Writing Your Memoir: DIY vs. hiring a memoir service
Updated: May 11
It’s always been popular to write one’s memoirs. Celebrities, politicians, and other historical figures have been doing it for ages. But it’s no longer the territory of only the rich and famous. The rise in online self-publishing means anyone can publish their own book.
Leaving a record of one’s life is important for many reasons. At its best, it’s a wonderful gift for your family. Your grandchildren and beyond will have the chance to know you when you are gone. In addition to personal connections, memoirs also capture a time in history from one individual’s point of view. They are a record of how we lived.
Everyone deserves to write or have their memoir written. Too often I hear people say that their life isn’t interesting enough. Not true! You don’t need to have won the Nobel prize or invented sliced bread for your life to be worth recording. Huge organizations like StoryCorps, the Veterans’ Memory Project, or the Shoah Foundation are devoted to capturing ordinary people’s stories.
The question becomes: what is the best way to publish one’s memoir? If you have the discipline, you can write your memoir yourself. If that’s not how you want to spend your time, you can hire someone to write and publish your memoir.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of writing your memoirs yourself vs. hiring a service to do the heavy lifting. But first, a quick review of the necessary steps to create any book or memoir.
The main steps of writing your memoir
There are basically four categories of work that need to be completed when writing any book.
Illustrations and photos.
The editing and proofreading.
Book production (layout and printing).
The first thing to realize is that these steps are all independent of each other. They all require a different skill set. That doesn’t mean one person can’t do them all. It just means that you will have to decide whether you want to do them all.
For instance, you can decide to write the narrative yourself, but then someone else can edit, illustrate and produce the book.
Let’s break it down.
Writing the manuscript is the hardest and most time-consuming part for most people. Between knowing what to talk about, and wondering how to say it, this step is where memoir projects lose steam. Here are some things to think about when you decide to write your memoirs:
Do-It-Yourself is good for people who:
Think they are good writers.
Are confident about their writing ability and look forward to the idea of sitting alone in front of a blank piece of paper.
Enjoy the process of writing. For some people, writing is the way they crystallize their thinking. They like to dream up different ways of saying something until they find the perfect words.
Are confident they can express what they want to say through their own writing.
Are used to writing. Journalists, teachers, academics, and bloggers are examples of people who are familiar with organizing their thoughts and getting them on paper.
Hiring a memoir service is good for people who:
Know what they want to say but are not sure how to say it.
Don’t know where to begin the writing project.
Are slow writers or don’t have the time to write.
Don’t want to worry about the technical aspects like manuscript versions, file saving, and other computer issues.
Are not interested in organizing the flow of the book.
Some people are natural born writers, others aren’t. Not being a good writer is not a good reason to abandon the dream of having your own memoir published.
Illustrations and photos
Memoirs are made better when there are pictures to look at. Think of memoirs or biographies you have read. There are always photos of the subject and of related materials.
Since this is your book, you can add as many photos as you want. Most memoirs contain photos about the author and his or her subject. And remember, not everything has to be a photo. You can include drawings, artwork, illustrations, or scanned documents.
DIY is good for people who:
Know how to scan photos.
Know what images they want to use.
Are comfortable managing digital files on the computer.
A memoir service is good for people who:
Don’t have the time or inclination to scan photos.
Don’t have the desire to sift through family archives looking for old photos.
Want something different, like custom drawings or illustrations.
Whether or not you plan to do this step on your own, always keep your eye out for potential images that can go on the cover of your memoir. This is the one photo everybody cares about the most, whether or not it’s a DIY project or a book service.
Editing & Proofreading
There isn’t much to ponder in this category. The choice is easy.
You should always have someone proof what you wrote for typographical errors. Even if you don’t want feedback on content and style, even if you don’t care if you are following all grammar rules to the letter, you should still have someone look for typos.
It’s a worthwhile step. You’ll be upset once your memoir is printed to find a glaring typo staring at you in the face. It is very hard to catch your own mistakes, and very easy to get a proofreader. Proofreaders are also generally affordable.
As far as editing goes, that’s a more personal choice. Copy editors look for more than just typos. They’ll tell you when sentences aren’t clear. They’ll point out style issues that don’t conform to a specific standard, like Chicago or the MLA. They’ll comment on how easy or hard it is to read your particular writing style. This is a much more subjective and sensitive process than looking for typos.
It’s perfectly fine not to use a copy editor. However, feedback on personal memoirs is an important part of the process. If you plan on writing the book yourself, you should also plan for someone else to read it before it goes to print.
Publication (layout and printing)
Layout, printing, and bookbinding are complex tasks. Yet modern technology gives non-technical people the opportunity to engage in the printing process from their own computers. It’s pretty neat to be able to produce a book from soup to nuts, without leaving your own home!
That said, book publication is not for everyone. Here’s the breakdown…
DIY is good for people who:
Are interested in learning the various print-on-demand services available online. Each service is a little different.
Are comfortable downloading software, uploading files, and interacting with customer support options through email.
Have the patience to care as much about how the book looks as you did about what you wrote.
A service is good for people who:
Have a special vision for their book but don’t know how to get there.
Don’t want to spend time learning how to publish a book when it’s something they only plan on doing once.
Want a professional-looking design for their book.
The best part of writing one’s memoir is when it’s done. You hold your book in your hands and think, “This is my life story. It represents who I am and will let me stay connected to my kids and grandkids when I’m gone.” Staying focused on getting it done can help you make the decision of whether to tackle this project alone or hire a service.
Hiring a service to help you write your memoir is a lot like hiring a personal trainer. Sometimes, the only way to do it is to have someone there to make you do it. But services aren’t for everyone.
You are the best judge of how you want to write your memoir. But whether you write the memoir yourself or get a service, I encourage you to create this important heirloom. You will be happy you did, and so will future generations.