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“I’m looking for books that are both completely unique and exactly the same,” an editor from one of the Big 5 publishers said on a podcast. And then she laughed.

I laughed too.

But now I’ve come to believe that the intersection of “completely unique” and “exactly the same” IS the key to writing an effective memoir.

What did the editor mean by “Exactly the Same?”

#1: Your memoir should fit a recognizable category

Agents, editors, and publishers like to put books in categories, in boxes. That’s how they know whether they can sell them or not, whether there are readers for those books.

Here are some common categories for memoir:

Cancer journeys. Addiction. Abuse. Trauma. Grief. Travel. Food. Coming of age. Coming out. Spiritual journeys.

When there isn’t a clear category for your memoir, it makes it more difficult to sell.

#2: It must also communicate a universal message

Your memoir can’t just be about the things that happened to you.

Less experienced writers’ manuscripts often read like this: And then this thing happened. And then this happened. And then this … 

Which turns into a deadly recitation of facts that no one really cares about unless you make meaning out of them. I point this out to my book coaching clients constantly.

Wild isn’t just about a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s about picking up the pieces after a tremendous loss and finding yourself again.

Making Toast isn’t just about grandparents taking care of their grandkids after their daughter dies unexpectedly. It’s about the human capacity to move through and live with grief.

Without a Map isn’t just about a teenager who was forced to give up her baby for adoption. It’s about coming to terms with betrayal and eventually finding compassion and redemption.

Effective memoirs are “exactly the same” in that they have a universal message that a reader will connect with.

What did the editor mean by “completely unique?”

This one’s a little easier.

#1: It’s your story.

Your story is unique. You are the only who has lived it. No one else has lived this exact story in this exact way.

If you write compelling scenes with specific details and dialogue, your story will come alive and meet the uniqueness test.

You could hike the Pacific Crest Trail by yourself and have a completely different experience and a different universal meaning from that of Cheryl Strayed. Your story would be “unique” to your experience.

Someone else could lose a daughter and have to take care of their grandchildren and their book would be very different from Making Toast. No two people experience loss and grief in exactly the same way.

#2: Your voice makes your memoir completely unique.

Your voice is your unique style, how you “sound” on the page. Voice is composed of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax—the choices you make that results in your style of writing.

Some writers’ voices are poetic. Heavy on descriptions and metaphors. Some are clean, clear, and direct.

Your voice is a critical part of what will make your memoir “completely unique.” No one else can write in your voice.

So, it turns out the Big 5 Editor was making sense.

Your memoir DOES need to be completely unique and exactly the same. You make it “completely unique” by writing scenes that bring us into the moments that only YOU have lived in a writing voice, a style, that is unique to you.

You make it “exactly the same” by being clear on where your book fits into the publishing landscape—and by going beyond the facts and sharing a universal message.

That’s the key to writing a memoir that works.