Four Common Memoir Mistakes

Memoirs are a very popular genre in literature. We all love to step into the shoes of another person and learn about their world for a few hours. Memoirs allow us to delve deeply into the lives of people who have overcome incredible odds to be successful in some facet of life, fought an illness or acted as a caregiver, or lived through an extraordinary event. Through this medium, readers can learn so much about others and themselves. However, first-time authors can sometimes fall into pitfalls and make some basic memoir mistakes. Don’t worry, they are easy to sidestep.

Error 1: Focusing on the trivial rather than the big picture

When you write your memoir, you aren’t producing a laundry list of everything that happened to you. Don’t write about your meals or share other mundane details of your life. These would be high on the list of memoir mistakes. Toss most of the trivia and focus on the big picture, which would be the themes or main messages of your book.

Before you begin writing your memoir, ask yourself, “What can the reader gain from reading about my life experiences?” You might need to dig deep and really mine for the gold that’s there. The lessons you learned will form the backbone of your book and help you develop your themes.

Some popular memoir themes you may have seen:
  • Hard work pays off
  • Self-pity gets you nowhere
  • A positive outlook helps you attain your goals
  • Change can be a good thing
  • Life is too short not to forgive

Once you’ve determined what your book’s themes are, you choose the incidents that illustrate these ideas for your readers. Of course, you wouldn’t want to come out and say, “Hey reader, you should realize that being a parent is one of the most important jobs you’ll ever have!” Instead, show them how you’ve raised your children. Chronicle the journey you took and describe the sacrifices you made. Share the blunders and the successes. They’ll get the message!

Error 2: Covering your entire life rather than focusing on a specific time period

A typical memoir mistake for new authors is to try to start with birth and move forward chronologically. Remember, you’re not writing a school essay or an autobiography. You’re writing a memoir, which should be an intimate excursion into the author’s relationships, memories, and raw emotions. A memoir is usually just a slice of life, not the whole pie. For that reason, it often focuses on a certain period, one that would fascinate readers and teach them about something new.

Now, it’s worth noting that a memoir is usually not written in diary form. Journaling can be a wonderful and beautiful expression of one’s deepest thoughts, but it usually doesn’t translate directly into a book. For one thing, the target reader of a diary is, well, you; a memoir is written for others to read. However, as a professional ghostwriter, I can tell you that diaries are an excellent source for details when I write a memoir for a client.

Error 3: Not considering the feelings of the real people mentioned in your book

I always advise authors not to use a memoir as an excuse to get back at someone. Writing a book for revenge is very sharp-edged, and can do permanent damage. Plus, you open yourself up to lawsuits.

Obviously, you can’t avoid discussing the lives of the people around you when you write a memoir. However, you can make minor changes that go a long way to conceal the true identities of the characters in your book. For instance, you can change the name of the grouchy neighbor or maybe make the schoolteacher a brunette instead of a blond.

The safest approach is to ask all your friends and relatives who are featured in your book to sign a release. You can find examples of a legal release online. If anyone refuses to sign, it might be best to leave them out of your memoir.

Error 4: Writing for every reader rather than settling on a demographic

A common memoir mistake is to write for “everyone.” You need to determine who your reader is before you even outline your book. You need to pinpoint a demographic and write to them. The more specific you can get, the better.

Some examples of specific target audiences for a book:
  • Teenage boys who are addicted to video games
  • Medical professionals who are open to holistic cures
  • Parents who have lost a child to cancer
  • Fans of Star Trek

Memoirs are an important part of the literary world. They offer a peek into the soul of another individual. Avoid the common memoir mistakes and you might just make a difference in someone’s life. Enjoy the journey!

Writing a Memoir: Know Your Story

When writing a memoir, it’s important to stick to one subject and one time period, then really focus on that. Know your story! If your book is too general, it won’t make for a good read.

A good friend, who attends many writer’s conferences, teeming with agents and publishers, recently told me, “If a writer goes into a pitch with: ‘Hey, my book is about my life in the field of education,’ the agent is going to glaze over and start thinking about the conference lunch buffet. It’s way too general. No, it’s better to state the book’s focus upfront.”

So true! I would also add that you should know the purpose of your story. After all, that will help you focus and know your story.

Know your story

The first step when writing a memoir is to decide what you’re writing about. In the example above, perhaps you are a high-school teacher in the inner city and you’re writing to encourage parents to be more active with their child’s education. If that’s your purpose, tell that story. It’s specific, not general.

If your own educational path helps to illustrate your book’s purpose, by all means share it. You can do so with flashbacks or by starting the book at that period, if there is enough material to carry the story forward. Otherwise, skip it. For example, if you had supportive parents and went to expensive prep schools and Harvard, it just might not fit into this book (about working with inner city kids).

It would probably make more sense to open your memoir with a particular high school class and finish with their graduation. Include various gnarly parent teacher conference meetings that show what you wish to demonstrate and conclude with a result, one way or another.

Pick a lane and stick to it.

Define your reader

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

In the above example, your reader would probably be parents of high school students. Perhaps yours is a cautionary tale, warning parents of the dangers of leaving their children’s education solely in the hands of the school system. If that’s the case your book might span two decades, showing your breadth of experience and many examples of neglect with final resolutions that all exemplify the problem.

Or maybe you want to show how one parent got it right. Perhaps that one child made it out of the ghetto and into the sunlight. In that case, your story might just span one year, showing how that mom and dad took a strong interest in little Johnny’s education, while other parents failed to do so, and their children floundered.

Now, your reader might be the school administrative staff. If that is the case, your book would have a very different feel! Is this a David vs Goliath theme, concluding with your victorious battle to make improvements within the school system? The point might be to help others forge an improvement in a system that can seem impossible to penetrate.

We just discussed three versions of one life story. You see how these three books would be very different. It’s the same life, told through different lenses. Each story would be shared with your voice but would make the reader feel and experience very different things.

Pick your reader and write to them.

If you’re writing a memoir, remember that this is your life! You get to tell the story you wish to tell. You probably have a few books within you. Select one and start writing! And if you need help, please contact me.

If you have any questions regarding pricing, please check out my article about how much ghostwriters charge.

If you’d like to read more articles about memoirs, please check these out:

Memoir or Autobiography

How to Write Your Memoir

What are Good Memoir Themes?