What Good Memoir Can Teach You About Good Copywriting

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What does David Sedaris know about writing that most of us don’t?

What can Anne Lamott do that your traditional copywriter can’t?

How about entertain and engage an audience, then lead them to action? How about telling stories that captivate and convert readers into advocates?

Wait a second …

Are we talking about memoir writing — or copywriting?

Exactly.

After recently finishing writing a memoir, I realized how much copywriting had prepared me for writing narrative nonfiction. Turns out, the two have more in common than I thought.

Maybe you, like me, had the relationship between a literary tradition like memoir and copywriting all wrong.

If you’ve been around Copyblogger for a bit, you know there’s much more to writing good copy than bullet points and bolded words. In the end, good copywriting looks a lot like plain, old good writing, and vice versa.

So here are three keys to writing great memoir — and good copy:

1. Tell an interesting story

Just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.
~ Marion Roach Smith

Everyone loves a good story. And everyone hates one that drags on. But rarely does a bad storyteller know he’s boring his audience to death.

So what do you do? How do you craft a gripping narrative that makes a difference?

Simple.

First, write the story. Then ruthlessly cut every detail and piece of dialogue that doesn’t drive the narrative. And then retell the story — Hemingway style — with only the bare essentials.

If it still holds together, you’ve got something good. Something strong. Something worth sharing.

2. Write what’s deep inside

If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.
~Anne Lamott

Good memoir isn’t about what happened. It’s about a theme, something bigger than the subject and context.

In other words, your story about growing up in the 1960s with an alcoholic father is merely the setting for the tale you are about to tell. The story itself is about redemption or forgiveness or learning how to survive in impossible circumstances.

But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking your brand, your idea, your message is about the product it represents or the person telling it. That’s merely the excuse for sharing the Big Idea, the thing that will connect with the reader’s heart.

A good theme is universal, something anyone anywhere can relate to. It’s your duty as the writer to connect the audience to the theme. If all you do is tell a good story, then you haven’t done your job.

3. Don’t make yourself the hero (but don’t make us hate you, either)

Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.
~ Blake Snyder

There is a counter-intuitive trick that most great comedians use to win over their audience. It’s a simple, but effective strategy for getting you to love them. And it works every time.

What is it?

Embarrassing themselves. They must do or say something stupid and expose it for all to hear. This is how they get you to like them. Self-deprecation just works.

What happens when you mess up and don’t try to hide it? We start to believe you. Because you’re human, just like us — warts and all. And if you are going to be honest about your shortcomings, then maybe we can trust you.

What does this mean for you? It means when you sit down to write that next ad or blog post or newsletter, you need to look for some weakness of yours you can expose.

Show your scars and see how it opens up conversations that weren’t there before. Then leverage that trust to communicate something deeper, something important that your audience needs to hear. And look for ways to make your readers — not you — the hero.

But be careful … Because before you know it, you’re no longer “just a copywriter.” You’re now writing memoir.

About the Author: Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville with his family. He is the author of The In-Between, a short memoir about the importance that waiting plays in our lives. You can find him online at his award-winning blog, Goins, Writer or on Twitter @JeffGoins.

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  1. Hi, great post! Humans have been telling stories since the beginning and every story in some way is autobiographical. I think writing a memoir of some sort at a point in your life is extremely valuable. I did it myself recently and it has definitely helped and re-invigorated all forms of my writing :)

  2. Hey Jeff,

    [Write what’s deep inside] stuck a cord with me, because I feel like sharing your personal experience and connecting that with your audience is one way to get them to trust you, maybe the only honest relationship building tool available…

    Anyway….

    I love Hemingway storytelling style, I doubt though that he was born a genius, but worked for developing his craft… we need to practice storytelling like talking, and do it over and over again, and still be miles ahead from mastering it, isn’t it?

  3. Excellent writing, Jeff. I think I’ve come to a similar conclusion about copywriting: Once you learn something about it you realizes how it applies to so many other contexts. Above all, I think copywriting is about getting a response from the reader. If you’re not able to get a response – of one form or another – from your readers, you may as well not exist as a writer.

    • Well said, Ken. I think good writing, though it is written solely for an audience, must be evocative. Although you’re not just trying to get a reaction, if it’s good, you most definitely will. Kind of paradoxical when you think about it.

  4. Great post! Vulnerability works. Ever since I’ve shown more of my scars, conversation has started. Really like what you said about the duty of a writer is not just telling a good story, but connecting them to that universal theme.

  5. You’ve done it again, Jeff–captured the essence of memoir writing in your trademark concise, meaningful way. “Write what’s deep, expose your humanness” so as to make yourself believable, it’s not events , it’s the meaning these events have that make readers want to connect and find their own story through your story. Wow! I’m sharing this all over. It is a gem. And I’m ordering your memoir! Thank you.

  6. Wow, Jeff. I found this post due to Kathy’s sharing it on the National Association of Memoir Writers FB page. It comes at a most opportune moment because I am getting ready to do a whole webinar with NAMW this Thursday on your second point (from particular to universal) and my book title is Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. So your third point about embarrassment is absolutely profound for me.

    What I love about this post is how it exemplifies its own advice: strip down the story to its essence. Maybe I should have been a copy writer in my past, but I am so glad that I have you as a model in the present, Jeff.

    Grateful for you and this outstanding post. And grateful to Kathy Pooler, above, for sharing it.

  7. Hi Jeff,

    Love this and the fact that you’ve highlighted comedians. I think comics are the best public speakers and storytellers out there.

    The best comedians ever? They were master-storytellers: Just look at old clips of Pryor, Carlin, Cosby.

    Pryor was the grand master of going deep by exposing his vulnerabilities. It’s how he made people love him.

