You might think that because you’re writing a book about your own life, you don’t have to do any outlining for it.
That’s not true.
I know it’s tempting to start writing without a plan. But if you do that, you’ll end up with a convoluted mess—if you finish at all.
Every good book—including every good memoir—starts with a good outline.
Before you start writing, it’s important to know what your book will include. Your outline will be your roadmap throughout the writing process. It will keep you on track and make sure that you’re writing a compelling story that appeals to your audience.
But before you say, “What if I don’t have a compelling story to share?” — let me stop you.
Every story matters.
Every person has overcome struggles in their life that are worth sharing.
Every person has a story to tell, and every person has a good memoir hiding inside them.
I truly believe that.
At a minimum, if you write down your life experiences, your kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids will know who you were and where they came from. That’s valuable by itself.
But if you turn those real-life turning points into a compelling story, you’ll also be able to help other people in the world. People who are facing the same struggles you did.
We’ve helped thousands of Authors publish their personal memoirs. And while there’s no such thing as a standard memoir, there is a process that will help you write the best memoir possible.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for outlining your life story.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Your Memoir Outline (with Template)
We’ve put together an entire Scribe Book School course on memoir writing. It’s a free, self-directed course that covers everything from what makes a good memoir to writing (and editing) your first draft.
But for this article, I’m going to focus on creating a memoir outline.
Outlining your memoir is actually a two-part process.
I’ll break down the two parts below. Each part contains a video overview, plus a step-by-step written breakdown that goes more in-depth.
Before you get started, download this template. I suggest you use it as you watch or read along.
Part 1: Uncover Your Memoir
Step 1. Determine what you’re hoping to get out of your memoir
Pull up your memoir template and start from the top.
Answer this very basic question: “What are you hoping to get out of writing your memoir?”
Choose the 3 things you want most.
Your answer might be something tangible. Maybe you want to find more clients for your business or earn more money.
Or your answer might be intangible. Maybe you want to help others in need.
Whatever the case, be as specific as possible. This will give you a concrete goal to work toward and an easy way to measure your progress later.
And be realistic. A lot of writers start off with unrealistic goals like, “I want to be on Oprah.”
Why? Aside from serving your ego, what will that do for you?
It’s much better to set incremental, attainable goals that will actually improve your business, help your target audience, create a lasting legacy, or serve whatever purpose you are writing for.
Step 2. What do you think your memoir will be about?
Next, take 2 minutes and answer this question: As you sit here—right at this moment—what do you believe your memoir will be about (recognizing you may change your mind)?
The reason I say “2 minutes” is because this should be your gut reaction. Don’t overthink it.
Nothing causes writer’s block quite like anxiety. Don’t give yourself a chance to get nervous. Just jump in and write what comes to mind.
Don’t stop before 2 minutes is up, either. That probably means you aren’t giving it enough thought.
“My life story” isn’t specific enough. Neither is “my entire life.”
Try to think about the key elements you’re going to include or what major events might go in your book.
What life experiences are relevant to the story you want to tell?
Step 3. Figure out what excites you
Take another 2 minutes and answer this question: What are you most excited about with regards to your memoir?
There are a number of answers to this. You could be excited about the stuff that’s going to go in the memoir. I’m excited to write the story about founding my business. I’m excited to tell people about the time I went to Aruba.
You could write down answers related to the process of writing the memoir. I’m excited to spend time working through my thoughts about this particular part of my life. I’m excited to see the memoir when it’s finished!
Or, it could be something related to your emotional experience of the memoir. I’m excited to deal with my issues in writing. I’m excited to share my truth with others.
Whatever the case may be, figure out what excites you.
Memoir writers inevitably struggle during the writing process because it’s hard to dig through your past.
Your answer to this question will give you motivation when the going gets rough.
Step 4. List your self-expectations
Take another 2 minutes to answer this question: What do you expect from yourself in the process of writing your memoir?
Your answers may be positive. I expect to set up a writing plan and stick to it. I expect to write 250 words every day. I expect to complete the first draft in six months. I expect to write some funny flashbacks about my time in high school.
As always, the more specific you can be, the better. Give yourself concrete goals to work toward.
Your answers may also be negative. We all have some bad habits, and it’s important to be honest with yourself. I expect that I will sleep in instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to write. I expect that I’ll procrastinate when I get to the hardest parts of the story because I don’t like remembering them.
If you can acknowledge those tendencies from the get-go, you’re more likely to fend them off when you’re in the thick of writing.
Awareness is the first step to making progress.
Step 5. Imagine the afterglow
Writing a book is never easy. I don’t care whether you’re a first-time Author or a professional writer. You’re going to hit a slump at some point.
The way to keep going is to keep the finishing line in mind. That’s one reason you listed your goals in step 1.
But there’s another kind of motivator that can keep you going—the way writing your memoir will make you feel.
Take 2 minutes and imagine how you would like to feel after you’ve written your memoir.
Do you imagine feeling proud of your hard work? Overjoyed? Deeply satisfied because it was a cathartic experience?
