This blog was featured on 03/13/2019
Call It Into Being: Memoir Organization and Structure

Writing a memoir is a huge undertaking. You’re dealing with tons of content by virtue of having lived a life. Here are some suggestions for getting—and staying—organized.

Forget writing on scraps of paper. Get yourself a journal. You may use your computer to write if that feels better for you, but I prefer the hand-heart connection writing with paper and pen offers—at least in the beginning. Writing on paper also makes it easier to ignore typos, spelling, and grammar and to focus on right-brain creative flow. Later you can transfer your work to the computer, editing as you go.

Date your journal entries each time you sit down to write. When you complete a journal, label the spine and put it on a shelf. As you fill more journals, organize them chronologically. I have journals organized this way dating back to 1979. When I’m working on a project I consult them. It’s amazing how much we forget. But if you’re keeping a journal it’ll be filled with recollections big and small, as well as details long gone from your mind.

For work done on the computer, give your pieces titles and organize them into folders. If you work across genres you may want to have a creative writing folder and within that folder other folders that house poetry, fiction, essays, ideas, etc. If you’re working on a particular project, such as a memoir, you’ll create a unique folder for it, which will contain outlines, ideas, and chapters—each in their own documents.

Your diaries, journals, letters, and other work you’ve written are great source materials, which will remind you of stories and events, but will not be part of your memoir, per se. They will inform what you write, but not be your writing. You can cull that material for ideas and even use them to help you make lists of stories you want to tell.

Explore possible themes for your memoir based on the subjects that emerge in your journal writing. What topics or subject matter do you write and care about? What concepts or threads run through your writing? Is there a specific story you want to tell? Can you distill its essence and state it in a sentence? For example, my memoir is about my determination to heal anxiety even before I knew what it was. Take a look at these questions early on in your process and keep asking them. Memoirs are different from autobiographies, which chronicle a person’s life. Memoirs are organized around a particular theme of a person’s life. Everything in your memoir should point in the direction of your theme. The theme is your content’s reason for being.

Think about how you can divide your material into sections. My memoir, Raw, has three sections: Body, Mind, and Spirit. My latest project, WHERE DO YOU HANG YOUR HAMMOCK? How To Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book, has five sections: Dream, Nourish, Write, Publish, Promote.

Next, consider how many chapters you’ll have in each section. This will depend on how long each chapter will be. Do some math. Your memoir shouldn’t exceed 80,000 words.

This creates a container into which you can pour your stories. Each book project is different so think about structure, but hold it loosely. You may want to take a look at books you love and review the tables of contents to see how many chapters those books have.

Now it’s time to generate an outline, which is a living document and will change and grow as you and your story does.

After the outline you’ll write chapter-by-chapter summaries, which provide a look at each chapter so that you (and hopefully your coach or editor) can see the progression of the story. It’s important to get feedback during this process because it’s hard for writers to have perspective on their own work.

Hire a coach if you can. It will save you hundreds of hours, confusion, and aggravation. Plus, the right kind of support is as transformational as direction. I’m a super organized person and still I benefit tremendously working with a coach/editor.


I hope this helps. Good luck with your project!

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  • RYCJ Revising

    Yes!! "Explore themes". Great advice there. I've read hundreds of memoirs and love the ones built around a central theme.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Hi Linda. I’d suggest you keep writing if it's going well. But sooner or later you may want to create an outline. Let me know if you'd like a free consult for coaching. Info:

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Hi, Candace. I’m glad you found this helpful. Good luck with your memoir!

  • Candace Cahill Writing

    I've been considering writing a memoir, and this article offers some good structural advice. Thank you.

  • Linda Curtis Writing

    Thanks for this article. I am very new to memoir writing. Another published author suggested I write one after talking about my experiences. She didn't suggest an outline so I've just been writing. Would you suggest I stop where I am and create an outline, or just keep going?