Write a Great Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

by Joe Bunting | 1 comment

When I first started writing my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, about a real-life adventure I experienced with my wife and ten-month-old son, I thought it was going to be easy.

After all, by that point in my career, I had already written four books, two of which became bestsellers. I’ve got this, I thought. Simple.

How to Write a Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

It wasn’t. By the time Crowdsourcing Paris was published and became a #1 New Release on Amazon, it was more than five years later. During that time, I made just about every mistake, but I also learned a process that will reliably help anyone to start and finish writing a great memoir.

My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, as a #1 New Release on Amazon!

In this guide, I want to talk about how you can start writing your memoir, how you can actually finish it, and how you can make sure it’s good.

If you read this article from start to finish, it will save you hundreds of hours and result in a much better finished memoir.

Hot tip: Throughout this guide, I will be referencing my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris as an example. To get the most out of this guide and the memoir writing process in general, get a copy of the book to use as an example. Order your copy here »

But Wait! What Is a Memoir? (Memoir Definition)

How do you know if you're writing a memoir? Here's a quick memoir definition:

A memoir is a book length account or autobiography about a real life situation or event. It usually includes a pivotal experience in your life journey.

A key point to make is that memoir is a true story. You don't have to get every piece of dialogue perfect, but you do have to try to tell the personal story or experience as best as you remember.

If you're looking to fictionalize your real life account you're writing a novel, not a memoir (and specifically a roman à clef novel).

For more on the difference between a novel and a memoir, check out this coaching video:

This Memoir Writer Impressed Me [How to Write a Memoir]

How to Get Started With Your Memoir: 10 Steps Before You Start Writing

This guide is broken into sections: what to do before you start writing and how to write your first draft.

When most people decide to write a memoir, they just start writing. They write about the first life experience they can think of.

That’s sort of what I did too. I just started writing about my trip to Paris, beginning with how I first decided to go as a way to become a “real writer.” It turned out to be the biggest mistake I made.

If you want to finish your memoir, and even more, write a good memoir, just starting with the first memory you can think of will make things much harder for you.

Instead, get started with a memoir plan.

What’s a memoir plan? There are ten elements. Let’s break it down.

Get the memoir plan in a downloadable worksheet. Click to download your memoir plan »

1. Write Your Memoir Premise in One Sentence

The first part of a memoir plan is your premise. A premise is a one-sentence summary of your book idea.

You might be wondering, how can I summarize my entire life in a single sentence?

The answer is, you can’t. Memoir isn’t a full autobiography. It’s not meant to be a historical account of your entire life story. Instead, it should share one specific situation and what you learned from that situation.

Every memoir premise should contain three things:

  1. A Character. For your memoir, that character will always be you. For the purposes of your premise, though, it’s a good idea to practice thinking of yourself as the main character of your story. So describe yourself in third person and use one descriptive adjective, e.g. a cautious writer.
  2. A Situation. Memoirs are about a specific event, situation, or experience. For example, Marion Roach Smith’s bestselling memoir was about the discovery that her mother had Alzheimer’s, which at the time was a fairly unknown illness.
    My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, begins on the first day of my trip to Paris and ends on the day I left. You can’t write about everything, at least in this book. But you can write about one thing well, and save all the other ideas for the next book.
  3. A Lesson. What life lesson did you learn from this situation? How did your life change inexorably after going through this situation? Again, here you can’t write about everything you’ve ever learned. Choose ONE life lesson or emotional truth and focus on it.

Want to see how a premise actually looks? Here’s an example from my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris:

When a Cautious Writer is forced by his audience to do uncomfortable adventures in Paris he learns the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.

One thing to note: a premise is not a book description. My book description, which you can see here, is totally different from the premise. It’s more suspenseful and also less detailed in some ways. That’s because the purpose of a premise isn’t to sell books.

What is the premise of your memoir? Share it in the comments below!

2. Set a Deadline to Finish Your First Draft

Or if you’ve already finished a draft, set a deadline to finish your next draft.