    Cosby was probably the best at just telling a story and turning it into the funniest thing you had ever heard.

    Carlin’s gift was social commentary. Plus he could take the seemingly mundane and put bits and pieces together to tell an amazing story.

    They all used the above elements in their own way: 1. told stories, 2. went deep, and 3. let it all hang out :)

    • Totally agree, Craig. I was just listening to Bill Cosby the other day and thought, “Man, he really is a great storyteller.” One of the best and much more than a mere joke-teller.

  8. Incredibly helpful pos Jeff. I’ve been grappling with how to effectively use memoir in a project I’m working on. I’m starting a podcast but it’s not going to follow the typical interview format. Basically, I’m planning on using my podcast to tell stories. I feel comfortable telling these stories and I also feel comfortable writing about entrepreneurship, but I haven’t woven the two together yet. That’s my challenge.

    When I was in the 5th grade I lived in a small town (155 people) in Eastern Oregon. I started a business selling homemade chocolate chip cookies to Jo, the owner of the only store in town. With that money I purchased a lawnmower and started a lawn care business. Later in life I hitchhiked across the U.S. with $0.76 in my pocket (LOTS of stories there), lived in Peru for a couple years, and was a railroad conductor. After working in sales for several years, I’ve recently returned to entrepreneurship. The podcast will be The Hobo Entrepreneur.

    My main concern is that I’ll end up making it all about me and that people will be turned off by the “hey look at me” tone of it all. Any tips on how to keep that balanced? I want it to help others. I don’t want it to just function as an ego-trip. But those are the stories people keep wanting to hear. And thought this could be a fun, unique way to tell them.

  9. WOW, stunning post, Jeff! Thanks to Kathleen Pooler I didn’t miss this one. You’ve captured the true spirit of memoir writing — share your story but don’t bore us with the unnecessary details and the minutiae of your life. Find its core and telling your story will be easy. Find what give your story meaning and a solid conclusion. You are a born leader standing among us!

  10. Wow. Good stuff! I think that writing about weaknesses we have can be so hard but so rewarding. People need to know that the author is real, and everyone has flaws. Exposing your own allows your audience to connect with you.

  11. Nice post, Jeff. I particularly like the part about cutting everything that doesn’t drive the story, which is often a difficult thing to do.

  12. “What happens when you mess up and don’t try to hide it? We start to believe you. Because you’re human, just like us — warts and all. And if you are going to be honest about your shortcomings, then maybe we can trust you.”

    I think I qualify to be trusted then. “Sweet Grace: How I Lost 250 Pounds and Stopped Trying to Earn God’s Favor” tells it like it is. It’s pretty hard to hide what was out there for everyone to see.

  13. Thanks for this Jeff.

    I love the part about making it about your readers. Letting them be the hero, not me.

    People get bored very quickly with someone who talks about themselves all the time anyway.

    Your writing is refreshing. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Jeff! The scars of the past use to haunted me before I came across your blog. Since Life In Between I see the scars as traces off living life. We the reader is in the adventure they to share in the scars.

    You are able define and ignight continuously in deed and word.

    Thank you Jeff. Michael

  15. Thanks for this excellent post – spot on. Completely agree that great storytelling presents a reader with a greater theme. Ego says “Everyone wants to learn about my life.” Those kind of writers can draw a big audience, but it’s all revolving around their own persona. Humility uses our experiences to point to something bigger, grander, greater.

    Thanks for the inspiration, and plan to forward this to several friends!

  16. I liked this post! Thanks for writing it.

    Memoir and copywriting are like to peas in a pod. :) You must write a compelling story that *sucks* people in and doesn’t let them go. It doesn’t matter if it’s a memoir, blog post, or article. Hook people, and they’ll be hooked on you and your company.

  17. I love this because I’ve got a lot to work with in terms of embarrassing myself. Great post.

  18. I wish I read this 9 months ago! Great article! My daughter Joy was born at 23 weeks last year. Due to modern medicine and prayers she is doing great today. I hemorrhaged at 17 weeks for the first of 4 times because of 100% placenta previa, which turned into placenta accreta. After she came home from 121 days in the NICU, I wrote a memoir called “From Hope To Joy” about my life-threatening pregnancy and my daughter’s 4 months in the NICU (with my 3 young sons at home), which is now available on Amazon. It was quite a roller coaster. My goal of writing our memoir is to give a realistic look at what lies ahead to families with preemies in the NICU while showing them that hope can turn into Joy and that miracles can happen. Please see my website http://www.micropreemie.net and look up my book on Amazon. Thank you.

  19. Sheetal Sharma :

    Story telling is one of the most favorite and impact full way to put your point across the table. This point is well emphasized in this post and moreover how to make the flow of the story is also something equally important explained here.

  20. Excellent article, Jeff! Since I do so much copywriting, I often forget the beauty of it, like a memoir.

    When I saw your book was about waiting it reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Place You’ll Go” where he talks about the waiting room. Can’t wait to read it!

  21. Like what you mentioned about tell your compelling story and show your fears. It’s true that people want to see how you mess up but got back and on your grind with much power.
    Thanks for the share.

  22. Nice! The article got me thinking a lot about memoirs and what I can learn from it about copywriting. I kind of was lost so I just read the article and it sure helped me dig treasures. I particularly like the second tip- about writing what is deep inside.

    Well-written, I must say. :)

  23. Jeff, this has been on my “to read” list since you posted it. I’m most encouraged by your three points and will keep them in mind as I edit my memoir. Thank you!

  24. Hey Jeff!

    I Really loved reading this entry. It suddenly inspired me to write my own memoir.

    “A good theme is universal, something anyone anywhere can relate to.” – I TOTALLY AGREE!