you may need three, seven, or perhaps even ten drafts. There’s no “magic number” of drafts to aim for, so trust your intuition. Many writers say that a story is never, truly done; there only comes a point when they’re finished with it. If you find yourself stuck in the revision process, get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your writing.
7. Edit, edit, edit!
Once you’re satisfied with the story, begin to edit the finer things (e.g. language, metaphor , and details). Clean up your word choice and omit needless words , and check to make sure you haven’t made any of these common writing mistakes . Then, once your memoir is ready, send it out !
Learn How to Write a Memoir at Writers.com
Writing a memoir for the first time can be intimidating. But, keep in mind that anyone can learn how to write a memoir. Trust the value of your own experiences: it’s not about the stories you tell, but how you tell them. Most importantly, don’t give up!
Anyone can learn how to write a memoir.
If you’re looking for additional feedback, as well as additional instruction on how to write a memoir, check out our schedule of nonfiction classes . Now, get started writing your memoir!
Thank you for this website. It’s very engaging. I have been writing a memoir for over three years, somewhat haphazardly, based on the first half of my life and its encounters with ignorance (religious restrictions, alcohol, and inability to reach out for help). Three cities were involved: Boston as a youngster growing up and going to college, then Washington DC and Chicago North Shore as a married woman with four children. I am satisfied with some chapters and not with others. Editing exposes repetition and hopefully discards boring excess. Reaching for something better is always worth the struggle. I am 90, continue to be a recital pianist, a portrait painter, and a writer. Hubby has been dead for nine years. Together we lept a few of life’s chasms and I still miss him. But so far, my occupations keep my brain working fairly well, especially since I don’t smoke or drink (for the past 50 years).
Hi Mary Ellen,
It sounds like a fantastic life for a memoir! Thank you for sharing, and best of luck finishing your book. Let us know when it’s published!
Best, The writers.com Team
Hello Mary Ellen,
I am contacting you because your last name (Lavelle) is my middle name!
Being interested in genealogy I have learned that this was my great grandfathers wife’s name (Mary Lavelle), and that her family emigrated here about 1850 from County Mayo, Ireland. That is also where my fathers family came from.
Is your family background similar?
Hope to hear back from you.
Richard Lavelle Bourke
Hi Mary Ellen: Have you finished your memoir yet? I just came across your post and am seriously impressed that you are still writing. I discovered it again at age 77 and don’t know what I would do with myself if I couldn’t write. All the best to you!! Sharon [email protected]
I am up to my eyeballs with a research project and report for a non-profit. And some paid research for an international organization. But as today is my 90th birthday, it is time to retire and write a memoir.
So I would like to join a list to keep track of future courses related to memoir / creative non-fiction writing.
Happy birthday! And happy retirement as well. I’ve added your name and email to our reminder list for memoir courses–when we post one on our calendar, we’ll send you an email.
We’ll be posting more memoir courses in the near future, likely for the months of January and February 2022. We hope to see you in one!
Very interesting and informative, I am writing memoirs from my long often adventurous and well travelled life, have had one very short story published. Your advice on several topics will be extremely helpful. I write under my schoolboy nickname Barnaby Rudge.
[…] How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide […]
I am writing my memoir from my memory when I was 5 years old and now having left my birthplace I left after graduation as a doctor I moved to UK where I have been living. In between I have spent 1 year in Canada during my training year as paediatrician. I also spent nearly 2 years with British Army in the hospital as paediatrician in Germany. I moved back to UK to work as specialist paediatrician in a very busy general hospital outside London for the next 22 years. Then I retired from NHS in 2012. I worked another 5 years in Canada until 2018. I am fully retired now
I have the whole convoluted story of my loss and horrid aftermath in my head (and heart) but have no clue WHERE, in my story to begin. In the middle of the tragedy? What led up to it? Where my life is now, post-loss, and then write back and forth? Any suggestions?
My friend Laura who referred me to this site said “Start”! I say to you “Start”!