This is crucial to do now, before you do anything else. Why? Because there are parts of the memoir plan that you can spend months, even years on. But while planning is helpful, it can easily become a distraction if you don’t get to the writing part of the process.

That’s why you want to put a time limit on your planning by setting a deadline.

How long should the deadline be?

Stephen King says you should write a first draft in no longer than a season. So ninety days.

In my 100 Day Book program, we’ve helped hundreds of memoir writers finish their book in just 100 days. To me, that’s a good amount of time to finish a first draft.

However, I wouldn’t take any longer than 100 days. Writing a book requires a level of focus that’s difficult to achieve over a long period of time. If you set your deadline for longer than 100 days, you might never finish.

Also set weekly milestones.

In addition to your final deadline, I recommend breaking up the writing process into weekly milestones.

If you’re going to write a 65,000-word memoir over 100 days, let’s say, then divide 65,000 by the number of weeks (about 14) to get your weekly word count goal: about 4,600 words per week.

That will give you a sense of how much progress you’re making each week, so you won’t be in a huge rush to finish right at the end of your deadline. After all, no one can pull an all-nighter and finish a book! Create a writing habit that will enable you to actually finish your book.

Keep track of your word count deadlines.

By the way, this is one reason I love Scrivener, my favorite book writing software, because it allows you to set a target deadline and word count. Then Scrivener automatically calculates how much you need to write every day to reach your deadline.

It’s a great way to keep track of your deadline and how much more you have to write. Check out my review of Scrivener to learn more.

3. Create Consequences to Make Quitting Hard

I’ve learned from experience that a deadline alone isn’t enough. You also have to give your deadline teeth.

Writing a book is hard. To make sure that you show up to the page and do the work you need to finish, you need to make it harder to not write.

How? By creating consequences.

I learned this from a friend of mine, writer and book marketing expert Tim Grahl.

“If you really want to finish your book,” he told me, “write a check for $1,000 to a charity you hate. Then give that check to a friend with instructions to send it if you don’t hit your deadline.”

“I don’t need to do that,” I told him. “I’m a pro. I have discipline.” But a month later, after I still hadn’t made any progress on my memoir, I finally decided to take his advice.

This was during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. So I wrote a $1,000 check to the presidential candidate that I most disliked (who shall remain nameless!), and gave it to a friend with instructions to send the check if I didn’t hit my final deadline.

I also created smaller consequences for the weekly deadlines, which I highly recommend. Here’s how it works:

Consequence #1: Small consequence, preferably related to a guilty pleasure that might keep you from writing. For example, giving up a game on your phone or watching TV until you finish your book.

Consequence #2: Giving up a guilty pleasure. For example, giving up ice cream, soda, or alcohol until you finish your book.

Consequence #3: Send the $1,000 check to the charity you hate.

Each of these would happen if I missed three weekly deadlines. If I missed the final deadline, then just the $1,000 check would get sent.

After I put in each of these consequences, I was the most focused and productive I’ve ever been in my life. I finished my book in just nine weeks and never missed a deadline.

If you actually want to finish your memoir, give this process a try. I think you’ll be surprised by how well it works for you.

4. Decide What Kind of Story You’re Telling

Now that you’ve set your deadline, start thinking about what kind of book you’re writing. What is your story really about?

“Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through,” says Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project.

I think there are seven types of stories that most memoirs are about.

