Seven mistakes to avoid in memoir according to readers [Original Research]

What do readers expect from a book? 

There’s a really cool trick to figure subconscious expectations that readers have but might not be able to articulate. Critical Amazon reviews (3 stars or less).

I analyzed the critical Amazon reviews for 16 popular memoirs and found 7 mistakes to avoid when writing a memoir, according to reviewers.

First, how I chose the memoirs to analyze.

I wanted a quick way to get a group of relatively diverse memoirs. I did a search for “memoir” on Amazon. This brought up books with “memoir” in the title.  I limited to books in English, published in the Amazon memoir category, and filtered down to books currently running a Bargain Book promotion. I reviewed each of the top 25 results. I eliminated books written by celebrities, and books that had fewer than 3 reviews that commented on the storytelling and overall book. (As opposed to how the book was evidence that the author was a terrible person, or how badly the book needed a copyeditor.)

I focused on only the critical reviews, because I assumed those would be more honest and more accurate. Since they’d be less likely to be written by a friend of the author. Plus, humans are much better at identifying why we don’t like something than why we do like it.

 

AuthorBook
1 Sarah ThebargeThe Invisible Girls: A Memoir
2 Tobias WolffThis Boy's Life: A Memoir
3 Kimberly Rae Miller Coming Clean: A Memoir
4Ishmael Beah A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
5 Elyse Schein (Author), Paula Bernstein Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited
6 Terri Cheney Manic: A Memoir
7 Elna Baker The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir
8 Anne Roiphe Epilogue: A Memoir
9 Marc Lewis Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs
10 Floyd Paseman A Spy's Journey: A CIA Memoir
11 Mary Karr Lit: A Memoir
12 Jaycee Dugard A Stolen Life: A Memoir
13 Mira Bartok The Memory Palace: A Memoir
14 Walter Dean Myers Bad Boy: A Memoir
15 MK Asante Buck: A Memoir
16 Robert M. Sapolsky A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

 The 7 Mistakes

1. Bait and switch with your description 

What you write in your book description is important in setting reader’s expectations. It seems especially important if your book involves your relationship to your religion. For example, the description for The Invisible Girls: A Memoir emphasizes the importance of the author’s relationship with a family of Somalian refugees. Here’s what a reader says about the book.

I was looking forward to this book so much, but was let down by how much it was about the authors struggle with her relationship with god and less about the family she was helping. - Mindy Lloyd  

Similarly, the description for Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir emphasizes her awkward search for love. Here’s a review of the book.

 thought I was in for a girl coming of age in the big city sort of book ( and oh yeah...she happens to be Mormon). It's bit more of a MORMON GIRL coming of age tale than I anticipated .....and that just isn't what I was looking for. It's fun, she's a cute girl with a redeeming story about her own spiritual quest.....but I didn't really sense how much of this book was REALLY about her Mormon spiritual quest for fulfillment and truth and identity. -E.G. Gillespie

 

1. Protagonist no one can relate to

Readers want to find something they can relate to even if your experience is awful. Here's one review of Mary Karr's memoir about her struggle with alcoholism.

This one was just too much wallowing in self-pity and drunkenness. At many points I would say "OK FINE YOU WERE AN ALCOHOLIC, Did ANYTHING interesting happen besides that?" But it didn't. - Lindsay Briggs reviewing Lit: A Memoir.

Mary J. Grosso captured the desire for relatability best in her review of Robert M. Sapolsky’s memoir about his life as a scientist studying baboons in Africa.

In order to be drawn in by any book, you need to find the main character someone you can either like or dislike, admire or disrespect, find interesting or dull, meaningful or meaningless. Sapolsky hit none of those notes. I was left ambivalent to him, his studies, and his book. -Mary J. Grosso reviewing A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

 

2. Leave practical questions unanswered

When your experience is unusual compared to your readers, they have a lot of mundane questions they want answered.  For example, here’s a review of Kimberly Rae Miller’s memoir about growing up as the child of hoarders. Several readers wanted to know how Miller’s family was able to finance a hoarding habit.

...How could a family in their income range afford to throw out clothes and get new ones when they were unable to do the laundry? How could the mother keep on ordering from TV and Internet shopping sites when their credit cards had to be maxed out after these types of shopping binges? - MI customer reviewing Coming Clean: A Memoir  

Likewise, if you’re an immigrant writing for Americans, chances are that we don’t know the basics about your region’s geopolitics. Here’s a review of Ishmael Beah’s memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

I was a little disappointed in that it did not give a good history of the region, explain the current political situation nor did it really give a clear explanation of why everyone was fighting. I certainly would have enjoyed and understood the book better if there was a clear explanation of why everyone was the fighting and killing each other.... T. Holmes reviewing A Long Way Gone: A Memoir

3. Challenge reader's patience

Several books confused, irritated or challenged readers because of choices in style and organization. Readers complained about writing that skipped around in Terri Cheney's memoir of bipolar disorder.

She skips around and you never know where you are..... The chapters have no order to them in proportion to her life...... Being bipolar myself.... I understand that her thoughts come this way.... But I feel the chapters could have been organized in more of an order once she had them all written -Karen reviewing Manic: A Memoir

And in Mira Bartok's memoir of reuniting with a mental ill mother.