Hi Dee, that has been a challenge for me.i dont know where to start?
I really enjoyed this writing about memoir. I ve just finished my own about my journey out of my city then out of my country to Egypt to study, Never Say Can’t, God Can Do It. Infact memoir writing helps to live the life you are writing about again and to appreciate good people you came across during the journey. Many thanks for sharing what memoir is about.
I am a survivor of gun violence, having witnessed my adult son being shot 13 times by police in 2014. I have struggled with writing my memoir because I have a grandson who was 18-months old at the time of the tragedy and was also present, as was his biological mother and other family members. We all struggle with PTSD because of this atrocity. My grandson’s biological mother was instrumental in what happened and I am struggling to write the story in such a way as to not cast blame – thus my dilemma in writing the memoir. My grandson was later adopted by a local family in an open adoption and is still a big part of my life. I have considered just writing it and waiting until my grandson is old enough to understand all the family dynamics that were involved. Any advice on how I might handle this challenge in writing would be much appreciated.
Hi. I am 44 years old and have had a roller coaster life .. right as a young kid seeing his father struggle to financial hassles, facing legal battles at a young age and then health issues leading to a recent kidney transplant. I have been working on writing a memoir sharing my life story and titled it “A memoir of growth and gratitude” Is it a good idea to write a memoir and share my story with the world?
Thank you… this was very helpful. I’m writing about the troubling issues of my mental health, and how my life was seriously impacted by that. I am 68 years old.
[…] Writers.com: How to Write a Memoir […]
[…] Writers.com: “How to Write a Memoir” […]
I am so grateful that I found this site! I am inspired and encouraged to start my memoir because of the site’s content and the brave people that have posted in the comments.
Finding this site is going into my gratitude journey 🙂
We’re grateful you found us too, Nichol! 🙂
Firstly, I would like to thank you for all the info pertaining to memoirs. I believe am on the right track, am at the editing stage and really have to use an extra pair of eyes. I’m more motivated now to push it out and complete it. Thanks for the tips it was very helpful, I have a little more confidence it seeing the completion.
Well, I’m super excited to begin my memoir. It’s hard trying to rely on memories alone, but I’m going to give it a shot!
Thanks to everyone who posted comments, all of which have inspired me to get on it.
Best of luck to everyone! Jody V.
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Last updated on Apr 14, 2023
How to Write a Memoir: Turn Your Personal Story Into a Successful Book
Writing a memoir can be a meaningful way to reflect on your life's journey and share your unique perspective with people around you. But creating a powerful (and marketable) book from your life's memories — one that can be enjoyed by readers across the world — is no easy task.
In this article, we'll explore the essential ingredients that make up an impactful and commercially viable memoir and provide you with tips to craft your own.
Here’s how to write a memoir in 6 steps:
1. Figure out who you’re writing for
2. narrow down your memoir’s focus, 3. distill the story into a logline , 4. choose the key moments to share, 5. don’t skimp on the details and dialogue, 6. portray yourself honestly.
Before you take on the challenge of writing a memoir, make sure you have a clear goal and direction by defining the following:
- What story you’re telling (if you’re telling “the story of your life,” then you may be looking at an autobiography , not a memoir),
- What the purpose of your memoir is,
- Which audience you’re writing it for.
Some authors write a memoir as a way to pass on some wisdom, to process certain parts of their lives, or just as a legacy piece for friends and family to look back on shared memories. Others have stronger literary ambitions, hoping to get a publishing deal through a literary agent , or self-publishing it to reach a wide audience.
Whatever your motivation, we’d recommend approaching it as though you were to publish it. You’ll end up with a book that’s more polished, impactful, and accessible 一 even if it’ll only ever reach your Aunt Jasmine.
🔍 How do you know whether your book idea is marketable? Acclaimed ghostwriter Katy Weitz suggests researching memoir examples from several subcategories to determine whether there’s a readership for a story like yours.