  • Coming of Age. A story about a young person finding their place in the world. A great example is 7 Story Mountain by Thomas Merton.
  • Education. An education story, according to Kim Kessler and Story Grid, is about a naive character who, through the course of the story, comes to a bigger understanding of the world that gives meaning to their existing life. My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, is a great example of an education memoir.
  • Love. A love story is about a romantic relationship, either the story of a breakup or of two characters coming together. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a great example of a love story memoir, as it tells the story of her divorce and then re-discovering herself and love as she travels the world.
  • Adventure/Action. All adventure stories are about life and death situations. Also, most travel memoirs are adventure stories. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a great example, and Crowdsourcing Paris is also an adventure story. (You can apply the principles from our How to Write Adventure guide here, too!)
  • Performance. Performance memoirs are about a big competition or a competitive pursuit. Julie and Julia, Julie Powell’s memoir about cooking her way through Julia Child’s recipes, is a good example of a performance memoir.Outlaw Platoon, about the longest-serving Ranger platoon in Afghanistan, is another great performance story.
  • Thriller. Memoirs about abuse or even an illness could fall into the crime, horror, or thriller arena. (Our full guide on How to Write a Thriller is here.)
  • Society. What is wrong with society? And how can you rebel against the status quo? Society stories are very common as memoirs. I would also argue that most humor memoirs are society stories, since they talk about one person’s funny, transgressive view on society. Anything by David Sedaris, for example, is a society memoir.

For more on all of these genres, check out Story Grid’s article How to Use Story Grid to Write a Memoir.

Three Stories

Note that I included my memoir in two categories. That’s because most books, including memoirs, are actually a combination of three stories. You have:

  • An external story. For example, Crowdsourcing Paris is an adventure story.
  • An internal story. As I said, Crowdsourcing Paris is an education story.
  • A subplot. Usually the subplot is another external story, in my case, a love story.

What three stories are you telling in your memoir?

5. Visualize Your Intention

One of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve coached hundreds of writers to finish their books is that if you visualize the following you are much more likely to follow through and accomplish your writing goals:

  • Where you're going to write
  • When you're going to write
  • How much you're going to write

Here I want you to actively visualize yourself at your favorite writing spot accomplishing the word count goal that you set in step two.

For example, when I was writing Crowdsourcing Paris, I would imagine myself sitting at this one café that was eight doors down from my office. I liked it because it had a little bit of a French feel. Then I would imagine myself there from eight in the morning until about ten.

Finally, I would actively visualize myself watching the word count tracker go from 999 to 1,000 words, which was my goal every day. Just that process of imagining my intention was so helpful.

What is your intention? Where, when, and how much will you write? Imagine yourself actually sitting there in the place you’re going to write your memoir.

6. Who Will Be On Your Team?

No one can write a book alone. I learned this the hard way, and the result was that it took me five years to finish my memoir.

For every other book that I had written, I had other people holding me accountable. Without my team, I know that I would never have written those books. But when I tried to write my memoir, I thought, I can do this on my own. I don’t need accountability, encouragement, and support. I’ve got this.

To figure out who you need to help you finish your memoir, create three different lists of people:

  1. Other writers. These are people who you can process, with who know the process of writing a book. Some will be a little bit ahead of you, so that when you get stuck, they can encourage you and say, “I’ve been there. You’re going to get through it. Keep working.”
  2. Readers. Or if you don’t have readers, friends and family. These will be the people who give you feedback on your finished book before it’s published, e.g. beta readers.
  3. Professional editors. But you also need professional feedback. I recommend listing two different editors here, a content editor to give feedback on the book as a whole (for example, I recommend a Write Practice Certified Coach), and a proofreader or line editor to help polish the final draft. (Having professional editing software is smart too. We like ProWritingAid. Check out our ProWritingAid review.)

Just remember: it takes a team to finish a book. Don’t try to do it on your own.

And if you don’t have relationships with other writers who can be on your team, check out The Write Practice Pro. This is the community I post my writing in to get feedback. Many of my best writing friends came directly from this community. You can learn more about The Write Practice Pro here.

7. What Other Books Will Inspire You?

“Books are made from books,” said Cormac McCarthy. Great writers learn how to write great books by reading other great books, and so should you.

I recommend finding three to five other memoirs that can inspire you during the writing process.

I recommend two criteria for the books you choose:

  1. Commercially successful. If you want your book to be commercially successful, choose other books that have done well in the marketplace.
  2. Similar story type. Try to find books that are the same story type that you learned in step four.

