When contemplating how to write an autobiography, many people are led to assume that it’s simple. It’s just your own life story, put through the writing process. However, when writing your own autobiography, you may find that the writing process is a little more complicated than just starting with your birth and telling the story of your own life up to the present moment.
A person’s life is more than just the big events, and it’s seldom ever a solitary story. There are life lessons that need to be included. Family members and their impact on you are a part of autobiography writing as well. If you want to write an autobiography, you have to be conscious of your life story, as a tale that built the person you are, not just a string of events.
This article will help you figure out how to write an autobiography so that it’s not just the story of your own life but a personal story that others can relate to, find inspiration in, and learn from.
What is an Autobiography?
An autobiography is more than just the life story of someone. The person’s life being described is your own; therefore, it is far more personal than a novel or work of fiction. It is essential to stay truthful when recalling your own memories. The slightest deviation in honesty is a slippery slope and can quickly take you from autobiography writing to fiction writing.
How An Autobiography is Different from a Biography
A biography is the telling of someone else’s life. You choose someone, such as a family member, a friend, or a famous person, and you tell the story of his or her own life while leaving your own story out of it. A biography takes a large amount of research and expertise regarding the subject’s life story and events that they lived through. An autobiography works in the same fashion, but it’s the story of you. You are the ultimate expert in your own life. Therefore, there’s not much research to be done.
Another significant difference between autobiographical writing and biographical writing is the voice that is used. When you write an autobiography, you want to use first-person writing. You are telling the story of you. Therefore you should tell it from your own point of view.
On the other hand, biographies should always be written from a third-person point of view. Third-person is using “he, she, they, them.” You were not there, you did not witness the events you are writing about, and therefore, you should be telling the story from an outsider’s viewpoint.
How an Autobiography is Different from a Memoir
A memoir tells your own story, but not your entire life story. Often written to convey a specific message, a memoir includes snippets and anecdotes that occur throughout your entire life. Still, it’s not the detailed story of a life in its entirety. Both of these types of writing are done in the first-person point of view. First-person uses pronouns such as “I, we, and us.”
For example, if you were to write a memoir about how 9/11 affected you personally, you might write about your life the year that the attack occurred. You may even give some bits of information about your childhood, your career, or your family life from before the event. Then you would provide details and focus on 9/11 itself and what you did and were doing that day. Later, you might skip ahead and give stories from your life about how it changed you, but you wouldn’t tell the story of your entire life.
Future Tense in an Autobiography
The future tense is tricky when it comes to writing. Most autobiographies recall events that have already occurred in a step-by-step process. This process takes the reader from the beginning to another point in the not-so-distant past or right up to the present.
The end is often written in the present tense, but most of the time, the story stops there. Basic principles of tense apply if you decide to speculate or include your hopes, dreams, or fears for the future.
Tips on How to Write an Autobiography
Your own autobiography should include details that encompass your life from birth to the present. When the writing process begins, you should write in the past tense to let the readers know that the events you are writing about have already occurred.
When you get to the present day, remember to switch your tense to the present tense so that the readers understand that you are discussing where you are in your life now. Mistakes in tense usage can be fixed in the first draft revision, but it’s best to try to get yourself in the habit of switching tenses as you go from the past events to the present day when you write an autobiography.
The following are other important tips about what content to include that will help you learn how to write an engaging and well-executed autobiography.
Below are some autobiography questions that can guide you when writing about your life story:
- What has motivated you to write an autobiography?
- Who made a significant impact or influence in your life?
- Who are the people who surround you?
- What are the remarkable memories you have?
- Did anyone not support you on your journey and you proved them wrong?
- What inspires you?
- What demotivates you?
- What do you consider the best time in your life?
- What quote best depicts and summarizes your life?
- How would you describe yourself?
- What kind of family relationships do you have?
- What moments in life do you feel like you could be truly proud of yourself?
- What do you think are some of your flaws?
- What do you desire to have in the future/where would you like to be?
- What do you do to upskill, and in which field would you like to focus your energy?
- What are your set of principles and personal values?
- How have your values defined who you are today?
- What is your dream career path?
- Have you advocated for something?
- If there was one thing you wanted everyone to know about you, what would it be?
It’s essential to start by telling your readers where you’re from, when you were born, and who your family members are when you write an autobiography.
This does not mean that you need to include how long your mother was in labor (unless the story of your birth is a particularly interesting one), what the hospital room number was, how much you weighed, how long you were, and what you scored on the Apgar test. Those are details that are nice to include in your baby book, but almost no one is interested in those details but you and your mom.