Know your target reader
If you’re not sure where to start it doesn’t hurt to figure out your target audience 一 the age group, gender, and interests of the people you’re writing it for. A memoir targeted at business execs is a very different proposition from one written to appeal to Irish-American baseball fans.
If you want a little help in asking the right questions to define your audience, download our author market research checklist below.
Market Research Checklist
Find your ultimate target audience with our checklist.
Now that you know who you’re writing for, you need to clearly define which (yummy) slice of your life you want to share with them.
When writing a memoir, there's always the temptation to cover broad periods of your life, from that time in first grade when Mrs. Taylor laughed at your painting, to your third divorce, and everything in between. But remember, this is not a biography. You should try to choose specific experiences or aspects of your life that form a red thread or a central theme. The narrower the focus, the better your memoir will resonate with others.
For example, a memoir could be about the time you hiked the Appalachian Trail, became a Jiu-Jitsu master, or volunteered in a refugee camp. Naturally, anecdotes from other parts of your life may intertwine with your main narrative, but there needs to be a focused center to your book.
Not only will a narrower slice of life help you concentrate your efforts, it will also make it easier to shift the focus from your personal story to specific, relatable things you experienced , making it easier for readers to care and take something away from the book.
Meet writing coaches on Reedsy
Industry insiders can help you hone your craft, finish your draft, and get published.
A broader theme readers can relate to
Unless you’re a celebrity, you can’t expect people to just want to read your memoir 一 you have to give them a reason to carve time out of their busy schedule and sit with your book. People are drawn to stories that they can relate to or that teach them something about themselves and the world.
So, before you get to writing, identify the broader themes behind your personal experiences and center the book around them. For example, a story about hiking the Appalachian Trail could be a story about spiritual growth. A book about learning Jiu-Jitsu may be about building confidence and overcoming fear. A memoir about working with refugees could be about cultivating empathy and overcoming structural inequality.
These are themes that people from different ages, gender, and cultures can relate to. They will make your memoir much more universal. Figure out what readers can learn from your experiences, whether that’s something about resilience, trauma, parenting, self-discovery, or other, and center your book around that .
💡 Listen to 3-time memoir author Paul Bradley Carr explain the importance of nailing your memoir’s focus from the get-go in this advice-packed Reedsy Live.
At this point, you’re probably fired up and stretching your fingers to start writing. But there are a few more steps to take to ensure you’re set up for success.
Memory lane isn’t a straight path — it’s a winding road with many off-ramps and distractions. So before you start drafting, make a note of where you’re going by encapsulating your memoir in a sentence or two. Ask yourself: if I were to pitch it to a stranger on an elevator, how would I summarize it? The purpose of this exercise is to help you weave the main themes into a clear narrative arc, which is essential to turn your life into a captivating story.
Here are some example loglines from famous memoirs for inspiration:
Take some time with your logline and whittle your story down to its purest form. If it helps, start by writing what you think the back cover blurb will be. Then boil it down further and further, until you can finally pitch it in just a few sentences.
The logline is the North Star that will guide you as you start to collect the moments of your life to include in the book.
Now that you have a direction and some central themes, it’s time to pick the best tales from your buffet of life experiences. It’s natural to look back at your life chronologically and select memories in a linear fashion, but really, what’s important is to pick the most meaningful moments, whether big or small, that propel your memoir forward.
For example, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is a collection of stories about growing up as a mixed-raced child in Apartheid South Africa. The book shares how Noah questioned his mother’s religious beliefs, spoke multiple languages to bridge cultural differences, made and sold CDs to escape poverty, and more. Each story is a different window into his world and how it shaped him, but all of them build on the book’s central themes of faith, identity, and resilience.
Look for moments of high emotion
When you’re mining your memory for stories, look for those with moments of high emotion and meaning. Whether it was a funny, sad, or embarrassing memory, the ones that shaped who you are and how you see the world tend to be the most emotionally charged.
To discern the gems from mediocre stories, consider working with a professional editor and take advantage of their editorial wisdom.