For my memoir, I had four main sources of inspiration.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; and Midnight in Paris, the film by Woody Allen.

I referred back to these sources all the time. For example, when I was stuck on the climactic scene in the memoir, I watched one scene in A Midnight in Paris twenty times until I could quote the dialogue. I still didn’t come up with the solution until the next day, but understanding how other writers solved the problems I was facing helped me figure out my own solutions for my story.

8. Who Is Your Reader Avatar?

Who is your book going to be for? Or who is the one person you’ll think of when you write your book? When the writing gets hard and you want to quit, who will be most disappointed if you never finish your book?

I learned this idea from J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote his novel The Hobbit for his three boys as a bedtime story. Every day he would work on his pages, and every night he would go home and read them to his sons. And this gave him an amazing way to get feedback. He knew whether they laughed at one part or got bored at another.

This helped him make his story better, but I also imagine it gave him a tremendous amount of motivation.

This Can Be You, Sort Of

I don’t think your reader avatar should be you. When it comes to your own writing, you are the least objective person.

There’s one caveat: you can be your own reader avatar IF you’re writing to a version of yourself at a different time. For example, I have friends who have imagined they were writing to a younger version of themselves.

Who will you write your memoir for?

9. Publishing and Marketing

How will you publish your book? Will you go the traditional route or will you self-publish? Who is your target market (check your reader avatar for help)? What will you do to promote and market your book? Do you have an author website?

It might be strange to start planning for the publishing and marketing of your book before you ever start writing it, but what I’ve discovered is that when you think through the entire writing process, from the initial idea all the way through the publishing and marketing process, you are much more likely to finish your book.

In fact, in my 100 Day Book program, I found that people who finished this planning process were 52 percent more likely to finish their book.

Spend some time thinking about your publishing and marketing plans. Just thinking about it will help you when you start writing.

Start Building Your Audience Before You Need It

In the current publishing climate, most memoir agents and publishers want you to have some kind of relationship with an audience before they will consider your book.

Start building an audience before you need it. The first step to building an audience, and the first step to publishing in general, is building an author website. If you don’t have a website yet, you can find our full author website guide here.

(Building a website doesn’t have to be intimidating or time-consuming if you have the right guide.)

10. Outline Your Memoir

The final step of the planning process is your memoir outline. This could be the subject of a whole article itself. Here, I’ve learned so much from Story Grid, but if you don’t have time to read the book and listen to over 100 podcast episodes, here’s a quick and dirty process for you.

But First, for the Pantsers

There are two types of writers: the plotters and the pansters. Plotters like to outline. Pantsers think outlining crushes their creative freedom and hate it.

If you identify with the pantsers, that’s okay. Don’t worry too much about this step. I would still recommend writing something in this section of your memoir plan, even if you only know a few moments that will happen in the book, even recording a series of events might help as you plan.

And for you plotters, outline to your heart’s content, as long as you’ve already set your deadline!

Outlining Tips

When you’re ready to start outlining, here are a few tips:

