Writing a memoir or biography

Written by Lynne (editor)—November 26, 2021
Our lives have so many stories. There are intricately woven tales in family histories. There are heartbreaking tales of death and loss in our modern-day world. There are wonderful experiences of love and family.

But is it a good idea to write them down?

It’s definitely a good idea to do it for the sake of family and friends. So many stories about our lives are lost and I often think of my ancestors, many of whom were illiterate, and the stories they would have told and how I’ll never hear them. I’ll only ever know what I can work out on a family history website as I delve into my family tree.

But does that mean members of the public will be interested in your family’s story? Should you make it available to them?

There are a few things to take into consideration if you’re thinking about this. For a start, contemplate what the story you’re telling is about. Is it a detailed family history from Australia’s colonial era? There are certainly people who will be interested in this, especially if it includes a lot of detail about daily life and is written engagingly. Is it a tale from your modern-day life such as a battle with cancer or another debilitating disease? Is it the tale of you overcoming a physical or mental challenge? People love reading true stories of others overcoming obstacles, so this could also work.

Memoir or biography/autobiography?
Is your story a memoir or a biography/autobiography? What’s the difference? Biographies usually focus on the entire life of an individual. Usually, biographies are written about people who are no longer with us and reflect on most aspects of the full course of their lives. Memoirs, however, usually focus on specific events, like a battle with cancer or overcoming culture shock when moving to a different country. It’s good to think about which your story might be and focus on that.
Then comes the writing.

Writing a memoir
Once you’ve decided which part of your (or someone else’s) story you want to focus on, try and write it as engagingly as possible. Show things as much as you can. What’s showing, you ask? Read a modern-day novel and you’ll see people writing to show rather than tell, like this:

This is telling:
John and Mary were married in a beautiful ceremony. Gary was John’s best man for the day and everyone thought Mary looked lovely. All their family and friends were smiling at them, but Gary found it difficult to take his eyes off Mary. She looked so radiant.

This is showing:
As John stood at the end of the aisle, he saw a vision of radiance beginning to move towards him. It was Mary. He had never seen her look so amazing. Gary, his best man, gave him a nudge, but he couldn’t tear his eyes off Mary to look at anyone else. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see their family and friends snapping photographs and smiling with delight at the sight of her, but her eyes never left his until their hands connected.

The second paragraph is written in a much more engaging way and will keep your reader’s eyes glued to the page, as they can see everything unfolding in front of them. If you’re going to write a memoir, it’s best to write in this style, as it will make it engaging for your reader. Include dialogue wherever you can. That will also help the reader to feel like they’re witnessing everything as if it was playing out in front of them.

Writing a biography
Usually, a biography is information-heavy, featuring a lot of detail about the life of a person who may have lived many years ago. Consequently, the show rather than tell style may not work, although if you can write it like that, your book may gain a wider readership.

However, there are other ways to make a biography engaging. For example, you can insert passages from diaries or letters, which can be a good way to break up long passages of text that contain loads of information. Try and split things into sections under headings so the reader can pause to catch their breath as they’re reading. Use short paragraphs wherever possible, as this is easier on the reader’s eye and makes the page look less daunting.

But will the public want to read it?
Sadly, unless you’re famous, many people may not want to read your story. One thing that can help overcome this is to focus (both in writing and marketing) on angles that are popular with readers, like these:

  • True love
  • Overcoming obstacles such as poor health or the threat of death
  • Experience with a well-known disease, both from the point of view of the person who had it and family members who travelled this journey with them
  • Experiences in a well-known event such as a war or tragedy
  • Culture clashes
  • Overcoming racism or sexism
  • Great achievements, such as being the first person to go into space or sail around the world in a small boat

Whichever way you decide to go in writing your memoir/biography, make sure you get it professionally edited. A professional editor can help you make sure you’re showing instead of telling and that you’ve written your manuscript in a way that homes in on popular elements like those above. They can also let you know what stands out the most to them, which may help you target your marketing campaign.

The most important thing is to remember to take the time to do it right. Don’t rush yourself with a deadline if you don’t have to. If it isn’t done by Christmas this year, aim for next year. The more time you take, the better your manuscript is likely to be.

For more information on professional editing, check out the AEP website here.

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