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Now close your eyes, and dig deep into your memories to repaint your stories on the blank page as colorfully (and accurately) as possible.
To make your memoir deeply engaging, experiment with different storytelling techniques and use sensory details, actions, and dialogue, as opposed to explicitly stating what you did or how you felt. This falls into the classic writing advice of ‘ Show, don’t tell .’
When revisiting your memories, be thorough in your research and try to collect as many details as possible:
- Read back your journal entries (if you kept one) to see how you felt in the moment.
- Get your hands on photos or videos from that period in your life (either digital or analog.)
- Interview your family members, friends, and other people relevant to your story.
- Revisit locations and settings from the past that you plan on writing about.
- Look up anything that can be verified or fact-checked (e.g. dates, social media posts, or world news.)
Once you've collected the raw material, organize these memories in a way that makes sense for you. Being systematic in your research will pay serious dividends when you actually start working on your manuscript.
You’re allowed some creative license with dialogue
One thing that is particularly important to get right is dialogue. Obviously, you don't have to write dialogue exactly as it happened — our memories are fallible after all. However, you do need to accurately capture the essence of what was said (and how). As long as you’re faithful to what happened (or at least honest about how you experienced it) you can take some liberties with the precise wording.
To write believable dialogue, take inspiration from your favorite writers, or take our free course below for tips.
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
😱 Inevitably, when you write about other people there’s always a risk of portraying them in a way they don’t appreciate. As general advice, tell them you’re writing this story, or prepare to lose some relationships. And if you’re really pushing some boundaries, discuss it with your lawyer!
Next, it’s time to look inwards and flesh out a compelling and relatable protagonist: you!
The best memoirs read like novels, which means they hinge on the protagonist’s voice and personality 一 their quirks, values, and goals, and how they rise to life’s challenges. Just as in a novel, your memoir needs a relatable protagonist that undergoes some change.
It takes a good dose of courage to portray yourself as a multidimensional character 一 one with both strengths and weaknesses, one who sometimes wins and sometimes loses.
Do background work on yourself
To infuse a dose of humanity to your own character, you’ll have to do the background work as if you were a character in a novel. Take note of everything from your physical appearance, cultural background, psychological traits, and more. This exercise will help you bring to surface details about your personality that you’d otherwise look over, and depict a much more well-rounded protagonist. To facilitate the process, use our free character development template which will guide you with specific prompts and questions.
Reedsy’s Character Development Template
A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.
Define your character’s arc
Additionally, it's helpful to define your own character's arc 一 how you’ve matured through the life experiences highlighted in the memoir. There are specific steps you can follow to define your personal hero's journey , but among other questions, you’ll have to answer:
- What inciting incident set you on a journey?
- What were the obstacles you encountered?
- Which mentors helped you along the way?
- What were the lessons you needed to learn?
- How have you changed as a result?
These questions will help you strengthen your memoir’s narrative, hooking the readers in like the best novels do.
To give an example, Cheryl Strayed's journey in Wild begins after the death of her beloved mother and other family problems, which lead her on a path of self-destruction, culminating in a divorce and addiction to heroin. Having reached the bottom, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for three months in order to find herself. The path is filled with challenges 一 from her hiking inexperience, to losing her boots, to fellow hikers warning her that it's not safe to go on alone. Through resilience (and some help) she is able to overcome her physical and emotional challenges, find forgiveness and rediscover her inner strength.
Take inspiration from Wild and other memoirs, and deconstruct how your own experiences might fit into these all-important story elements.
You now have all the ingredients: a specific memoir topic that touches on universal themes (as summarized by your logline), a selection of vivid and relevant memories, and a multidimensional character with an interesting story arc. It’s time to put it all together by outlining the structure of your memoir, which is exactly what we’ll cover in our next post.