  1. Begin by writing down all the big moments in your life that line up with your premise. Your premise is the foundation of your story. Anything outside of that premise should be cut.
  2. Separate your life events into three acts. One of the most common story structures in writing is the three-act story structure. Act 1 should contain about 25 percent of your story, Act 2 about 50 percent of your story, and Act 3 about 25 percent.
  3. Act 1 should begin as late into the story as possible. In Crowdsourcing Paris, like most travel memoirs, I began the story the day I arrived in Paris.
  4. Use flashbacks, but carefully. Since I began Crowdsourcing Paris so late into the action, I used flashbacks to provide some details about what happened to lead up to the trip. Flashbacks can be overused, though, so only include full scenes and don’t info dump with flashbacks.
  5. Start big. The first scene in your book should be a good representation of what your book is about. So if you’re writing an adventure story (see Step 4), then you should have a life or death moment as the first scene. If you’re writing a love story, you should have a moment of love or love lost.
  6. End Act 1 with a decision. It is you, and specifically your decisions, that drive the action of your memoir. So what important decision did you make that will drive us into Act 2?
  7. Start Act 2 with your subplot. In Step 4, I said most books are made up of three stories. Your subplot is an important part of your book, and in most great stories, your subplot begins in Act 2.
  8. Act 2 begins with a period of “fun and games.”Save the Cat, one of my favorite books for writers, says that after the tension you built with the big decision in Act 1, the first few scenes in Act 2 should be fun and feel good, with things going relatively well for the protagonist.
  9. Center your second act on the “all is lost” moment. Great stories are about a character who comes to the end of him or herself. The all is lost moment is my favorite to write, because it’s where the character (in this case you) has the most opportunity to grow. What is YOUR “all is lost” moment?
  10. Act 3 contains your final climactic moment. For Crowdsourcing Paris, this was the moment when I thought I was going to die. In a love story memoir, it might be when you finally work things out and commit to your partner.
  11. Act 3 is also where you show the big lesson of the memoir. Emphasis on show. Back in Step 1, you identified the lesson of your memoir. Act 3 is when you finally demonstrate what you’ve learned throughout the memoir in one major event.
  12. A tip for the final scene: end your memoir with the subplot. This gives a sense of completion to your story and works as a great final moment.

Use the tips above to create a rough outline of your memoir. Keep in mind, when you start writing, things might completely change. That’s okay! The point with your plan isn’t to be perfect. It’s to think through your story from beginning to end so that you’ll be prepared when you get to that point in the writing process.

Want to make this process as easy as possible? Get the memoir plan in a downloadable worksheet. Click to download your memoir plan »

That’s the end of the planning stage of this guide. Now let’s talk about how to write your first draft.

How to Write the First Draft of Your Memoir

If you’ve followed the steps above to create a memoir plan, you’ve done the important work. Writing a memoir, like writing any book, is hard. But it will actually be harder to not be successful if you’ve followed all the steps in the memoir plan.

But once you’ve created the “perfect” plan, it’s time to do the dirty work of writing a first draft.

In part two of our guide, you’ll learn how to write and finish a first draft.

1. Forget Perfection and Write Badly.

First drafts are messy. In fact, Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts” because they are almost always terrible.

Even though I know that, though, any time I’m working on a new writing project, I still get it into my head that my first draft should be a masterpiece.

It usually takes me staring at a blank screen for a few hours before I admit defeat and just start writing.

If you’re reading this, don’t do that! Instead, start by writing badly.

Besides, when you’ve done the hard planning work, what you write will probably be a lot better than you think.

2. Willpower Doesn’t Work. Neither Does Inspiration. Instead, Use the “3 Minute Timer Trick.”

My biggest mistake when I began Crowdsourcing Paris was to think I had the willpower I needed as a professional writer and author of four books to finish the book on my own. Even worse, I thought I would be so inspired that the book would basically write itself.

I didn’t. It took not making much progress on my book for more than a year to realize I needed help.

The best thing you can do to help you focus on the writing process for your second draft is what we talked about in Step 4: Creating a Consequence.

But if you still need help, try my “3 Minute Timer Trick.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Set a timer for three minutes. Why three minutes? Because for me, I’m so distractible I can’t focus for more than three minutes. I think anyone can focus for three minutes though, even me.
  2. Write as fast as you can. Don’t think, just write!
  3. When the timer ends, write down your total word count in a separate document (see image below). Then subtract from the previous word count to calculate how many words you wrote during that session.
  4. Also write down any distractions during those three minutes. Did the phone ring? Did you have a tough urge to scroll through Facebook or play a game on your phone? Write it down.
  5. Then, repeat the process by starting the timer again. Can you beat your word count?

This process is surprisingly helpful, especially when you don’t feel like writing. After all, you might not have it in you to write for an hour, but anyone can write for three minutes.

And the amazing thing is that once you’ve started, you might find it much easier to keep going.

