Writing Memoir or True Life Story

Our Quick Guide on how to start writing your memoir

Writing Your Life Story

We get loads of enquiries from writers wanting to write their own life story. Sometimes it's just a personal project. Sometimes it's for friends and family. Sometimes it's intended for commercial publication.

But the question we're asked is always the same: Where do I start?

And that's an easy one. You start right here. Follow the rules below. Do check out our other Free Advice for further useful tips. And when you've got a decent enough opening chunk down on paper, then do come to us for professional advice on your work. And remember we also run fantastic courses, if you do need more help.

Rule 1: Have sober expectations

Writing your life story down is massively worth doing, BUT please don't think that it's easy to get published. It's not. It's very hard indeed, assuming that you want commercial publication (ie: get paid for your work, get your book into bookshops, etc). Only the best stories will get taken on by literary agents / publishers - and only then if they are really well written & well told.

Of course, you can always self-publish (ie: pay to have your book printed up for family and friends). That's hugely worth doing, but you need to realise that you're unlikely to get rich that way! For more info on all this check out our Free Advice.

Rule 2: Keep it simple

Many memoirs fail because they try to over-complicate things. You don't need to. Keep it very simple, but be sure to do the simple things well. That means:

  • Start at the beginning and move forwards chronologically from there.
  • Keep the reader in your shoes. Talk about what you saw, what you did, what you felt. Don't reveal info about what will happen, or what you would one day come to think about an incident. Stay in the present moment of your story.
  • Don't digress. Sure you may hate modern TV shows, but if you are telling us about a young man in the merchant navy, don't pull us out of that world to complain about the telly!
  • Don't tell your story in diary form. A diary is a very stop-start type of experience. You need to write a flowing narrative that keeps the reader engrossed.
  • Don't lecture.
  • Remember to stay descriptive. You may remember what Heathrow airport looked like in the 1950s, but most of us don't. So tell us! That's why we're reading your book.

Rule 3: Do your research

Research the market. Find out how professional, published memoirs are written. See how those writers handle the things you need to deal with. One book we strongly recommend that you look at is Please Don't Make me Go by John Fenton. We recommend this for two reasons. One: we worked on it with John, so we're jolly proud of it. Two: it's a real masterclass in memoir writing. Very simple, but very, very good.

Also get a proper idea of length. For commercial publication, and to have a chance with a literary agent, you really want to produce a manuscript of between 70 and 100,000 words. If you are much longer or much shorter than that, you can pretty much forget about publication almost irrespective of content.

Finally, although you are writing about your own life, you may well find that some research really does wonders for what you are talking about. Let's say you were working in Iranian oil fields in the 1950s. You'll remember a lot, but you'll have forgotten a lot too. The more you can research original documents from that time, the more you'll have to share with the reader - and the more your own past will come alive for you.

Rule 4: Take care with your style

If you want to grip a reader - to make sure that your words and your story hold the attention - then you must take a lot of care with your style. That means you can't just write as you speak. It means you need to get in the habit of challenging yourself to write clearly, forcefully, and visually - so the reader can see exactly what you are telling them.

For more tips on good writing, please check out our tips on Prose Style.

Rule 5: Take advice!

Once you're properly stuck into your project, you would do very well to come to us with the first 10,000 words or so. That's far enough into it that we can give you masses of really detailed advice on what is and isn't working in your writing, and how to improve the things that aren't yet wonderful. The advice will cost you something, of course, but for a project as important as this to you, it can be well worth the investment.

Alternatively, if you prefer to plough on and come to us with a complete manuscript, then we'd be delighted to work with that too.

Rule 6: Talk to us about publication

We'll tell you whether it's the sort of thing that a literary agent or publisher might be interested in. If it is, then we can advise on next steps regarding agents etc. If it isn't - and many memoirs, remember, aren't suitable for commercial publication  - then we can put you in the hands of very reliable self-publshing firms. We also, by the way, offer good cheap copyediting (typo/spelling/grammar correction, etc). After all there's nothing worse than paying to get a book printed up only to discover that it's full of 'orrible spelling mistakes.

Rule 7: Enjoy it

Don't let writing your life story become anything but a pleasure and a joy. This is your story. Enjoy telling it and be proud of it. You deserve it!