What you should include is where you were born (city, state, country), a story or two about a family member who meant a lot to you when you were a child or teenager, what your educational background was like, what kind of kid you were, and what your family life was like.
Keeping it general and sticking to just a few personal stories and anecdotes is enough. If you want to know how to write an autobiography that doesn’t bore the reader to tears or sleep within the first few pages, keep the details specific to significant events in your childhood, and keep the more drab and general stories to yourself.
Write About Hardship or Failure
While it may not be the most glamorous of life events you have experienced, writing about hard times, failure, and times of struggle help the reader relate to you, feel empathy and care about the story of your life.
Making your life seem perfect simply because writing about something that didn’t work out, hurt you, or made you unpopular because you see it as embarrassing will only hurt you in the long run because the reader will not be engaged.
When you go back and read your first draft, ask yourself if what you have written will touch anyone who has struggled similarly to you. If not, go back and rewrite it to include at least a few stories of hard times.
Come Up with a Catchy and Compelling Title
Autobiographical writing doesn’t have to be boring, and neither should your title. Steer clear of titles such as; Jane Doe: An Autobiography. Unless you’re famous, you’re not compelling anyone to pick it up and read it. Equally boring is; Jane Doe: The Story of my Life.
Try to come up with something catchy and engaging when you come up with the title. Readers are more likely to read an autobiography written by someone with a witty or smart title than someone who didn’t have the writing skills or creativity to create something more original.
Instead, try for something like; A Beautiful Disaster: The Story of Jane Doe. This title denotes that you don’t take yourself too seriously, but you respect and love yourself while admitting that your life can sometimes be a mess.
You don’t even need to have your name in your title if you have a catchy title. Take this example into consideration; Hot Mess Express: The Story of One Tired Mom. This sort of title is fun, funny, and will catch the attention of mothers, especially those with young children.
When considering how to write an autobiography, keep in mind that significant events in your life should always be included. When you write an autobiography, you are looking for points in your personal story that impacted you and helped to shape you into the person that you are now.
Maybe that was a move across the country, the death of someone close to you, finding love, or your first kiss. Perhaps it was being the first person in your family to go to college, starting your own business, or the birth of your first child.
Be sure to include the less wonderful but still significant events in your life, as well. Things like your first heartbreak, divorce, the loss of a job, poverty you experienced, or trauma that compelled you to rise above your station and seek help to gain self-improvement or lessons learned from these experiences.
Have a Central Idea
What is the most important thing you want to say to the reader with this story? Is it that you started out with nothing and rose up to success? Is it that you had success and lost it all? Maybe it’s that love and dedication to family are more important than success in a career or climbing a social ladder.
Whatever your central idea, identify it and then figure out how you can put it in autobiography format.
The Steps Involved to Write an Autobiography
When thinking of how to write an autobiography, consider that the writing process begins in much the same way that it does with any sort of writing. You should consider following the following steps if you want to learn how to write an autobiography effectively.
Create an Autobiographical Outline
Just like any literary work, you should have an outline. After you have taken some time to reflect on what you want to include, get it written down in autobiography outline form. Include all of the parts of your life that you think you might want to incorporate, and then separate them into categories, focusing on what you think will be of medium to high interest to a reader.
What is meant by “medium to high interest” is that the events are significant enough to garner enough interest for the reader. That they will feel compelled to continue reading to see what happened to you next or how you got through an event or part of your life that you describe.
Do Your Homework
Just because you know what happened to you, and you have the general information and experiences from things like your childhood, it doesn’t mean that you have the knowledge to write it well.
If you don’t know how to describe the setting, society in the era you’re writing about, and the culture, it will seem that you don’t know how to write an autobiography, and readers will start to lose interest.
Look into things like the area you grew up in and what life was like in that area when you were a child. Get a family history from members of your family, such as where your family originated from, what your parents and grandparents did for a living, and any other significant information you may need that you don’t know about the people from whence you came.
Complete the First Draft
Your first draft may not be very clean, and it will most likely have things in it that need to be cut out. You may get too wordy talking about specific periods of your life and may not supply enough story to others. You won’t know until you get that first draft under your belt.
Once you complete this draft, take some time off and let the work sit. Taking a break before revisiting puts distance between yourself and your story, and you’re far more likely to be able to come at the revision process in an open-minded matter once you have that distance.
