Is it Memoir or Self-help?

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As an author coach, it's not uncommon for me to begin working with an author who sets out to pen a memoir, but as the project starts to unfold we often discover the book may be best suited for self-help. The question is, what's the difference and how do you know which is right for you?

To help you decide, let’s explore the differences between various types of books:  



Usually, a memoir is based on a moment in history when the author overcame adversity or learned a valuable life-lesson that would make for a good story. Although based on true events, it reads more like fiction and relies heavily on the devices of fiction—setting, dialogue, plot, description, etc., —yet memoir and fiction are fundamentally different. While fiction is powered mainly by imagination, memoir is based more on memory and factual events. Both, however, share the same story elements and read like a story.

Some questions to ask yourself before beginning your memoir:

  • What part of your life are you reliving through your story?

  • What is the underlying reason to share your story?

  • What lessons might the reader learn by reading your story?

  • How did you overcome adversity at that time?

  • How has the experience changed you?

  • Are you prepared to open old wounds and delve deep into your past?

  • Will this make a good storyline?


Memoir vs. Autobiography

The difference between a memoir and an autobiography is the autobiography is a true story of the author’s entire life, whereas the memoir usually focuses on a specific time period in the author’s life when a powerful life lesson was learned. The memoir offers the reader a glimpse of the author's past as opposed to the full life story.


Memoir vs. Self-help

Oftentimes, the author will set out to write a memoir but will later shift the genre of the book to self-help. This is something to consider for aspiring authors who plan to write a memoir. Again, a memoir isn’t necessarily your entire life story—that would fall under an autobiography. A memoir is typically based on a certain period of time in your life when a valuable lesson was learned or adversity was overcome. This can often be a period of time spanning over several decades, or it could just be a few years. If you’d like to write it out as a story, then a memoir is your best bet.

On the other hand, you might decide you want to write about your personal experience with the intention to help others who may be on the same journey as you. You feel a calling to share your experiences in an attempt to help your reader by sharing your message. For example, this is often the case when an author is writing about his or her experience—either directly or indirectly—with suicide, grief, addiction, depression, abuse, etc. In this case, your book could easily be crafted into a self-help book where you take your reader on a journey in an attempt to help those who may be experiencing the same that you have already experienced. You do this by explaining your story, offering advice, sharing facts about the topic, helpful tips and techniques, and ultimately offering a process that your reader can apply to overcome his or her own situation.

The reason many authors are initially turned off by the self-help genre is because they don’t feel they can openly tell their story in a non-fiction book. The truth is, most self-help books are based on the author’s personal experiences, and you can easily incorporate your own life experiences into each chapter by weaving them throughout the book, instead of basing the book entirely on your experience. Most readers enjoy a good story and learn best by example. A good self-help book won’t just tell you about a topic and contain only facts. That would read more like a textbook. Yes, your book may contain that information, but it will also share how you worked through the experience.

For example:

Let’s say you set out to write a memoir about a time in your life when you were battling depression and suicide, but the process is proving to be too emotional to revisit entirely, yet you feel compelled to help others who may be battling depression, or their loved ones who might also be adversely affected.

In this case, you might decide to shift your focus to self-help and open the book with who you are and why you are writing the book, a taste of what you’ve experienced, and how the book will help the reader. As the chapters unfold, you might inform the reader about depression, add some suicide statistics, explain what the symptoms are, what others can and cannot do to help, and what the subject can do to move forward or get help. Throughout the book, you would support each chapter with your own experiences and true life examples, and there would still be much of you in the book, but the focus wouldn’t be so much on your story alone.


How do you know if memoir or self-help is best for you?

Keep in mind, people like to learn and they enjoy learning by example. Do you have something to teach that could help another who can relate to your journey? Can you write a manual to guide that person through the process and on to healing based on your own experiences? Do you want to share your experiences without going too deep and getting too personal? Perhaps you have a coaching practice where this book might also serve as a product for your business? Or maybe you have a desire to speak and share your story with the masses? If so, a self-help book might be right for you.

On the other hand, do you consider yourself a good storyteller? Do you prefer reading and writing fiction over non-fiction?  Although memoirs are not technically fiction, they still contain all the elements of fiction and read like a story. If you tend to gravitate toward fiction, a memoir might be your best bet.