Writing Your Memoir: Even If You “Can’t Write”

Do you tell yourself, “I’m just not a writer—I didn’t get that gift”?  Do you say, “I don’t know grammar”?  Have you concluded, “Writing comes easily for other people, but not for me”?

If feelings like these discourage you from writing a memoir, this post is for you.  I hope it will also include some useful tips for more confident writers.

No matter how little confidence you have as a writer, know that you have what it takes to write a meaningful memoir.

The most essential part of writing is having something to say.  And if you’re planning to write about your life—your experiences and perceptions—you absolutely qualify.  Yes, knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation is useful, but good writing comes from having something worth saying and then finding the means to say it effectively.

Doris's Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather McClure
My great-great-grandparents are part of the story I have to tell.

For the first draft of your work, focus on getting all of your ideas down—not on spelling, punctuation, and other style issues.

  1. Remember: there’s nothing wrong with a chaotic, error-filled first draft as long as it doesn’t become the final draft. (Once you have a fully developed draft of your memoir, then it will be time to turn to organizing your content and improving your sentences and paragraphs.)
  2. For your first draft, write with wild abandon so that you get down everything you want to say.
  3. Review the post “Writing Your Memoir: Getting Started” for ideas and strategies to help you explore your story vividly and completely.

What if you talk more easily than you write?

Some people express themselves more easily orally than in writing.  If this description fits you, you may want to draft your book by first talking into a recorder.  Transcribing the recordings will take a lot of time but can be rewarding.  In the course of transcribing your recordings, you will find yourself making small revisions that strengthen and clarify the content.

If you’re horrified by the thought of transcribing hours of recordings, you may wish to consider purchasing speech-to-text software.  Speech-to-text software—Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a popular choice—allows you to speak into your computer through a microphone and have your words appear in your document.  In addition to “training” the software to recognize your voice patterns, you will need to review your document thoroughly to correct any errors.

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How does the world look to you?

Once you have the content for your memoir, give your memoir the careful editing attention it deserves.

  1. As you revise your work, remember your goal: to let your readers put themselves in your place and experience what you have experienced, feel as you have felt, and understand what you have known.
  2. Bookmark an online grammar and punctuation guide and then refer to it when you are unsure of a rule. A comprehensive choice is the Online Grammar Guide.
  3. One of the best style manuals continues to be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, with updates, has been around for 100 years. I suggest buying a copy of The Elements of Style (available on Kindle for $.99) and reading it from cover to cover.
  4. Your style considerations should include these:
    1. When a sentence becomes long and difficult to comprehend, consider breaking it into two (or more) sentences. Short sentences are generally more reader friendly than very long sentences.
    2. Break up dauntingly long paragraphs.
    3. Use commas and other punctuation for clarity. For example, by reading aloud what you’ve written, you will often be able to see where a comma is needed.  (Which is it: “Let’s eat Jonah before we go,” or “Let’s eat, Jonah, before we go”?)  Be consistent in your choices: Don’t write “the dog, the cat, and the man” (comma before “and”) one time and then write “the hat, the shirt and the suit” (no comma before “and”) the next.
    4. Be especially careful of your pronoun usage. Follow prepositions with object pronouns (her, him, me, us, them):  He gave it to Jon and me (not “to Jon and I”!).
  5. To work out the most effective wording and to check the clarity of your prose, read aloud what you have written. Another choice is to install a screen reader and listen to your written work as you follow along.  A free screen reader can be downloaded from NaturalReader.
  6. After doing your best to revise and improve your memoir, you may choose to ask friends and family to read your work to find unclear passages, typos, and other problems you have overlooked.
  7. Improve your writing by writing.  Keeping a journal, for instance, is a useful way both to practice your writing and to develop possible topics for a memoir.
  8. If you want to read others’ ideas about how to improve the quantity and quality of your writing (but remember that you are the best judge of what and how you should write), you could read some of the books on the interesting and comprehensive list “Best Books for Writers,” from Poets & Writers, a website that is filled with resources. The site is well worth exploring, as is Poets & Writers magazine.  The magazine is available in digital and print editions; see the Poets & Writers site for details.
  9. You may find it useful to join or establish a writers’ group. Sharing your work in progress with other writers can be encouraging and inspiring.  I suggest looking for a group that stresses honest positive feedback of this type: “I especially like your use of ___ ,” or “I think your portrayal of ___ works well,” or “I’d like to hear even more about___.”  Most members of writers’ groups, no matter how skilled, are not qualified to give negative feedback that is helpful, justified, and not discouraging.  Too many writers who critique other writers are trying to turn the other writers into clones of themselves—or they’ve read a “rule” somewhere and imagine that any writer who violates it is absolutely, positively doomed.
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Release your story into the world.

If you think you can’t write, you are probably buying into the common myths about writing.  These myths would have you wrongly believe that either you have it as a writer or you don’t.  They would fool you into thinking good writers never struggle with their writing.  And they would lead you to imagine that good writers put all the right words in the right order from the moment they set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).  Don’t let these myths fool you and convince you that your wonderful story has to stay locked inside of you.  Bolster your courage and release your story into the world.

Next: What’s this about a “narrative arc”?

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