Outlining a Memoir


outlining a memoir saves timeDear Friendly Ghostwriter, I want to write my life story. I’ve been working on my memoir for seven years, but haven’t made much progress. I know what I want to write about, but I can’t seem to get my thoughts on paper. Help! – Emma V.

Dear Emma V.,

Yours is a plight I’ve heard many times. You aren’t alone! Many people wish to tell their life stories, but don’t know where to begin.

Honestly, I think the solution might be simpler than you think. In my experience, outlining a memoir solves a lot of problems. Working from a jumbled mess of notes can be daunting for many.

Now, some writers feel that outlining takes all the joy out of the process. One friend once told me, “If I were to outline the entire book, what would be the point in writing it? I know exactly what will happen!” Although I understand what he means, I couldn’t disagree more.

Outlining a memoir saves time

As a writer, I enjoy creating the mile markers first and then filling in the details. It’s a bit like sketching the elements of a painting before applying the pigment. It helps to have those guidelines.

As a writer, I prefer knowing where I’m starting and where I’m going. It puts me in the driver’s seat.

Before I commit to months of writing, I want to know my direction. I want to know that the path I’ve selected will lead me to a worthwhile destination. I mean, if wrote thousands of words, which veered off a cliff, I’d have to toss it. That is frustrating to anyone.

Bottom line, if you’re stuck and unable to write, please consider organizing your thoughts into a good, strong, detailed outline.

How to Outline Your Memoir

If you’re writing a memoir (or a novel), tackle each individual incident of the book. It’s important to work out:

  • Who is in the scene
  • Where it takes place
  • When it happened
  • What happened (briefly)
  • What is the purpose of the scene?

The last point is the most important aspect of this exercise by far. After all, if a scene has no purpose, you shouldn’t waste your time writing it. It will just land on the editing room floor at the end of the project.

The fact is, your outline should be purpose-driven from the start. Every scene must propel your story forward. Each incident must have a reason for being there, something that fits in with the flow of the book.

Once you finish your outline, the theme for your memoir should pop out. This will help you organize your thoughts, too.

Outlining a how-to book

If you’re writing a how-to book, your outline will be very different. I’d suggest that you create a table of contents, with bullet points for subheads. I often write a little paragraph describing the proposed text under each segment.

I’d love to hear from fellow writers. What do you think? Is outlining a memoir realistic for you? Please post your thoughts in the comments below.

Additional resources you might find helpful:

Help! Help! I Need Help Writing a Book!

Do You Want To Write A Book About Your Life?

How Much Does It Cost To Hire A Ghostwriter?

How to Edit Your Own Book

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    1. Gary J Martin

      I want to make sure that what I want to write about is something people will have interest in reading. Does explaining my story to a writer before attempting to write it make sense in confirming it’s worth doing?

    2. Carson Craig

      After many years away from fiction, I’m once again attempting to write a novel. This time, as I’m older (for sure) and wiser (maybe), I have constructed an outline. So far, I’ve found the outline keeps me on track, but it isn’t detailed enough to take into account every turn or bump I find along the way, and that helps keep the project fresh. In fact, I don’t know that I’m capable of making an outline so detailed that it would cover every facet of the story before I wrote it. The outline is my map; the actual writing is me hitting the trail and dealing with what’s actually on the ground there.

      By the way, I’m using SuperNoteCard for outlining–it’s an inexpensive bit of software that provides–you guessed it–virtual notecards.

      Thanks and happy writing!

      • Laura

        Wow, congratulations on starting your new novel! I love toggling back and forth between fiction and nonfiction!

        I appreciate your viewpoint on outlines and think you hit the nail on the head for me. It is always fresh for this reason. I feel like I know the beginning and end of each scene, but how I get there is a mystery until I write it. I love your analogy too!

        I don’t know SuperNoteCard. I’ll check it out!

    3. asraidevin

      I didn’t used but now I do, except i’m struggling with my current WIP and I can’t move on because I don’t have it outlined. I feel like if i could just write it would come together but … catch 22. I may have to abandon it because I’m not inspired to move it forward. Though I fear perfectionism is the real culprit.

      That was a lot of babble.

      • Laura

        It is really hard for me to scrap major portions of a work. I can understand what you’re going through. It might be a good idea to step away from it, work on something else and then outline it all fresh. Then you can review what you’ve written with the new outline in mind and see what to keep and what to throw out.

        Good luck and thanks for writing!

    4. virginia

      These comments make so much sense! Outline….a way of life! Like a “map” of where the book or story will be going. thanks!

      • Laura

        Yes, it is very much like a map. I think of the scenes of my outline as mile markers. I work best when organized!

    5. Rachel Peterson

      Absolutely! Outlines, regardless of project or project size, definitely help me. Even if it’s the equivalent to a grocery list for a short story. I recommend them to other writers. Having outlines allows the writer to spot story weaknesses (or over-development of some areas), or in the case of non-fiction, where more information needs to be added. Outlines are a way of life –why do you think ToDo lists are so popular! 🙂

      • Laura

        YES! I completely agree. If you can’t answer the question, “What is the purpose of that scene?” it needs to go. You’re also correct that if you spend too much time in a certain area, it will become clear. Thanks for writing in! What writing project are you working on right now?


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