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Ask the editor: 6 steps to writing a memoir

Q : I have so much material for my memoir. How do I sort out what to include and what to leave out?

A : This is the key problem a writer faces when constructing a non-fiction memoir. Here are six specific steps to consider when making your decisions:

1. First, skip to the end

Every memoir should be a journey of change and transformation. So before filling in the details of a chapter-by-chapter outline, I recommend that you think first about the ending.

Once you know the climax, where you wind up, you’ll know better what the story is and where to begin. Start by asking yourself:

  • Why am I writing this precisely now?
  • What’s the point I’m trying to make?
  • Where am I going with this story?

2. Next, identify the biggest change in your life

Since memoirs are all about challenges, changes, turning points and reaching some new level, plateau, or climactic moment in your life, what’s the dramatic turbulence that’s inspired this memoir? Some possibilities include:

  • Coming of age
  • Escaping or emigrating from one country to another
  • Achieving independence
  • Finding love
  • Overcoming poverty, illness, anger, abuse

3. Consider what happened before your birth

What about your parents, grandparents, ancestors and other significant influences from the past? How did they influence who you are? Think about your conscious and unconscious attitudes, fears, and values.

4. Outline a prologue, act one, act two, and act three

It’s the narrative arc again, as I discussed recently here. The basic point of the outline is to create a coherent linear structure for the events of your life.

You can reorganize the outline so it starts with a bang at some significant turning point, then flashes back to the very beginning. This is optional, however, and not a formulaic requirement.

5. Go through the outline and delete at least half of it

Avoid the kitchen sink school of writing. Include only those events and characters which directly relate and provide meaning to the point you want to make: how you grew, developed, changed.

6. Now you’re ready to start writing

Selling this memoir, of course, depends on the literary quality of the writing and excellence of the story. The only exception to that requirement is for famous celebrities of whom everyone has already heard.

But for the rest of us – we have to be smarter, more selective, more organized, and most of all know how and why we got from infancy to the wonderful and inspiring denouement of now.


  1. lulu says

    Thank You for your advice. I am going to seriously attempt to do what I have wanted to do all of my life, write. You have given me the courage to go for it. Hopefully 65 is not too late.

  2. Tanesha says

    I would like to personally thank you for the critical information. I graduated with my Masters degree about two years ago and I have been so inspired to write a story of my life. It is very unique just like everyones life. So thanks for assisting me with this information as I know I will do well.

  3. Liz Hoad says

    Hi Alan,
    I have ‘finished’ my autobiography and have found one of the best literary agents. When he received my manuscript he has given a lot of things to do to put my book right.
    He commented that I was no longer a household name and that it is too epidsodic. It needs stronger narrative arc and my own character to be fully realised. If I am to work with him I must:
    1. 1 page synopsis highlighting with bullet points what makes the book new and special
    2. 1 page cv
    3. 1 page with a few lines on the five most recent competing and comparable books giving author, title publisher and date of publication together with a note on how the books realte to the authors own work.
    4. i page on sources used
    5. 1 page on any specialist marketing outlets ie websites, magazines etc
    6. 1 page synopsis per chapter

    So there we are! Not sure what cv means.

    Where to I begin to deliver the above

    Many thanks, Liz

  4. says

    Hi Liz,

    CV means Curriculum Vitae, a summation of your personal and professional background in a more academic style than the usual resume or author “platform”. Search on-line for standard templates.

    You can also read this post on what publishers want in a proposal: It touches on some of the points on your list.

    But from what your agent has requested I’d recommend that before sending anything back to him, you consider hiring a professional developmental editor to help you put together a proper proposal and, most importantly, to work with you on revising the manuscript to develop the narrative arc, your character and other elements as necessary to bring it to the level an agent and publisher would expect.

  5. Butterfly McQueen says

    Alan< I thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I have been struggling trying to formulate my thoughts in a constructive way. I've been in classes that has motivated me to write my story. Now your guidelines are so well appreciated. I expect to write that winning book that will inspire people all over. Blessings, love, and lght,

  6. Mary says

    Mr. Rinzler,

    Thank you so much! Am in the middle of a memoir-style novel and felt it slipping away from me. Your six steps made so much sense, were so straight-forward that I feel energized, ready to re-work what needs re-working. Your advice feels like the constructive criticism received from my favorite expository writing prof at the University of Iowa–more years ago than I care to admit. Thank you again.

  7. says

    I Google-ed “protagonal arc” and came up with your “narrative arc,” same thing ? same idea ? I think I can use it – but will it keep me on the right/write – lol – track ? I’m taking a community playwriting seminar – and need all the help I can get. Thanks, Kate

  8. says

    With bad luck as a steadfast companion-three friends traveling across Europe not only find themselves as repeat crime victims, and having personal encounters with violence,injury, even death on their journey-they also find themselves.

    Hello, my name is Christopher Geltemeyer.
    I am writing a true story about my experience with two friends. As we took a back pack trip across Europe, in the span of four weeks one of my companions was mugged twice(injured once), we were accused of killing a man, and we had most of our belongings stolen while we slept on a train-among other things. The trip- and the experience itself- was way more good than bad. We are wiser and like brothers and it was more valuable than money.

    My dilemma at this point is that I’ve had a couple friends read my story and I think I need to improve the arc of the story,scenic description, and character development. Any advice?


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