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!

Laura Sherman (119 Posts)

Laura Sherman, a.k.a. “Laura the Friendly Ghostwriter,” is a professional ghostwriter and author. She enjoys writing fiction and nonfiction and is happiest when juggling multiple projects. She recently authored “Chess Is Child’s Play” to introduce the next generation to the game of kings and queens. As a parent of three, and one of the top 50 women chess players in the United States, Laura wrote this book to teach any parent to teach any child, of any age, to play chess.