Revise and Rewrite
As with any writing that you do, whether it’s an autobiography, novel, personal essay, research paper, or news article, you have to revise your work. Proofread, fix simple and obvious mistakes, and add to the things that need more description while cutting out the unnecessary parts.
Once you have fixed grammar mistakes and taken the story from what looks like a personal diary to a narrative account of your life experiences, you can start writing the next draft. Make sure to determine your desired writing style before you rewrite, and make sure that the content matches that style.
How to Properly Structure an Autobiography
Whether you’re writing a full-length book or an autobiographical essay, you still have to have structure to your writing. While an autobiographical essay is shorter, the structure is much the same. The following are some tips that will help you figure out how to write an autobiography format that works well.
Write in Chronological Order
While it’s perfectly fine for a novel to have a timeline that skips and jumps around, the best way to tell a good story of your own experiences and personal memories is to do so in chronological order or the order in which things happened.
The very beginning of your autobiography should cover your birth, then childhood, then education, then young adulthood, on up to the present moment. This creates a timeline of each significant personal experience that is easy to follow and doesn’t confuse the reader.
Don’t Fictionalize Names or Places
Professional writers of fiction often create characters based on people they know or even themselves. They give these characters fake names and personas and rename towns and businesses so as not to make the writing too personal. All the details of the real people may be present, but when you write fiction, you have the freedom to change things.
An autobiography covers actual events, so the writing needs to be honest. If you grew up in Toledo, Ohio, say that. Don’t make up the name of a town. If you grew up with a mother named Tess, say that. Don’t give her a fake name. Being truthful about your family and your life is essential. You’re not the only character in this story, and it’s unfair and not suitable to misrepresent a setting or person in your life.
Add Family Photos or Other Personal Touches
The most compelling television episodes are the ones in which there is a strong story and a strong visual to accompany it. You can create an effect very close to this by including photos, artwork, letters shared by people close to you, and more. Just be sure that you ask for and are granted permission before you do this, especially if the photos are used to identify weak moments in your life for any reason.
Be Thorough in Describing Pivotal Moments
Significant moments in life that occur, such as academic achievements, turning points, and the things that build up to a story arc for you, need to be built up in a way that creates both interest and intrigue for your reader. Include details like how negative experiences shaped your understanding or outlook on things or how you learned to be completely free of stress because of how stressful and frantic your life used to be.
These things make up the critical elements in what amounts to a full life. And being completely transparent and thorough in the telling of it gives the reader the freshest possible perspective, especially if you acknowledge as the writer that you are reflecting upon the story you’re telling, as you tell it.
The Final Draft When Writing an Autobiography
So you’ve completed all of the steps mentioned above, and you’ve worked out your outline, title, and other details that seem small but are incredibly important. Now it’s time to write the final draft so that your favorite story, the story of you, can become someone else’s favorite story.
The Last Revision
Once you have completed that final draft, you still need to go back and ensure that everything you wanted and needed to include is present and accounted for. Clarity is sometimes an issue when a person is trying to figure out how to write an autobiography. Try reading your story aloud, and if it makes sense to someone else or even to you as you read it with your own voice, then it’s probably thorough enough.
Make Sure the Title Agrees with the Content
The last thing you want is a misleading title. Make sure that the title goes along with your autobiography’s overall tone and message.
For example, if you wrote a sad story about heartache and loss of hope, don’t title your story: Little Miss Sunshine: The Story of One Woman from the Midwest. Be sure that the mood, message, and tone align with the title you have decided on. If they don’t fit, it’s much easier to change the title than the mood and tone of the story.
Below we have outlined the format that you can utilize when writing an autobiography:
- Title – It should reflect what your life story conveys or what it is like to be you.
- Dedication – This section states whom you would like to dedicate your autobiography.
- Table of Contents – It helps your readers to locate specific parts of your autobiography.
- Acknowledgments – This is where you express your gratitude to the people who have helped you on your journey.
- Foreword – It highlights the purpose of the autobiography.
- Introduction – This provides a glimpse of who you are as the author, and if this is effective, the reader will continue reading your book.
- Body Section – This is where the events in your life are chronologically narrated, along with all the necessary details. It can contain many headings and subheadings.
- Conclusion – This is where you share all your revelations and successes, while also referencing your own personal experiences.
- Memorabilia – You may include significant pictures or any other objects that have impacted your life.
- Index – It helps the reader browse through your autobiography by using main keywords or concept words.