Whether writing an autobiography yourself or helping someone else
write one, the steps here offer a practical way to begin, with a
particular focus on narrative structure.
sentences in the paragraphs below provide enough information to proceed.
The rest of the paragraph elaborates on how to accomplish each step.
If you're not ready for elaboration, don't
worry. Do what you can. When writing an autobiography, as when writing
anything else, it's good to begin simply and add details as they come to
you. If you go easy on yourself, you'll
recount more memories each time you sit down to write.
Writing an Autobiography
Before writing an autobiography, read a variety of autobiographies published by mainstream publishers. These books have been shaped and polished by professional editors, and
it is possible to learn much from them.
If you have a sense of how others have successfully presented their
stories, writing an autobiography yourself will be easier. Find a style
you like, and notice the life events other
authors include, the
order in which they present the facts, the level of detail they provide,
and the length of each tidbit, scene, or chapter.
An important step in writing an autobiography is choosing the focal point or theme, discussed in detail on the page about learning
how to write an autobiography. If you succeed with this step, your story will have the dramatic thrust
that hooks readers and keeps them reading.
Was your aim to succeed as a businessperson? To be the best parent
you could be? To amass wealth? To become a musician? To find love or
security? Whatever your goal, think of it as the
unifying thread that drives your life, shows the failures and
complications you overcame, and demonstrates how you ultimately achieved
some form of success as the person you are today.
If you can complete this part of writing an autobiography, your
story will not be vaguely "about you." It will instead be about the
yearning that shaped your
life. Which book would you rather read, one about Helen Keller or one about how Helen Keller became the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree?
Create an outline of the key obstacles in your life. This
can be a simple list that names the key moments in your story, with a
focus on the challenges you've faced and your
response to them. Obstacles interest readers more than a catalogue of
happiness and success, however tempted you are to remain always
This is not to say that you should ignore the happy moments, only
that the main story thread will be more interesting if it's supported by
your movement toward a goal and the
difficulties encountered as you attempted to achieve it. This dramatic
movement is crucial to any story and particularly useful when writing an
Once you have your initial list, elaborate on each key event in your outline. If you're using the autobiography outline,
fill in the blanks, and then write anything you remember about that
point, a little or a lot, whatever springs to mind. Later, you might
choose a single event that best illustrates each
point in the outline and describe the event, using your theme statement
to guide your description.
For example, let's say you wrote, "From the age of ten, I knew I
would become a concert pianist." What specific event triggered this
determination? Can you describe that one event in a
paragraph or two, using all the senses available to you—sight, sound,
taste, touch, and smell? Using all five senses will help readers imagine
the moment as if they were present with you.
This vicarious act of reliving events arouses more emotion in readers
than simple summary, and if you can master it, you are well on your way
to writing an autobiography!
Sensory description: The narrow plank felt warm and smooth
beneath my bare feet. I ran its length in three strides, arms extended
out from my sides for balance. At the end I
took a weightless leap into eighteen inches of space. I caught a
barely-there flash of metal just before I landed hard, all my weight on
my front foot. Then pain like a red-hot poker jammed
through my arch, and the gleaming tip of a three-inch nail emerged
through the top of my foot.
Summary:That day, I jumped on a board with a nail in it and it went through my foot.
Either way, this jump is disturbing, but the sensory description likely
caused you to cringe more than the summary. And doesn't some part of you
want to know what happened next? Who came to help?
How quickly did the person reach a doctor? If all had turned out well in the
jump, you would not have the same compulsion to read on.
If you can't
think of any details, write a line of summary and
return to fill in the details later, as you remember them. If you remain
relaxed about it, you will remember. If you don't, you don't. Writing an
autobiography isn't a walk in the park, but it should be
Train yourself to use concrete details rather than abstract concepts.
Take another leisurely look at what you've written. Highlight abstract
phrases such as "I was afraid,"
or "we had a pleasant time." Replace these abstract words or phrases
with something concrete, such as "my hands shook and my mouth felt
stuffed with cotton" or "We drank Chardonnay
on the Chatterley's sailboat, and as the sun set Rachel and I walked
hand in hand along the boardwalk." Was it "a hot day," or was the
asphalt so hot that your flip flops stuck to the tar?
