The #1 Key to Writing a Memoir That Works

I once heard an editor from one of the Big 5 publishers say: “I’m looking for books that are both completely unique and exactly the same.” And she laughed.

I laughed too.

But now I've come to believe that the intersection of “completely unique” and “exactly the same” IS the key to writing an effective memoir.

Two Ways Your Memoir Needs to Be Exactly the Same

#1: It Belongs in a Clear Category

Agents, editors, and publishers like to put books in categories, in boxes. That’s how they know whether they can sell them or not, whether there are readers for those books.

Here are some common categories for memoir:

Cancer journeys. Addiction. Abuse. Trauma. Grief (I read a lot of these). Travel memoirs. Food memoirs. Coming of age. Spiritual journeys. Coming out memoirs.

When there isn’t a clear category, it makes your book more difficult to sell.

#2: It Communicates a Universal Message

Your memoir can’t just be about the things that happened to you.

Less experienced writers' manuscripts often read like this: And then this thing happened. And then this happened. And then this … 

Which turns into a deadly recitation of facts that no one really cares about unless you make meaning out of them. I point this out to my book coaching clients constantly.

Wild isn’t just about a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s about picking up the pieces after a tremendous loss and finding yourself again.

Making Toast isn’t just about grandparents taking care of their grandkids after their daughter dies unexpectedly. It’s about the human capacity to move through and live with grief.

Without a Map isn’t just about a teenager who was forced to give up her baby for adoption. It’s about coming to terms with betrayal and eventually finding compassion and redemption.

Effective memoirs are “exactly the same” in that they have a universal message that a reader will connect with.

Your Memoir Also Needs to Be Completely Unique

This one’s a little easier.

It's your story.

Your story is unique. You are the only who has lived it. No one else has lived this exact story in this exact way. 

If you write compelling scenes with specific details and dialogue, your story will come alive and meet the uniqueness test.

Someone else could hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself and her story would be “unique” to her experience.

Someone else could lose a daughter and have to take care of their grandchildren and their book would be very different from Making Toast.

Your voice makes your memoir completely unique.

Your voice is your unique style, how you “sound” on the page. It’s vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes your writing flow in a particular manner.

Some writers’ voices are poetic. Heavy on descriptions and metaphors. Mine is clean and clear … I can’t come up with a literary metaphor to save my life—and when I try, it always sounds forced. It’s not my voice.

Your voice is a critical part of what will make your memoir “completely unique.” No one else can write in your voice.

So the Big 5 Editor was right.

Your memoir DOES need to be completely unique and exactly the same. You make it “completely unique” by writing scenes that bring us into the moments that only YOU have lived in a writing voice, a style, that is unique to you.

You make it "exactly the same" by being clear on where your book fits into the publishing landscape—and by going beyond the facts and sharing a universal message.

That’s the key to writing a memoir that works.


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