11/01/2018 – 15:26
This was exactly the article I needed today! I've just begun a new career path as a ghostwriter and am finding it difficult to find learning resources (conferences, courses, books, networks of ghostwriters, etc.). If any readers have advice on where I should be looking or who I should be talking to, I would be forever grateful! Thanks so much!
M. Thomas Maxwell says:
11/01/2018 – 15:28
I had no intention of writing a book but encouraged by my grandson I embarked on a story telling venture that led to Grandfather's Journal, www.captaintommaxwell.com. It truly is a series of life stories shared with my grandson. Published by Westbow press in 2015 I used many Reedsy tips and am very pleased with the results.I have since encouraged others to consider doing the same. It took over a year and was a pleasant experience.
Don Karp says:
11/01/2018 – 16:06
As a self-published memoir writer, I read this with appreciation. I do not agree with all that's said here. For example, "2. Do Your Research." Of course certain events--those experienced publicly by a large number of people--need to be accurate. But even the word, "memoir," says it's about memory, not accuracy. This is one of the major differences from an autobiography which does require research. I looked up the dictionary definition and got confirmation on this. Perhaps you need to re-examine this and get it right?
↪️ Reedsy replied:
11/01/2018 – 17:00
I would agree that memoirs are indeed based on memory — and in some way that's why historians are often forced to question the reliability of memoirs as a primary source. I would say, however, that modern readers to expect memoirs to be as factually-correct as possible. Editors at publishers will go to great pains to ensure that — or face a public backlash. If you say anything in a memoir that can be disproved by a basic google search will seriously compromise your relationship with a reader. The other benefit with research is that it can do a lot to jog your memories. Unreliable recollections can often be set straight once you remind yourself of certain facts. Thanks for commenting!
↪️ Don Karp replied:
11/01/2018 – 17:28
Thanks for your response. This brings up two points for me. First, what is more powerful, a memory of an experience or the actual experience? Different people interpret the same experience differently. Second, what do you propose to do with the dictionary definition of "memoir?" Since the word is based on memory and not research, perhaps you can suggest some alternate word form?
↪️ The Red Lounge For Writers replied:
05/12/2018 – 08:14
I think looking at the idea of the 'voice of innocence' and the 'voice of experience' could really help with this distinction between fact and memory. As writers of memoir, we are expected to write what we remember. We can do this using the voice of innocence, and use the voice of experience to write about the factual context.
Stu Mountjoy says:
11/01/2018 – 21:48
A group I used to attend, on a Friday, started people off with the basic exercise of writing a story about one thing that happened to you, and I did one about a race at school. I am always impressed by the first page I read of Alan Alder's bio (actor in M*A*S*H TV series) - "Hi I'm Alan Alder, and when I was six, my mother tried to kill my father." - wow.
31/01/2018 – 10:15
Alda's a great writer — "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself" is such a fantastic name for a memoir too.
Robbie Cheadle says:
31/01/2018 – 04:48
A very useful and interesting post on writing a memoir.
31/01/2018 – 10:14
I'm glad you like it Robbie :)
The Red Lounge For Writers says:
05/12/2018 – 08:10
All great advice. Memoir is probably my favourite genre to read, and some of my favourite books are memoirs. I'm of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell; it's just a matter of figuring out how to do it really well.
James Soil says:
15/07/2019 – 13:16
Thank you very much I just finished my Memoir titled Addicted it will be out this summer after reading this article I feel much better about it I pretty much did what the article says.
Izaura Nicolette says:
04/08/2019 – 04:50
Self-published Author, Izaura Nicolette. 'Within The Mountains: A Mormon Reform School Experience.' Published January, 2019. Seeking legit Publishing House or Agent. I still have not received any royalties due to publishers being fraudulent. I want to speak publicly about my memoir. Hundreds to thousands can back me up. This is a true story. I hold too close to my heart. Hoping to heal by sharing this experience, and opening door for many others.
08/08/2019 – 02:14
Can I *breathe* life into my story instead?
Cassandra Janzen says:
20/12/2019 – 04:35
Very helpful, thank you!
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