You might go back to the professional autobiographies you're reading and
type out a few passages from the books for practice. If you're watching
for them, the act of copying out details will focus your attention
on the concrete.
Most ordinary readers won't think about whether or not
you've used abstract or concrete descriptions. They will only know whether the
writing is boring or interesting. Writing an
autobiography with concrete specificity will only improve it.
Review your outline again and imagine that is is a web becoming ever more intricate. Every spider web begins with a single supporting thread that anchors all others. Then the
spider lays key connecting threads, to which it attaches many, many smaller lines. Watch an animated video of a web being
built. Your initial scenes of obstacles and failure make up the supporting threads to which all others in your story web connect.
What else happened after each of these main events? What was
important to you at this time? Did you have any special friends? A pet? A
romantic partner? A spouse?
What specific event
will best show the relationship you had with this person or animal? Was
the best friend who helped you through a difficult time a kind and
gentle soul? What single act of kindness most stands
out when you think of this person? Write about that. What actions and
dialogue can you relate in concrete detail to help readers understand
that relationship and its importance?
Do you remember any other challenges you had to overcome that
relate to each main point in the story? Did you move? Were you ill? Did
anyone close to you die? Did any of these people or
events affect the choices you made during that stage of your life? Do
you remember any amusing or embarrassing incidents related to this
success or failure? What high points and low points
do you recall? Was a specific holiday or celebration memorable? A
specific meal or car ride?
Organize what you've written according to cause and effect and action and reaction.
Ordering events according to cause and effect is a natural process.
Your car broke down, so
you called a tow truck. That's cause and effect. You received a
promotion, so you bought a house. Action/reaction happens paragraph by
paragraph. He said "No," so you said
"Why?" That's action/reaction. She set a wet glass on the table, so you
placed a coaster under it, and remembered how your mother used to
crochet pretty little coasters and starch them.
I grabbed a book at random from my bookshelf and let it fall open. This is the action/reaction sequence I saw first:
ACTION: 'I'm a wheel moving along the ground,' she said,
making a playful flamboyant gesture ...When she was slightly drunk she
spoke in a singsong voice that was both childlike and
REACTION: Monica said sharply, 'And the rest of us aren't, in your opinion?'
ACTION: 'The rest of you aren't required to be,' Sheila said.
REACTION: Monica felt at this moment the woman's sense of her
natural superiority, as casually revealed as if she had tossed a coin on
the table between them. But she had no reply, no declaration
of her own — she sat mute, staring. (Joyce Carol Oates. Solstice, 1985.)
These two sets illustrate how you should show the entire action
and then show the entire reaction. Don't mix the two
together in one paragraph. Write your entire book in this way — action
and reaction, one complete set after another. If one part of the set is
will sense an awkwardness. If you're writing an autobiography, or
anything else, action/reaction sequences will make your writing lively
natural. As you expand your ideas, write in action/reaction pairs.
This one-two approach provides balance. Your chances of writing
an autobiography that easily engages readers is greatly increased when
you systematically alternate
between an external action that motivates action, and an internal or
external reaction to that action.
Allow time each day to read through your work and tighten it. Read what you wrote aloud to better notice repetition and awkward and unnecessary phrasing that can be edited out.
In the early stages of your writing, you might aim to reduce each paragraph by 50%, without losing any important information.
Example: I have reduced the word count in the two preceding
sentences from 40 words to 20 with this edit: Read your writing aloud to
better notice awkwardness, repetition, and
unimportant information. Initially, aim to reduce each paragraph by 50%.
Removing words is a frightening prospect for the writer trying to
build up pages, but better a slim, concise volume than a long, wordy
If the project becomes too much for you at any point, remember that writing an autobiography takes time.
Take the pressure off. Relax.
This is your autobiography. You can make it as brief or as complete as
you like, but don't expect to write it quickly. It may take years. If
you want to finish fast, you might try one of the numerous autobiography software packages available online.
If you prefer a human to encourage and help you, contact me. I have a
special rate for individuals working on an autobiography or memory