Just Write

How to Write A Memoir— Part Two

How To Write A Memoir, Part 1 lists a variety of methods for writing personal stories.

Part 2 continues with revision and the business of writing.

Take care of yourself

Writing one’s life story can be difficult. While writing, take good care of yourself. Anytime you are feeling overwhelmed by this writing process, set your work aside. Take a break, get some fresh air, visit with a friend. Read helpful, supportive material such as Toxic Mom’s Toolkit.


When editing, save your “cuts” in separate files (either paper file folders or on computer files). You might be able to use these darlings in another personal essay.

Use manila file folders to store print material: newspaper articles, photos, handwritten notes, letters, brochures, etc.


In the revising stage, delete what might cause embarrassment. Fine tune for accuracy.

HydrangeaShape like a gardener pruning a hydrangea. Take a few snips here, cut a little there. Stand back, look over your work.

Revise until you are satisfied. Or, you may reach a “good enough” stage and let it go. Most writers are never completely satisfied with their writing.

While in the editing stage, read your manuscript as if you are an impartial observer. Look at how the cast of characters are portrayed. Check if their privacy has been respected. Read with empathy toward the characters who inhabit this story. Frances Lefkowitz believes “. . . empathy is so crucial to a good memoir—and to good relationships, and to family Thanksgivings in which everyone comes out alive.” —Frances Lefkowitz, “Are Your Parents Still Speaking to You?” December 20, 2013, The Write Spot Blog.

Permission from cast of characters?

Should you let your cast of characters read your manuscript?

There is no correct answer. Some people say yes. Others say no. My suggestion is if you think something will be offensive, consider if these particular details need to be in the story. If not, omit them. If the details are crucial, leave them in, knowing it might offend someone who may cut off contact with you. If you want to continue contact with that person, ask him/her to read. If he/she is uncomfortable with some passages, you may be able to tweak to everyone’s satisfaction.

This is your story and you have a right to write it, but do you have a right to publish it? Be mindful of defamation (libel for written material). Carefully consider the risks of writing your personal story for publication.

“Writers face three big risks when using real people in their writing: defamation, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Yet every fiction writer bases characters on real people. Memoirists and nonfiction writers identify people by name. How can writers use real people in their work without risking a lawsuit?”   —Helen Sedwick, “How to Use Real People in Your Writing Without Ending Up to Court,” September 13, 2014

Beta Readers

Part of your editing process might be to have others read your manuscript. These early readers (also called beta readers) might find scenes that don’t make sense or need clarification. Only ask people you trust and who will give you honest appraisals. Choose these readers very carefully. Give them specific things to look for (continuity, repetition, unclear areas, sections that could be condensed or expanded, etc).

Why Write This Story?

After you have written all that you want to write, while your manuscript is “resting,” take time for contemplation. Why are you writing this story? And why do you want to publish it (if you do)? If you are writing to share what you have learned on your journey and think it will be helpful to others, wonderful. If you are angry and want revenge, consider the consequences.

Upon reflection, you may realize that some healing happened during the process of writing and you released the pain. Maybe you will find there is no longer a desire for revenge.

“Honesty. Compassion. Forgiveness. Hold these words in your mind as you write about your family.” —Kerry Cohen, “How to Write About Family in a Memoir” by Kerry Cohen, author of The Truth in Memoir, [excerpted from “The Writer’s Dig,” column by Brian Klems , Writer’s Digest, January 22, 2015]

Boys jumping into water. SorensenAfter typing “The End”

Celebrate! You achieved your goal.

But, what if your memoir isn’t quite working?

You may decide to publish your work as fiction rather than memoir. The option of revising your memoir into fiction is explored in How To Turn Memoir Into Fiction.

 Celebration  Photo by Kent Sorensen
Hydrangea photo by Marlene Cullen
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