Part of me fears that this is the last thing I should be doing: encouraging people to write their own memoirs. After all, this is what I do! Isn’t this rather like a magician telling people how a trick is done and exploding any sense of wonder and magic?

Well, perhaps. But lots of people want to write their life story – sometimes for publication and a wide audience, more often as a lasting legacy only ever intended for a much smaller circle of family and friends. This way, so much more of a life can be conveyed – both of personality and events – than is conveyed in dry genealogical surveys. It matters to the individuals concerned, and it matters too to their relatives.

It used to be the case that publishing companies (still, curiously, known as ‘houses’) had almost a monopoly upon printing and binding books in a ‘professional’ manner. Not many people hand-wrote or typed their memoirs, even for a tiny, familial audience. Both my grandfathers tried. Both, though – well into their 80s – found the enterprise laborious and didn’t get very far. These days this is much less likely to be the case. Personal computers make the writing process much easier. It is also much simpler to have a book attractively printed and bound, in as many copies as are desired. It is straightforward too, in order to reach a wider audience, to ‘self-publish’.

Assistance, critically, is easy to obtain – at least for anyone willing to pay the relatively small sums involved. Services like editing, or marketing, which used to be (and still are) provided ‘in house’ by publishing companies can also be secured independently. The benefit of marketing obviously depends upon the audience that one hopes to reach. None, clearly, is needed in order to persuade close friends or family to take a look. Editing, though, I would recommend wholeheartedly.

It is pretty much essential to have one’s text read, commented upon, and often reshaped, by somebody neutral – somebody whose expertise and experience is in doing precisely this. By the time you have read a text umpteen times, you become, perhaps for no good reason, wedded to a structure. Everything in it seems essential. You become blind to alternatives. It needs an unbiased eye to urge you to organise material differently. The editor does need to be somebody whose judgement you trust and respect. But this being the case, it is an enormously valuable process.

Publishers usually also use a separate ‘copy editor’ to pick up the small (but important) stuff – typographical or grammatical mistakes: spelling, punctuation and so forth. These things might seem trivial but they certainly infuriate a reader when they are at all frequent, and they can undermine a text. How can you trust an author’s memory, or judgement, when they talk of their ‘acheivements’? Again, it is surprisingly hard to check your own text: I like to think that I’m pretty quick to spot mistakes but know from experience how seemingly glaring errors can slip through unnoticed before being (fortunately) drawn to my attention. ‘Spell check’ software is certainly useful, but it is not fail safe. Did you mean ‘be’ or ‘bee’? It depends on the context of course.

When I offer writing help, it is based upon extensive interviews – and so on the words and feelings of the person concerned. Part of the art of being a ghost-writer is that the document has to sound like whoever’s name is on the front cover. Friends and family in particular need to recognise a voice, and the same goes for anyone who is at all known to the reader because they are in the public eye. The art of ghost-writing is to allow personality to remain while also writing well – in a manner that is a pleasure to read.

Perhaps this is why I’m relaxed about proffering advice. I recall one literary agent saying to me that writing well was impossible to teach. It is not the same thing as being able to speak fluently and persuasively in public. The ability to speak well impromptu is particularly different. For a writer like me it is always the text which comes first: I write the text and then I boil it down to note form or attempt to commit it to memory. Good speakers do no such thing and I will never be one.

It is perfectly possible to be both. Many barristers are. But the skills do not necessarily go together. Most important for a private memoir is not so much the ability to write well as the ability to write easily, at length, and with a good recall of interesting detail. These, to be sure, are skills which are much more common among barristers, and which have been honed by a lifetime of practice, even if they do get harder with age. In this respect, barristers are no different to other human beings.

The only sensible advice I can offer is to try. Don’t wait too long: I am afraid to say that it only gets harder in your 90s by comparison with your 70s. Write little and often – you will be amazed how quickly the text accumulates. And do, when you have a decent amount of material, ask someone disinterested – someone with some knowledge and experience and who will give you an honest appraisal – to read it. The benefits are immense.