How long should a memoir be?
That’s the million-dollar question. It must be. Someone asks a variation of it at least once a week in a Facebook memoir group I’m in. I hate to see this question; the only thing I hate more are the most common answers:
As long as it needs to be.
As many words as it takes.
Long enough to tell your story.
I honestly believe these answers are not meant to be flippant; I think they’re meant as kind, encouraging advice. But these answers are not only unhelpful, they are misleading.
As a book editor who has chosen to specialize in memoir, I always try to interject guidance into the conversation by giving a specific word-count range that is in line with publishing industry standards. I often include a link to such information. Then, the disagreements start.
Poo industry standards, they might say (or something along those lines). No one should tell you how many words your own story should be. Well, that’s true if you do not intend to publish in any form ever or if you don’t care whether your memoir sells after it is published. If those two circumstances do not apply to you, read on.
What is the Recommended Length of a Memoir?
Like any subject, thanks to Google, you can find any answer to any question that suits your needs. When I asked the question “How long should a memoir be?” in a Google search, it produced more than 89,800,000 results. Are they all the same answer? Of course not. But if you go with the credible results—publishing houses, indie publishers, memoir authors, editor and writer associations, book coaches, and agents—a common answer emerges: approximately 80,000 words. Or as few as 60,000 and as many as 100,000. There are outliers, of course, like 40,000 to 140,000. But 60K to 100K is the acceptable range. I always tell people that about 80,000 words, give or take 10,000, is a good target.
In an utterly unscientific survey conducted by me over the course of about four minutes, I found that, remarkably, several fairly recent bestselling memoirs (all by politicians or celebrities of one kind or another) contained 352 pages. That must be some kind of magic industry number. In any event, at 250 words per page (another industry standard), that comes to 88,000 words. Now if, let’s just say, Will Smith can write an 88,000-word memoir, I think you and I should be able to.
Why Does an Acceptable Length Matter?
As I said earlier, you can write a 250,000-word memoir if you feel you need to. Some folks in that Facebook group have written that many and are still writing. You can produce a 10-pound tome if it brings you satisfaction or catharsis. But these are the questions to ask yourself if you intend to publish (self-, hybrid, or traditional):
Who will want to read this long memoir about me? (Spoiler alert: very few people.)
How much will it cost to self-publish? (Spoiler alert: a lot.)
How much will I need to charge for it to recoup my expenses and make a profit? (Spoiler alert: a whole lot.)
Will a hybrid or traditional publisher want it at this length? (Spoiler alert: no.)
But, let’s pretend. . . How much would it cost a hybrid publisher to print it and what will they need to charge for it to recoup their expenses and make a profit for them and me? (Spoiler alert: way, way too much.)
Working with a Publisher
I am a manuscript assessor for a hybrid publisher in Texas. I read nonfiction and creative nonfiction manuscripts and write detailed reports about their pros and cons, including whether the word count is too slight or too extensive for the topic and genre. If either is the case, I then recommend that an editor work with the author to either bulk up the material or cut text to bring the manuscript to within industry standards for the genre. If I were to read a memoir that is 150,000 words in length, I would recommend a substantive edit, in which an editor works with the author to narrow the focus of the memoir and delete material that is not relevant to the specified theme.
It doesn’t matter how perfect or brilliant each word is—that is not a length for a memoir that will be marketable. Period.
Memoir is NOT Autobiography
I can’t stand another discussion about the difference between memoir and autobiography without wanting to regurgitate. Please don’t present me with the Oxford English Dictionary definition of memoir. The dictionary definition is not how memoir is defined by twenty-first century publishers. If you want to write an autobiography—or a family history— feel free, but don’t call it a memoir. A publisher will not consider it a memoir. I quoted Marion Roach Smith in my May 2020 blog post “How to Choose a Memoir Theme":
A memoir is not about you. It’s about something and you are its illustration.
A memoir is a story about something you know after something you’ve been through.
Dear folks, that is the definition of memoir from a publishing point of view. A memoir is a story from a life, not the story of a life.
Don't Ramble: A Theme Will Keep You Focused
And as I’ve discussed in my blog several times, the best way—maybe the only way—to stay focused is to have a clearly defined theme. In my blog post “Writing Memoir: Avoid These Common Mistakes,” I chose this as Memoir Writing Mistake #1: Trying to cover too much. I know from working as a writing coach and as a memoir editor, if you just start writing a memoir without a theme, it’s like going on a cross-country trip without an itinerary or GPS.
What is a theme? It’s a one- or two-sentence answer to the question, “What is your memoir about?” Yes, one or two sentences. That’s it. To understand this better, read “How to Choose a Memoir Theme.”
In addition, you should know who you’re writing for and what you hope they will learn from reading your memoir. Again, if you can’t pinpoint your audience and the reason you are writing a memoir, you will meander and overwrite, which will make for an unsatisfying, pointless read.
Memoir is not the same as autobiography.
A memoir theme is a one- or two-sentence answer to the question, “What’s it about?”
Decide who your memoir audience is. Keep them in mind while you write.
What’s the takeaway? What will your readers have learned when they’ve finished your book?