Narrative nonfiction continues to grow in popularity! Both memoirs and personal essays give us glimpses into another life that might be very similar to—or entirely different from—our own. In a way that is unique to this genre, personal essays and memoirs connect the person reading the narrative to the one who wrote it. At Writer’s Relief, we know that editors and literary agents look for certain elements in narrative nonfiction that help your story resonate with readers.
7 Elements Editors And Agents Want To See In Personal Essays And Memoirs
A distinctive voice. In narrative nonfiction, an original voice is essential. Editors and agents receive many stories about dysfunctional childhoods, cheating spouses, addiction recovery, etc. So it’s important to stand out! Having a distinctive voice could save your story from landing in the reject pile with hundreds of other similar stories. If the story isn’t unique, the voice absolutely must be.
A strong author platform. It’s no secret that memoirs have a hard time catching literary agents’ attention. Many agents will not take on authors who write in this genre unless they have an established fan base. The same holds true for editors and the personal essay.
An understanding of the genre. Don’t confuse “autobiography” with “memoir.” Both are first-person accounts of the author’s life. An autobiography, however, is a chronological and often very detailed version of an entire existence from childhood to present. This differs from a memoir and personal essay, both of which typically cover a specific event or events and the author’s memories that surround them. Also, autobiographies are usually reserved for the famous. Not many will be interested in the life of Joe Schmo. (Sorry, Joe.)
And the most important difference between a memoir and an autobiography: A memoir places greater emphasis on emotion.
A great hook. Why should anyone read your story? What makes your story different and worth reading? You grew up on a farm? So did lots of people. But if you grew up on a farm and came up with the idea for the very first corn maze—there’s your hook. Once you have your hook, you need to make readers care about you and your story.
A universal appeal. The subject of your essay or memoir should appeal to a majority of readers. In order for this to happen, you have to make it common (which will render it relatable) while also making it exclusive (which will separate it from others on the same topic). This technique is called defamiliarization: taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar.
A clear focus. A random collection of journal entries or letters is not going to win over editors or agents. These things may be necessary in your research, but unless you are already famous or maybe even infamous, you will not easily gain an eager audience with them. (See poor Joe Schmo, above.) If your submission is nothing but back-to-back vignettes, the manuscript might lack a narrative arc. If there’s no question to keep the reader turning pages, there’s no real story. This ties directly into developing a strong hook.
A basis in fact. Memoirs and personal essays should be based on true events. If you’ve enhanced your true-life story (other than just changing names to protect people’s privacy), you may want to market it as fiction. Be sure to label your story correctly as fiction, creative nonfiction, a memoir, or a novel. Readers do not like being fooled. To lead them astray might be detrimental to your writing career and your fan base, because they put their trust in the legitimacy of your story.
Question: How do you feel about confessing your secrets to the world?