Life story writing tips
Life story writing is a big undertaking – but then life is a pretty big undertaking too! So, if you’re going to write your life story or memoir, you need to be prepared to make a suitable investment of time to plan, edit, and write your book.
To help, here are some questions you’ll need to consider. They should help get you into the mindset for telling your story in the right way, for the right audience…
How do you know it’s the right time to tell your story?
If you’ve been thinking about telling your life story for a while, and the drive to tell it keeps coming back, then this is probably the right time.
But is there a wrong time?
I’ve had life story writing enquiries from people who weren’t quite sure if they were ready. Some of them had difficult stories to tell, and they needed to know they were emotionally ready for going on that journey.
If you’re not sure you’re ready, I’d suggest you live with the idea for a few months. When you find yourself thinking about it more and more, making little plans, scribbling down ideas, then you’re almost certainly ready to give it a go.
What is your main reason for sharing your story?
You might well have a few different reasons for writing your life story, but I’d urge you to identify your single biggest reason. If you can do that, it will make the whole job of writing a lot easier.
For many people, writing a life story is a way to preserve their legacy.
For some, it is a cathartic experience – a way of exorcising demons, perhaps.
For others, it is a way to share knowledge and experience; the joy and pain of life lived and lessons learned.
Who is going to read your book?
If you’re writing your life story for your closest family or friends, you can write it more freely. You can access all those in-jokes that no one else will understand. You can be as open about your experiences as you like.
If you’re aiming for a bigger, wider audience, you might need to revise what you say to make it accessible. And you’ll need to add necessary context to help people understand how and why things happened the way they did.
Am I too young to write my life story?
It really doesn’t matter how young or old you are. I’ve worked with people just out of their teens, who have had wonderful stories to tell.
Slice of life stories can be very compelling – and crucially – come with a ready-made cohort of potential readers who want to see how they empathise with your experiences of growing up.
Is your book an autobiography or a memoir?
An autobiography typically relays the events of your life in chronological order. But you don’t have to limit yourself like that…
A memoir typically concentrates on one aspect of your life which could be a period of time, or a thematic element.
You could concentrate on your formative years, for example, or focus in on your mid-life crisis, or your apotheosis moment when you suddenly understood how to ‘do life’.
You could skitter up and your personal timeline to focus in on the themes you have identified in your life, or the lessons you have learned.
Think about what will serve your story best.
Does it matter that I haven’t lived an extraordinary life?
No. I’d rather read a simple story, beautifully told.
I’ll also refer you back to that question I asked about your audience for the book… Your closest friends and families won’t care how (subjectively) exciting your life was. Your book will give them a hitherto unseen insight into who you are, and how you became such an important part of their life. That’s a precious thing to give to someone you care about, don’t you think?
Should I just start writing and see what happens?
I get a little frustrated whenever I hear an experience writer tell a new writer: just start writing.
On the face of it, that’s sound advice. If you just get something – anything – down in writing, then you’re off and running. The longest journey starts with a single step and all that, but…
While I know that getting something down on paper helps dispel some of the fear of writing, it won’t sustain you far beyond that first step if you don’t know how to carry on writing.
If more people waited until they were feeling confident and equipped to write, I think there’d be a lot more finished life stories, and a lot fewer life story writing tips articles!
How do you know you’re in the right frame of mind to get writing?
In my experience, there’s a tipping point when it suddenly feels easier to write than not write…
When the ideas start to surface like bubbles in boiling water.
When you realise you’re constantly working through story elements at the back of your mind.
If you can wait until the ideas are really flowing freely, I think you’ll find it so much easier to start writing and then, crucially, carry on writing.
What do you do if you just can’t seem to get started?
Lots of people sit down to write a life story and then get disillusioned when the writing doesn’t flow from their fingers straightaway.
Try this: Schedule a regular slot in your diary, every day, or every other day, just to think about your story. I’d recommend a comfy seat and a favourite drink. Have paper and pens with you.
Set your alarm for half an hour, and use that time to think about the story you want to tell. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to write anything, but if meaningful thoughts occur to you, scribble them down.
Keep this appointment with yourself for a couple of weeks. You should find that you’ll generate some helpful thoughts and ideas.
Even more importantly, you’ll be re-training your brain. Just getting it used to the idea that it’s got a new project to mull over. Just letting it know that you’re going to be making this a regular part of your schedule now.
How much planning do I need to do?
Just because you’ve lived your life, it doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to write about it! To help you drill down into the most important points you want to cover, give yourself the time to plan your writing.
You don’t have to plan in meticulous detail, but it will help if you have a list of the key stories and events you want to focus on, and a timeline of events.
Will my life story sell?
By now, you’ve already decided why you’re writing your book, and who it’s for. If you’re doing it with half a mind on getting your book published, and hopefully selling a lot of copies, it might be worth talking to publishers first, just to see if, speculatively, they’d have any interest in a book like yours.
Do your research and find a publisher who looks like a good fit for your story.
More life story writing advice
Hopefully, you’ll have found some helpful ideas here to get your book off to a good start. If the process isn’t going as well as you’d like, or you’ve already part-way through your manuscript and need some help knocking it into shape, just get in touch.