Ask a Ghostwriter: Organizing and Outlining a Memoir
Dear 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 problem might be simpler than you think. Consider outlining your memoir. 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 understood what he meant, I couldn’t disagree more.
Outlining 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.
Outlining a 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 for 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? Do you use an outline? Please post your thoughts in the comments below.
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