Other Tools for Writers

By the way, if you’re looking for the tools I use and other pro writers I know use, check out our Best Tools for Creative Writers guide here.

3. Make Your Weekly Deadlines.

You can’t finish your book in an all-nighter. That being said, you can finish a chapter of your book in an all-nighter.

That’s why it’s so important to have the weekly deadlines we talked about in Part 1, Step 2 of this guide.

By breaking up the writing process into a series of weekly deadlines, you give yourself an achievable framework to finish your book. And with the consequences you set in Step 3 of your memoir plan, you give your deadlines the teeth they need to hold you accountable.

And as I mentioned above, Scrivener is especially helpful for keeping track of deadlines (among other things). If you haven’t yet, check out my review of Scrivener here.

4. Keep Your Team Updated.

Having a hard time? It’s normal. Talk to your team about it.

It seems like when you’re writing a book, everything in the universe conspires against you. You get into a car accident, you get sick, you get into a massive fight with your spouse or family member, you get assigned a new project at your day job.

Writing a book would be hard enough on its own, but when you have the rest of your life to deal with, it can become almost impossible.

Without your team, which we talked about in Step 6 of your book plan, it would be.

For me, I would never have been able to finish one book, let alone the twelve that I’ve now finished, without the support, encouragement, and accountability of the other writers whom I call friends, the readers who believe in me, and most of all, my wife.

Remember: No book is finished alone. When things get hard, talk about it with your team.

And if you need a team, consider joining mine. The Write Practice Pro is a supportive encouraging community of writers and editors. It’s where I get feedback on my writing, and you can get it here too. Learn more about the community here.

5. Finally, Trust the Process.

When I walk writers through the first draft writing process, inevitably, around day sixty, they start to lose faith.

  • They think their book is the all-time worst book ever written.
  • They get a new idea they want to work on instead.
  • They decide the dream to write a book and become a writer was foolish.
  • They want to quit.

A few do quit at this point.

But the ones who keep going discover that in just a few weeks they’ve figured out most of the problems in their book, they’re on their last pages, and they’re almost finished.

It happens every time, even to me.

If you take nothing else from this post, please hear this: keep going. Never quit. If you follow this process from start to finish, you’re going to make it, and it’s going to be awesome.

I’m so excited for you.

How to Finish Your Memoir

More than half of this guide is about the planning process. That’s because if you start well, you’ll finish well.

If you create the right plan, then all that’s left is doing the hard, messy work of writing.

Without the right plan, it’s SO easy to get lost along the way.

That’s why I hope you’ll download my Memoir Plan Worksheet. Getting lost in the writing process is inevitable. This plan will become your map when it happens. Click to download the Memoir Plan Worksheet.

More than anything, though, I hope you’ll never quit. It took me five years to write Crowdsourcing Paris, but during that time I matured and grew so much as a writer and a person, all because I didn’t quit.

Even if it takes you five years, the life lessons you’ll learn as you write your book will be worth it.

And if you’re interested in a real-life adventure story set in Paris, I’d be honored if you’d read Crowdsourcing Paris. I think you’ll love it.

Good luck and happy writing.

More Writing Resources:

Are you going to commit to writing a memoir (and never quitting, no matter what)? Let me know in the comments.


Summarize your memoir idea in the form of a one-sentence premise. Make sure it contains all three elements:

  1. A character
  2. A situation
  3. A lesson

Take fifteen minutes to craft your premise. When you’re finished, share your memoir premise in the Pro Practice Workshop for feedback. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to three other writers. Not a member? Join us.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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WSJ Bestselling author, founder of The Write Practice, and book coach with 14+ years experience. Joe Bunting specializes in working with Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, How To, Literary Fiction, Memoir, Mystery, Nonfiction, Science Fiction, and Self Help books. Sound like a good fit for you?

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1 Comment

  1. Nandkumar Dharmadhikari

    One of my book chapters has been accepted for publication, but I lack confidence in the accuracy of what I have written. I have completed the chapter, but I would appreciate your assistance in improving its quality.



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