How to write a memoir – 7 tips from an expert

When Jackie Buxton was diagnosed with cancer, she did what she always does when life presents her with a challenge: she started writing. Author of award-winning book Tea & Chemo, Jackie shares her 7 best tips on how to write a memoir and develop a piece of life writing.

Memoir and ‘life-writing’ isn’t so different from writing fiction.

A strong, distinct voice makes for entertaining and engaging reading, whatever the genre; humour can provide a welcome hiatus in a dark or serious tale and fluent, well-edited writing is a pre-requisite of any collection of words fit for publication.

Crack these, and you shouldn’t have any shortage of readers.

That isn’t to say that getting started can’t feel a little daunting at the very least, so based on my experience of writing self-help/memoir blog and book, Tea & Chemo, here’s my list of things to consider. Good luck!

Jackie Buxton

Author, Jackie Buxton

1. Have an objective and plan for your memoir

Unlike fiction writing, your ‘story’ may not have a discernible beginning, middle and end, but simply be a collection of thoughts and anecdotes which you’d like to share. That’s fine, but you’ll still need some sort of structure, including a thread to keep your reader, and more importantly, your writing on track. Without this you run the risk of confusing everyone, not least yourself as you write.

Ask yourself why you are writing this book:

  • What is its purpose?
  • What impression do you hope it will leave with your readers?
  • What do you hope they will take away from it (both emotionally and practically)?

Use your answers to create this thread, this link between your stories, and it will help provide clarity as well as pull your writing along towards your memoir’s natural end.

Related reads: Ten tips to learn from creative writing lecturer Julia Bell >>

2. Find your Unique Selling Point

Unless you’re Anne Frank or have lived a dramatic, unique and/or inspirational existence, your memoir needs to be more than a blow by blow account of a period in your life. You’ll need to find your story’s Unique Selling Point (USP); that special element which will draw readers into picking up your book over all the others in your genre.

Look at other titles available in your book’s genre. Ask yourself:

  • Who are you competing against?
  • What you are doing that is different?
  • What can you do to give your story that individual stamp?

Understanding what you can do to make your book read differently to others on the same topic will inform your writing and help it stand out from the crowd – not to mention finding you the right publisher and stockist.

My goal with Tea & Chemo was to write about how it felt to live with cancer and undergo treatments. There were plenty of excellent resources that gave facts and figures – but I wanted to write about what it was like emotionally and answer questions preoccupying myself and others. Would there be any light at all over the weeks, months and years of treatments ahead? The answer to that was an emphatic, yes! It would have comforted me to have known that right at the beginning of my diagnosis and so I felt compelled to share this with people who were further back on the cancer journey than me. That was my USP.

3. Find your format

Consider the best format for imparting your information: facts and footnotes or whimsical tales? A chronological story thread, or chapters divided up according to subject matter? In the early hours when you really should be going to bed but you have 50,000 more words to write and a billion thoughts whizzing through your mind that need to be collected, sorted and arranged, you’ll be happy you have a scheme to work to.

Until I’d worked out the format for Tea & Chemo, I did a lot of faffing. I couldn’t find the appropriate structure for conversion from blog to book. I knew there was a way and my publisher was expecting us to discuss this ‘way’ when we first met in person. And the clock was ticking! I decided to use my earlier blog posts as the framework and I’d follow each with further anecdotes, written in the same informal blogging style.

All the new writing came from information I’d picked up later on, whether through my own experience and hindsight, through membership of online groups for people dealing with cancer or through talking to people. Once I’d worked this out, I was off and running.

4. Think about your reader – always!

Life and memoir writing can be a cathartic experience for the author but this doesn’t necessarily equate to the best read for the audience. What’s cathartic to you might read a little like self-pity or even self-indulgence if there doesn’t seem much learning or entertainment to be taken from it for them.

Ask yourself if what you’re writing is still in line with your goal and if not, perhaps, this time, that piece of writing belongs in your diary, and not as part of your book. My goal for Tea & Chemo, for example, was to provide an insight with a positive twist. If the extract couldn’t tick these boxes, it had to move aside.

Writing your story can, and should, be fun and the act of writing alone, regardless of subject, can often be cathartic – so don’t curb your flow. Enjoy that first draft moment! You can, and must, edit later. Indeed, there’s nothing more helpful than having words on a page to edit, after all, you can’t edit an empty page, to quote Jodie Picoult and many a successful writer.

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult

5. Beware of causing offence

This is a big consideration when it comes to memoir and life-writing. There are several ways your writing could offend, from upsetting your nearest and dearest – whether they simply do not want to see themselves in print or don’t like what you’ve written about them – to finding yourself the main character in a libel suit. Consider the following:

> Consult your characters
If you are going to name other people specifically, or it is plain to readers to whom you are referring, check with them that they have no objection to appearing in your book and/ or, on what basis. If they are uncomfortable with the idea, it might be enough to simply change their name and a few distinguishing features, if you can get their agreement on this.

> Consider your characters
Depending on your type of memoir or life-writing, there is the potential to embarrass or hurt the people in various areas of your life. For me, being the mum of teens when I was writing Tea & Chemo, this was a big concern for me. I didn’t want my children to have a hard time just because I felt the need to put my story into words.

How you as a writer choose to deal with these issues is an entirely personal decision, I’d simply advise that you are clear on how you want to manage this and comfortable with your decision

 6. Avoid being an authority (unless you are one)

This is your story and right there, it’s valuable. But unless we’re qualified to do so, us lay people have to be very careful about writing things that come across as fact, when they’re really just a nod to our experience, or a leap of conviction based on anecdotal evidence.

That doesn’t mean writers can’t mention anything that doesn’t have a thesis or large scale research element attached to it, but I feel we all have a responsibility to differentiate between what we believe and what is scientifically proven, lest we inadvertently send one of our readers down a dangerous path which is not backed up by evidence.

Related reads: How to overcome imposter syndrome as a writer >>

7. Find the publisher that’s right for you and your memoir

There are many more routes to publication than there ever were –  but choose wisely.

For example, if you’re writing family memoir and plan on publishing just a few copies of your book, then paying to self-publish might be the answer. Other self-publishing enterprises might help with edits and design and even marketing – but check their prices and exactly what they are offering.

Small to medium sized independent publishers don’t take payments ands don’t tend to pay advances but do pay higher royalties instead. You’ll need to feel comfortable helping out with promotion and will need to allocate time for this – that said, it can be great fun!

Big advances are rare, but larger, traditional presses do tend to pay a decent advance ahead of publication and a smaller percentage royalty on books sold, once the royalty has been earned back through sales. You often get more editorial and promotional support, too.

Some publishers will only accept submissions via an agent, so getting yourself one of those would be your first job in this instance, but do look out for open submission windows when publishers open the doors for a limited time to ‘unsolicited submissions’, or, rather, submissions direct from the writer.

How to write a memoir: enjoy yourself!

If you are even remotely tempted to write a memoir or piece of life-writing, go for it! The worst that can happen is you get bored of it but you’ll certainly have learned something along the way and enjoyed at least some of the process.

However difficult the process may become at times, remember, that first word is the hardest.

Good luck and have fun!

Jackie Buxton About the author: Jackie Buxton is the author of self-help memoir, Tea & Chemo, winner of Live Better With’s ‘Best Cancer Book, 2017’, and Glass Houses, her first novel, a ‘domestic ‘noir’ and popular book group read, both Urbane Publications. Her short stories feature in anthologies, as well as in Chase Magazine and on-line.