How to Write a Memoir Outline: 4 Ways to Prepare

Posted on Feb 10, 2023

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Written by Sarah Rexford

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If you want to write your memoir, you likely wonder how to write a memoir outline really well.

Even if you consider yourself a pantser, someone who writes by the seat of their pants, it is almost guaranteed you will need to create some form of outline before you begin.

In this article, we’ll help you learn how to write a memoir outline by covering:

Before we dive in on how to write a memoir outline, let’s take a brief look at the differences between two similar genres. 

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Know The Difference Between Memoirs And Autobiographies 

When it comes time to write your memoir, it’s crucial to realize the difference between writing a memoir and composing an autobiography. While an autobiography is typically reserved for well-known, high-profile individuals and encompasses their lives from birth to death, a memoir focuses on a key theme.

This difference is vital to understand prior to beginning your memoir outline. When you sit down to outline, you don’t need to start with your birth, early years, and slowly move through your life. The good news is, when you write a memoir you write around a key theme. 

With this in mind, you must choose your theme prior to outlining. 

1 – How To Write A Memoir Outline: Choose Your Theme

What theme you choose is virtually limitless. There are countless memoirs to take ideas and inspiration from, but here is a short list of common possibilities: 

  • Adjusting to change
  • Dealing with loss
  • Coming of age
  • Surviving against all odds 
  • Friendship/family

The chapters of your memoir will center around your theme, so make sure you choose a theme that will carry your readers from the first to last page. You may feel overwhelmed at choosing just one theme that represents the key moments of your life. Ask yourself a few questions to help you start:

  • What is a lesson I continue to learn?
  • What type of people strongly influence my life?
  • What have I overcome? 
  • Where have I relied on others for help?

If numerous answers come to mind for one of the above points, consider making it your theme and building your chapters around that particular experience. On to step two on how to write a memoir outline!

2 – Recognize You Are The Protagonist 

Nonfiction is not that different from writing fiction. Both genres require strong characterization, active writing, showing versus telling, and a driving theme or plot that keeps readers turning the pages. 

Keep this in mind as you build on your theme. What life experiences did you take charge of, lead the way in, or initiate? Perhaps you want to write on the theme of family and overcoming all odds for the sake of being there for those you love. Maybe you pushed off school for a semester to provide for your parents or took on a third job.  

Imagine that you choose to write on coming of age. You grew up in a small town with big dreams and made difficult choices again and again. Now you work a career you love and as a result, impact thousands of people.

Both these examples reveal you as an active protagonist, taking charge and making change happen. This will keep readers engaged and turning pages. 

3 – Articulate Life-Shaping Moments

If you write a biography for someone or write your own, you will include many moments that matter simply because they are about the individual written about. However, a memoir focuses on multiple life-shaping moments that support your theme.

To continue with the example above, your life-shaping moments could include:

  • Moving to a big city and combating homesickness your first night away
  • Meeting your first friend and what you connected over
  • Realizing the city culture is much different than where you grew up

Another way to think of these events is to consider them teaching moments that apply universally. What did you experience that your readers will resonate with, learn from, and grow as a result? Include these aspects as you determine how to write an outline for a book.

While the specifics may only apply to you, most people can resonate with trying to sleep in a new bed in a dark room in a new city. It’s a type of loneliness people personally understand. Maybe they were lonely moving to university in a rural town, and you felt lonely moving to a large city, but the feeling is relatable.  

4 – Set Aside Ego

If you are a well-known musician, actor, politician, or artist, you may have the luxury of writing your autobiography and including all the small details. However, not everyone is a famous celebrity or gets millions of views when they go live at a party.

This is where memoirs come in. Anyone can write a memoir no matter how well-known they are. The purpose of a memoir is to record aspects of your life for the sake of helping your readers. Writers can call this focus by a variety of phrases:

  • Writing to your target audience
  • Writing to a specific person
  • Keeping your reader top of mind

However you want to describe this decision, it comes down to setting aside ego. Writing a memoir can be especially more of “a book baby” than any other genre. Your manuscript covers intimate moments of your life and is all about you, after all.

Instead of writing about yourself for the sake of boosting your ego, set ego aside and decide to put your readers as your primary focus. How can you craft your outline in a way that:

  • Communicates a key theme
  • Leads by example (you are the protagonist)
  • Shares the most important moments
  • Focuses on what will benefit them most 

This builds trust with your reader and will help them take more from your story. Usually, this comes with a benefit of its own: The more your reader resonates with what you write the more they will want to talk about.

Sitting Down To Start Writing Your Memoir 

If you feel nervous about how to write a memoir outline, don’t worry. Just like writing any other type of book, writing a memoir requires multiple edits, likely hiring a professional editor to give it a final pass, and lots of feedback from your team. 

You will likely take your outline through multiple drafts as you discover new ways of communicating your theme to your readers. A memoir, unlike a biography, does not always need to be chronological, so take your time and write as ideas come. 

The process of writing your outline will teach you so much about your own story as well as largely influence how you portray your story to future readers. Your first draft of your outline is not set in stone, neither is the first draft of your manuscript. You can always go back and edit more. 

Don’t forget that at some point you need to start the actual writing (let’s not even think about the memoir launch and marketing just now!). Give yourself a deadline to finish your outline and start the writing process. You can always edit your outline again, but unless you sit down to write your memoir, your outline will be just that—an outline. 

Sit down boldly, take time to focus on your theme and the key moments that make this theme stick out to you, and make sure to enjoy the process!

Your next step

Now that you know how to write a memoir outline, it’s time to pursue actually writing your book!

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