What’s your emotional goal with this book?
I need to point out something important, though.
Be careful how much pressure you put on your book.
Write down how you’d like to feel after putting all that work into your memoir. But understand that the memoir itself can’t do anything for you.
In other words, your emotional goal needs to come from inside you.
Writing a memoir isn’t going to make your dad love you or make your addiction go away.
Writing a memoir can help you process those feelings and help you motivate yourself so you can keep working through them.
Step 6. Consider how your life might change
Take 2 minutes and answer the following question: How do you think your life will change after writing your memoir?
Speaking your truth in a memoir will inevitably change your life.
Short-term, it can be painful. You might have to face some unpleasant, hard truths.
But in the long run, the change is going to be for the better.
Again, don’t immediately fast forward to visions of grandeur. Writing a memoir probably isn’t going to land you on the main stage of TED or get you on The Today Show.
It might help you develop more discipline in your day-to-day life. It might give you a sense of calm since you’ll learn how to express yourself. Or it might help you feel prepared to tackle some emotional challenges in your life.
But be honest with yourself.
Step 7. Define the limits of your memoir
Now we’re going to change it up. Only take 1 minute for the next question.
Consider this: Do you anticipate your memoir will cover your whole life, a specific period in your life, a specific relationship or theme in your life, or something else?
You’re not writing a memoir because you want to tell the world about the great sandwich you had at lunch.
You’re writing a memoir because there’s something in your life that’s worth telling. What is that something?
I believe most people who sit down to write a memoir know what they want to say. You may not have admitted it to yourself yet, but deep down, you know.
That’s why I suggest only taking a minute for this question.
It’s also why I also don’t extensively cover the types of memoirs. Sure, some memoirs cover a whole life, while others cover a single event or theme. Some move chronologically, while others don’t.
None of that really matters when it comes to planning your memoir.
You know your truth. You know what’s compelling you to write your story. Just be honest, and that truth will become clear.
This question is still important, though, because it helps you realize specifically what it is about your story that’s worth telling.
It will also help you start thinking about your narrative arc and story structure. What are the turning points in your memoir? What did you learn and how?
Don’t feel locked in by this answer. It can always change. But it’s important to get the ball rolling by considering what the most impactful elements of your life story are.
You’ll sort it out more as you write the book.
Step 8. Create a working title
If you were to title your memoir—just right now, not permanently—what would it be?
Only give yourself 1 minute for this.
I’ve written about how hard it can be to come up with the perfect title. I’ve also written about how important it is to get it right.
But your title doesn’t need to be perfect at this stage. It just needs to be something that works for you.
Ideally, it will be something that encapsulates your mission and gives you a sense of direction as you move forward.
But remember, the aim here is to start zeroing in on a direction, not to nail the bullseye.
Your working title can be boring and straightforward, like My Cancer Story.
Or, it can be enigmatic, like Candy Rain.
It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it means something to you.
Step 9. Develop a sense of urgency
Why write your memoir now? Why not wait?
Give me the short, honest answer. This shouldn’t take more than a minute or 2.
It takes a lot of motivation to write a book, so what’s your motivation?
Why is this story so worth telling that you want to take on the extra trouble, time, and effort right now?
Did something just happen in your life to motivate you? Are you trying to process your feelings about something? Is there a pressing need for it in the community you want to serve?
What’s your purpose?
Here’s my advice: if you have a burning desire to tell a story, now’s the time. Don’t wait. Why? Because you’re going to change. As humans, we’re always growing and evolving.
There are things I’ve written that, at the time, were my absolute truth. But I can’t even imagine writing about them now.
If something about your story feels urgent to you right now, seize the opportunity.
Step 10. Dig deeper
Take 2 minutes and dig as deep as you can. Why are you really writing your memoir?
Be brutally honest.
You don’t have to show this to anyone, so there’s no answer that should make you feel embarrassed.
The more upfront you can be with yourself about your reasons, the easier it will be to write a memoir that fulfills you, your mission, and others’ needs.
But remember this: a memoir isn’t about telling people what to do. If you want to do that, consider writing a knowledge-share nonfiction book.
A memoir is about digging deep into your personal story and your own emotions.
If you want others to learn about themselves from your memoir, the best way to do it is to be honest about yourself.
Others may see themselves reflected in your story—and chances are, they will—but they aren’t the subject of the book.
Every time you find yourself writing “you” in your memoir or outline, see what happens when you substitute the first-person “I.” To be effective, a memoir has to be I, I, I.
Step 11. Sum it all up
Now it’s time for your big takeaway.
Working through all these questions should give you a lot more clarity about what your memoir is about and why you need to share your own experience.
So, given your answers above, what do you think your memoir is really about?
Your answer doesn’t have to be about specific content, although it may be related.
Maybe your “what’s it about” is sharing a particular experience or insight. Or maybe it’s about sharing your journey through a difficult time.
Perhaps it’s about answering a question that’s driven you professionally for decades.