If you like books about art, this is a great book. If you like books that are beautifully written, this is a great book. If you like books written in bits and pieces, this is a wonderful book. If, however, you're like me and like books that have beginnings, middles and endings/closures, this book probably won't be one of your favorites. It's often hard to tell just what or who this book is about. -Annie B reviewing The Memory Palace: A Memoir

They were annoyed by a lack of transitions, such as in Floyd Paseman's memoir of his time at the CIA. 

This book simply lacked any credible flow. Paragraphs started and ended without any particular order thus making it difficult to follow. The humor was described in a way that you really would have to be there to find it funny. The author described his career in the Agency but refused to mention most of the countries he worked in. He would lead the reader into the field and then back to HQ and then again into the field without describing the transition. - AA reviewing A Spy’s Journey: A CIA Memoir 

They found repetition in a twin's story hard to take.

Each event in their journey to discover the truth about themselves is told twice, in the voice of each woman, and there is a great deal more repetition than even this somewhat awkward device would entail. Again and again they discuss with each other and with us whether they're glad they found each other or not, how it feels to see one's own mannerisms in another person, and whether or not they really want to find their birth mother. Their soul-searching doesn't seem to go very deep, it just seems repetitive. - Evelyn Uyemura reviewing Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited

 

And they found awkward grammar draining, even when it was seen as authentic in Jaycee Dugard's account of being abducted and then held in captivity for 10 years. 

The one advantage of the awkward grammar is that it seems to represent the perspective of an eleven year-old girl trapped inside a twenty nine year-old woman, but this style gets old very quickly and it felt like a chore to read most of this book. - Kate reviewing A Stolen Life: A Memoir  

4. Get the facts wrong

There was only one book on the list, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: A Memoir that Australian media have challenged for accuracy of some of the dates and details. Readers get disappointed if they discover you’ve got facts wrong.

I made searches in the internet and it was a surprise to learn that facts that he mentions in the book never occurred; even the name of presidents or leaders are not real or correct. I am very disapointed not because the story is not real but because the author pretended us to believe that this is a real story. - I. L. Figueroa reviewing A Long Way Gone: A Memoir

5. Write before you’ve integrated a change

This may be the biggest way that you can go wrong in a memoir. If there’s no internal change in the protagonist, then your book is a collection of facts, not a story. Readers want to see us struggle, grow, and integrate, not just struggle. Here are a five reviews that speak to that point.

First, Tobias Wolff's account of a troubled childhood. 

The story drew me in and kept me reading but I didn't walk away feeling that there had been any real growth in the protagonist over time (no major revelation or something that made me think... ok, I can connect with this guy now). -Rachel Goodman reviewing This Boy’s Life: A Memoir.

 Second, for Kimberly Rae Millers memoir of being the child of hoarders.

I think everyone has something that shames them about their childhood, something secret. But if you are writing a book about it, you have to recognize it yourself first; come to grips with it, then share it. I don't feel that 's Miller has reached that point yet. - joan andrews reviewing Coming Clean: A Memoir
Nothing really happens here--her parents hoard, she helps them, they hoard again, she helps them again, she finds love, the cycle repeats, like a number with an infinite remainder. - Isadora Fox reviewing Coming Clean: A Memoir 

For Marc Lewis's memoir of his time as a drug addict.

Unfortunately, the author, so exquisitely positioned as a former drug addict now neuroscientist, missed the opportunity to write a truly interesting book. That book would have provided some insight into how he made the change. To his credit, the author promised no such thing. The title, after all, only guarantees a memoir examining his former life on drugs. So what we're left with is 306 pages of sordid drug-use stories and the occasional superficial drug-use "neuroscience".-richrivers reviewing Memoirs of an Addicted Brain

Finally, for Jaycee Dugard's memoir of her time in captivity. 

Most important, the story ends without an important chapter: How her rescue affects her life as a grown woman and mother, and how the truth impacts her daughters. - Amazon Customer reviewing A Stolen Life: A Memoir

 

6. Hold back

There were reviews across a couple of books that wanted the author to show more self-awareness and share more of the downsides of their experience. The reviews were sharpest for Mary Karr, who has built her career on her wise cracking style. Readers found it hard to believe that she didn’t have much negative to say about AA as an organization or any qualms about joining the Catholic church.

Basically there was nothing offensive in their treatment. I mean she divorces the man. He couldn't have been all good or neutral right? But it isn't only the characters where she holds back, it is the institutions as well...I felt like she was holding back everywhere on every page.  -One of Many Reviewers reviewing Lit: A Memoir

7. Tell a predictable story

Readers expect authors to articulate what makes their experience unique from other stories about a similar narrative arc. Here’s what one reviewer said about MK Asante’s memoir about his experience growing up as a troubled son of African immigrants in Philadelphia. 

This is the memoir of a young hip hop obsessed materialistic angry black kid who grew up in an afro-political family and after going through a lot of downs, started getting some well deserved ups. That just about sums it up. It's a bit choppy, the interspersed lyrics can be distracting, and the story isn't exactly sophisticated or unpredictable. But I enjoyed it. 6/10. - P reviewing Buck: A Memoir 

And here’s another reader on Mary Karr’s memoir about overcoming alcoholism and converting to Catholicism.

To my mind, Karr has not added anything fresh, original, or even even convincingly personal to the formula. Her religious awakening seems awfully drab and flat. -Anne Heller reviewing Lit: A Memoir