Not for Idiots: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Memoir

Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir
Victoria Costello
Alpha Books/Penguin Group, 2011
Softcover, 286 pages, with appendices and index

The number of people writing memoirs is growing, with some memoirs becoming bestsellers. Whether you want to write your memoir for profit or fun, to find healing, or to leave a family legacy, Victoria Costello's complete, clear, and compelling how-to book is for you.

Costello is an Emmy-winning author of six nonfiction books including her memoir and three other Complete Idiot’s Guide titles. In this book, she walks you step-by-step through the memoir-writing process, from uncovering your reasons for writing to becoming published. What to put into your memoir and what to leave out—covered. Writing the truth without hurting people—covered. Using fiction techniques of plot, character, dialogue, and conflict to make your memoir a page turner—covered.

How the book is organized
The book has four parts. In Part One, Writing Your Life, Costello recommends reading memoirs to become acquainted with how others have done it. Appendix B lists twenty-two memoirs to get you started. She gives common reasons for writing memoirs, including self-understanding, memorializing a relationship, overcoming adversity, and leaving a legacy for your children and grandchildren—even great-grandchildren you may not meet.

Part Two, The Ingredients of Memoir, provides a recipe for writing that includes how to determine point of view of your characters, making characters believable, dialogue, plot and structure, and revising your pages. Since your memoir is about you, you likely will use a first-person point of view, represented by the word I. Closely related to point of view is voice. “Voice in memoir is the real you,” Costello writes. “It’s how you sound when you get together with your oldest friend over coffee and gossip or have a heart-to-heart talk.”

Part Three, The Bigger Picture: Theme and Genre, covers dealing with tragedy, romance, illness, travel and adventure, and business memoir. Theme means “you fulfilled a promise made on page one: that you would make a necessary change in your life (story)—and then faithfully tell them all about it.”

Part Four, Getting Read, is about turning journal writing into memoir, writing about family, writing about faith, and getting published

Appendix A lists websites, organizations, and how-to books on writing memoir; Appendix B is a reading list of memoirs; and Appendix C is a permission form Costello suggests for persons you interview for your memoir. (More important than permission is to avoid harming a person’s reputation—libeling them—by what you write.) 

How she keeps you on track
At first glance, you may think the nearly 300-page book has too many rules to follow. However, sprinkled throughout are easy-to-understand definitions of key writing terms, quick prompts for you to practice writing, inspirational quotes from published memoirists, and potholes to avoid. I especially like her Five Golden Rules of Good Writing:
  1. Say it simply.
  2. Mix up your sentences. Follow long with short, and vice versa.
  3. Don’t start every sentence with I.
  4. Details are always better than generalities.
  5. Begin every scene in the middle, not when and where the action started.
Victoria Costello is a science journalist, ghostwriter of memoirs, public speaker, and workshop presenter on memoir writing and coping with family mental health challenges. Visit and

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