How to Start Writing Memoir

Hand writing in notebook
Category: Writing

Everyone has a story to tell. From massive life events to small, quiet moments that might make someone else smile or sigh, you’re sure to have a whole treasure trove of material right there for the taking – so how do you get those memories and experiences down on the page? Here are a few tips to help get you started.

Get to know the story you want to tell

Identify the heart of your memory

Unlike fiction, memoir has a solid grounding in the real world and that means you have the chance to sit down and think hard about the event that inspired you.

  • Write down as many details as you can: think about the clothes you were wearing, the things you can smell, the sounds you can hear
  • Make a list of any other people who were there: how might they have remembered the incident? What did they say or do at the time?
  • Identify the heart of your memory: work out what message, moment or feeling it is that you really want to share. Is it something very unusual? Or something most people will identify with – there are space for both types, it’s just good to know which you are writing!

Think about the size of your story

When you hear the word ‘memoir’ you might be thinking it only covers big, thick paperbacks or hardbacks, but that’s not the case. There are plenty of places you can share memoirs of a whole range of different lengths and sizes, so it’s up to you to work out how long your story needs to be.

If you’re planning on telling a big chunk of your life story, then a book-length manuscript might be just the ticket. If what you really want to do is write about a small humorous or heart-breaking incident, you’re probably better off thinking about something that’s only a few hundred or thousand words long.

Memoir essays give you the chance to explore a moment from your past in a way that’s quick and easy for other people to read. You’ll find some good examples on Electric Typewriter.

Work out how much you want to share

Writing about things that have happened in your own life is sometimes also called ‘personal writing’ – and it’s not hard to see why! If you’re writing any sort of memoir, you are going to be revealing some things about yourself (and potentially your friends and family).

This means it’s worth taking the time to work out exactly how much you’re comfortable with sharing. This will be different for everyone: some writers are happy to bare all and others like to keep certain things back. Just be careful of accidentally stepping over your own boundaries.

Remember that even memoirs need a ‘story’

It can be tempting to think that all you need to do is get down exactly what happened, but just like any other kind of creative writing, there’s a lot of skill in working out how to tell a story. Put the focus on working out how to make your story interesting for your reader.

Focus on making your story interesting for your reader

You might add drama by foreshadowing disasters or keep the pace going by cutting down on description and focusing on snappy dialogue and observations. Whichever way you go, don’t forget that your memoir needs to be building to something – whether it’s a disaster, a joke or even a moment of personal discovery.    

Develop your own voice

Every person who writes, whether it’s fiction or fact, has their own unique style or ‘voice’. When you’re working on memoir, this voice is especially important because it’s likely to be the thing that really hooks a reader in to your story.

What kind of voice do you have? Imagine that you are writing to a good friend or someone you really care about and see how that changes the way you write. Are you naturally warm, gossipy, dramatic or conversational? Look for your own habits and strengths and find a way to work with them!

If you think you’re ready to start, dive on in and just remember: this is your story, all you need to do is find the best way to share it.


We run a yearly project that asks people to share their stories. This year's theme is Rebel. If you have a tale to tell about an act of rebellion – no matter how big or small – why not see if you can write about it in 1,000 words or less? Submit a Rebel story here.

Need a little more inspiration? Check out our How to Start Writing series.

Image by Annazuc on Pixabay.