Writing an Autobiography - 9 Simple Steps

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.

The topic 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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 positive.

    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 autobiography.

  4. 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.

    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 enjoyable.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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. That's action/reaction.

    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 belligerent.

    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 missing, readers will sense an awkwardness. If you're writing an autobiography, or anything else, action/reaction sequences will make your writing lively and 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.

  8. 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.

    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 one.

  9. 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 book.

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