Writers Write creates memoir writing resources and shares memoir writing tips. In this post, we discuss 10 memoir mistakes writers should avoid at all costs.
Writing a memoir isn’t easy. You need to be brave and honest. You also need to deal with memories that may be challenging.
Importantly, you need to turn the things you’ve learned into universal lessons that readers will recognise and empathise with.
Memoirists need to learn how to present their stories in an entertaining way without changing the truth of what happened. They need to do this without sacrificing authenticity.
10 Memoir Mistakes Writers Should Avoid At All Costs
1. Writing For Revenge
If you are simply writing to settle old scores, you will not succeed. Even if terrible things happened, you need to present this as part of the story and let readers come to their own conclusions.
Personal grudges seem transparent on the page. If you want readers to feel for you, you need to show them what happened to you.
2. Starting On The Day You Were Born
You cannot mention every person you know or every place you have ever been. A memoir is not a chronological setting down of your entire life. It is not an autobiography. It is a representation of memory, not history. It is focused on an event, or series of events, that are held together by a theme.
Readers are not prepared to be bored to tears by the minutiae of your life. They would not even tolerate this in the life story of a famous person. Readers want to read about the important parts of your story.
3. Not Defining The Theme
Ask yourself: What will readers take away from my story? What will they learn from reading it?
Common themes in memoirs include lessons about accepting change, dealing with loss, overcoming addiction, surviving abuse, impressions from an era, valuing friendships and relationships.
You should be able to state the lesson/theme of your memoir in one sentence. If it is about losing your husband, you could say: ‘Losing my husband taught me how to survive.’ You can use this statement to ask if every scene you want to include in your memoir relates to this.
4. Not Plotting
Take time to outline your story. Use a timeline.
Outlining makes even more sense for a memoir than a novel, because you are dealing with real events. You can’t wander off the path and make things up.
Outlining also helps you to remember things. It allows you to collate your research into a meaningful sequence of events that will make up your story.
Stream of consciousness memories do not make a great memoir. This will simply confuse readers who are trying to make sense of random memories you may have.
5. Not Entertaining Your Readers
Get out of your head. Look back at your story like an editor would. How can you tell and show your story so that people want to read it?
You are not writing a personal journal. If you want a bigger audience, you should learn how to write your memoir like fiction. Your memoir needs a a plot that is properly paced. It needs a timeline with properly described settings. You also need to include dialogue.
You need to entertain your readers.
Readers read memoirs to find out how you survived something. They want to empathise with you, not endure a lecture.
If you want to tell people how to behave or what they should do, you may want to consider writing a ‘How-To Book’ instead of a memoir.
People often end up doing this when they have not worked through their issues. They use their memoir as therapy – which is okay for the first draft – and do not refine it after that.
7. Making Yourself Into A Hero
You need to be painfully honest when you write a memoir. You cannot present the best version of yourself. You need to show yourself as you truly are, including your strengths and weaknesses.
You need to include the parts you played – of hero and villain – in your own story.
You are not perfect. Nobody is. Readers of memoirs do not expect you to be. What they do expect is you to show why you ended up behaving badly so that they can empathise with you.
8. Being Too Close To The Story
Sometimes it takes decades to be ready to tell your story. You need to have perspective when you write a memoir. See it from a distance and put it into the shape of a story.
Don’t get too attached to the exact sequence of events. It may not make sense in a published book. You can leave out scenes that don’t add to the flow of the narrative.
This mostly happens when you are still too close to the story. You may need some time and objectivity to make sense of a subjective experience.
9. Worrying About Other People’s Feelings
While you cannot slander people, you can tell your side of what happened to you. If you write your memoir from your perspective and your truth, you should not have a problem.
If you’re serious about your life story, you will not be able to be nice to everybody.
Remember that other people are entitled to tell their side of the same story.
10. Not Writing Well Enough
Do not assume that publishers will read your story simply because it is sensational. You sill need to learn the art of storytelling.
If you can afford it, I would strongly recommend that you learn everything you need to know about storytelling on a course like Writers Write – how to write a book, and then refine your story on a course like Secrets of a Memoirist.
You need to learn how to show and how to tell. You need to learn how to re-create yourself as a character. You need to learn how to write dialogue, plot scenes and sequels, and describe what happened to you. You need to use the five senses.
You also need to write properly. Have you checked your grammar and punctuation? Have you written your manuscript well enough?
In The End
I hope this post about memoir mistakes writers should avoid, helps you write yours.
P.S. If you want to learn how to write a memoir, join our Secrets of a Memoirist course.
© Amanda Patterson
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