Or, maybe it’s about a feeling you want to have on the other side (e.g., I am not a mistake. I am worthy.) Just remember, your personal memoir can’t heal you. But the work that you put into it can.
Part 2: Outline Your Memoir
Step 1. List the stories, experiences, events, or time periods that might go in your memoir
Open your template and scroll down to the orange section. Where it says “memoir topic,” include your answer from Step 11 of Part 1.
Now you can get into the actual outlining.
To be clear, there are many ways to outline a memoir.
But I recommend the simplest way possible, which is to brainstorm the stories, experiences, major events, and time periods that you want to cover in your book.
For this step, make bullet points and jot down all the stories you want to cover.
They don’t have to be connected. They don’t have to be complete sentences. They just have to remind you of what you’d like to cover in the book.
Think of this as a brainstorming exercise. These stories might end up in your book, and they might not.
With a memoir, a lot of the discovery comes in the writing. This is just your basic guide for all the stuff that could or should be in the first draft.
Step 2. Put those stories in the best order for your specific memoir
Once you have all your bullet points, put them in the order you want them in the book.
Don’t feel like your book has to move chronologically. What matters is that everything is in an order that resonates with you.
When you’re done, your outline will look very basic, almost like a table of contents.
I realize this is very simple. I literally just told you to write down the memories you want in the book and put them in order.
But do not mistake simple for easy.
This process will require you to really understand what you want your memoir to be about.
Also, this outline exercise almost guarantees that your memoir will change as you begin writing.
Your outline doesn’t always have to connect the dots. In fact, your final book may not even connect the dots.
For example, take Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn. It sold a million copies for a reason—but there are no dots there.
The reader can read it and see dots that connect certain themes.
But the stories aren’t directly connected. Tiffany just wanted to tell her most important stories as honestly as possible.
She did. And they were great. If you go to Audible, you’ll find countless reviews that testify to the power of her stories.
Your dots don’t all have to connect for your story to resonate.
Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you don’t want to connect the dots, that’s okay. But it probably means that connecting the dots would be too painful.
Ask me how I know… Connecting the dots was a bridge too far when I was writing my “fratire” stuff. I wasn’t ready to dig that deep, emotionally.
If you need to, just tell your stories.
And if you’re an overthinker, you might want to actually try not to connect all your dots.
Because sometimes when you over-plan, it’s a sign that, deep down, you don’t think your story is meaningful enough. You don’t think it can stand on its own without an elaborate structure behind it.
Steps 1 and 2 should take anywhere from an hour to 4 hours combined.
Do not take longer than 4 hours. In the next step, I’ll explain why.
Step 3. Are there stories that should be on that list but aren’t?
Unlike a knowledge-share nonfiction book, notice that I don’t recommend taking much time to outline your memoir. I also don’t teach you how to structure your chapters (if you want a comparison, check out this article on outlining a knowledge-share book).
That’s because a memoir works differently. You have to struggle a little putting together your outline. You have to struggle a little while writing each chapter.
Those struggles will help you figure out what’s important. They will strengthen your story.
You’re going to feel like your outline isn’t complete.
That’s okay. It probably isn’t.
Your outline isn’t going to be perfect. But perfection isn’t the point of an outline. The point is to get you writing quickly in the right direction.
In fact, if you wait until you have a perfect outline before you start your book, you’re doing it wrong.
You’ll discover much of your book as you write it. That’s just how it works.
Other stories will come to you as you write. You’ll uncover hidden connections. You’ll develop deeper insights as you get deeper into the material.
That’s all part of the process.
Your outline gives you a scaffold so you know how to move forward. But you still have to put in the struggle to make the story come to life.
Uncovering your truth is hard. If you try to make it easy, you won’t actually uncover that truth.
Memoir Example of a Finished Outline
Like I said, your memoir outline will be very basic. It will look almost like a table of contents.
It may not make a lot of sense to an outside reader yet, but it will make sense to you.
Since I mentioned Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn earlier, I’ll give you her table of contents as an example.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Mascots and Bar Mitzvahs: High School Years
- Laugh Factory Comedy Camp
- Family and Foster Care
- Titus the Boyfriend
- The Pimp Gets Pimped
- Roscoe the Handicapped Angel
- How I Got (Restarted) in Comedy
- The Ex-Husband
- The Long Road to Comedy Success
- Tiffany’s True Hollywood Stories
- She Ready
You can tell there’s a rough chronology at work. We start with high school stories and end with Hollywood.
But within that basic narrative arc, there’s not necessarily a clear connective thread.
These are basically the moments that mattered most to Tiffany. They’re the formative experiences that made her into who she was.
And that was enough to create a riveting, vastly popular book that sold millions of copies because it spoke to her readers on a deep emotional level.
An outline is indispensable, but at the end of the day, there’s no wrong way to organize your memoir.
A memoir’s success hinges entirely on 1 thing: authenticity. Are you speaking your truth? Are you being vulnerable? Are you letting your readers see who you are?
If so, the specific dots won’t matter. It’s all about how you tell them.