Congratulations! You've decided to embark on the daunting task of telling your own story, through your own lens — maybe with the aim of being published, or perhaps just for the future generations of your family.
Deciding to write an autobiography is the easy part. Even though you won't need to think up an entire plot, because your life has already done that for you, putting pen to paper is likely going to be one of the hardest things you have ever done. Here's how to get started.
An autobiography is, simply said, a book the author writes about their own life. Autobiographies are written for many different reasons — to leave a legacy, to inspire, to confess, to warn others away from making the same mistakes, as a historical record, or even simply to prevent others from writing a biography about you.
Although many people think this genre of books is reserved for famous people, that is not true at all. Every person has something interesting and worthwhile to share, and everyday people can absolutely write an autobiography.
The distinguishing features of an autobiography lie in the fact that these books are:
- Almost always written in the first person.
- To the best of the author's knowledge, factual.
- An insight into the author's identity, history, and the lessons they've learned during their life.
Readers all around the world consistently love autobiographies, because they love getting up close and personal and reading about events like they were part of them. As for authors, they can enjoy a lot of creative freedom while writing an autobiography because — no matter what you may have learned in school — you are not confined to a specific format or structure. It's your story, so you make the rules.
Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir
There's some confusion as to what differentiates these three closely-related terms, so let's have a quick look. The difference between an autobiography and a biography is easy to pinpoint — a biography is a book someone else writes about your life, while an autobiography is one you write. "Auto" means "self", after all.
The differences between a memoir and an autobiography are much harder to define. Most people would say that autobiographies deal with the person's "whole life" (typically in chronological order), while memoirs highlight just one portion of it. That is not exactly true, because it is impossible to cover your entire life. You have to make artistic and editorial choices.
For now, don't worry about what to call your book, and just write. You can decide whether to call your book an autobiography or a memoir later.
How to Write an Autobiography: Step-by-Step Process
Your process will be unique, and you should always feel free to change things up. Let's have a look at a step-by-step process that will work for many people who write an autobiography, though.
You already know what your life has been like, but writing your story in a coherent and entertaining way can be hard. Start by brainstorming, using either brainstorming software or a physical space such as a cork board. To get you started, you can contemplate some of the following questions:
- If you had to pin down an overarching theme to your life, what would it be?
- Which people in your life inspired you the most? Who do you genuinely hate?
- What was the hardest thing you've ever done, which you nonetheless feel grateful for?
- What are your top regrets?
- What about your parents and wider family do you keep seeing in yourself?
- What parts of your life are shrouded in mystery? (Did your parents always used to argue with your grandparents, but you have no idea what about, for instance?)
Now that you have some questions to start off with, make more of your own — and jot down any answers that inspire you.
Even though your autobiography is the story of your life, you will definitely have research to do. Interview the people who were with you during important times of your life to assess whether your view of the past matches theirs. Fact-check anything you write, whether about your family history or your childhood address. Research the social and political climate of the time you're writing about to inspire you. Even looking up songs that were popular in a particular year can refresh your memory.
If you're quite sure of something, but cannot confirm it through research, always clarify that in your book in the spirit of honesty.
3. Create an Outline
Outline the possible chapters of your autobiography. You can do this in different ways — separate each part of your life by age, location, life stage, new job, or any other defining characteristic that makes sense. You can use outlining software like Plot Factory or Scrivener to make it easier. Once you have your chapters roughly defined, you can jot down what you think they should contain.
4. Choose a Theme
Consciously or not, every autobiography has a theme. Some of the most common ones are:
- Overcoming adversity
The possibilities are endless. What is your theme?
5. Think of Your Readers
Many people write an autobiography for themselves — often in the hope of processing the past. If you are even considering publishing your autobiography, however, it is crucial to look at yourself from a fresh perspective. Things you take for granted could be riveting to others, and things that were important to you could be boring to your readers.
Never mind your eventual audience — if your autobiography isn't interesting enough to keep reading it, you won't get it published. You won't even land a literary agent. Therefore, constantly keep the fact that you're ultimately writing for your readers in mind.
6. Create Your First Draft
This is the grindy stage of your endeavor. There will be days during which the words practically flow onto the page, and ones on which it's hard to even write a single sentence. Don't wait to be inspired. Set up some sort of routine. Work for a certain amount of time each day or week, or commit to writing a set number of words. Don't worry about the quality at this point; you'll edit and fact-check later.
7. Revise and Proofread
There's a lot to consider during this stage of writing your autobiography. As you revise, edit, and proofread your first draft, you will want to consider two separate factors. One relates to the writing, and the other to the story.
In technical terms, consider:
- The flow of your chapters.
- Whether everything that should be in your autobiography is present, and whether there are things that don't need to be there.
- Each chapter, paragraph, sentence, and even word individually.
- Is the tone consistent throughout? If it isn't, does the change make logical sense?
Other things to think about include:
- Will you offend people in your life by publishing this autobiography? Do you need to consult or at least warn them?
- Have you checked with others, or public records, that the places and events you recall in your memory are accurate?
- Are you comfortable with sharing everything you have written with (potentially) the entire world?
8. Ask for Insights
Once you have completed your first draft and edited and fact-checked it to the best of your ability, you should ask for insights from other people. You could first ask a close friend to read your autobiography, followed by more people in your inner circle. After this round of feedback is complete, you could think about working with beta readers. Online groups exist for this purpose.
9. Editing Your Autobiography
If you are planning to become a traditionally-published author, you will absolutely need to work with a professional editor. You cannot effectively edit your own autobiography from start to finish (although you should give it your best go), so don't even think about skipping this process. Today, numerous websites that connect aspiring authors with different types of editors make it easy to find the right editor for you.
10. Publishing Your Autobiography
If you want to be traditionally-published, you should begin looking for literary agents once you complete the editing stage. Research which literary agents work with autobiographies, and begin querying them. Once you land a literary agent, your agent will try to place your book with the right publisher.
Self-publishing is another option to consider, and Kindle Direct is the most popular platform for this.
What Should You Include in An Autobiography
It is ultimately entirely up to you to decide what you include in your autobiography, and what you leave out. However, your autobiography will be more engaging if you ensure that you cover all of these aspects of your life story:
- Your childhood.
- Your family history, including events that happened before you were born but that nonetheless shaped you immensely.
- Your coming of age story.
- Adversity and failures — and how you overcame them. Everyone loves rooting for their protagonist!
- Stories of the role models and mentors that helped you become who you are today.
- The people who drove you to despair.
- Confessions and secrets.
Above all, your autobiography should be deeply personal — written in your own voice, bravely and boldly. Speak your truth.
Examples of Famous Autobiographies
Writing a strong autobiography becomes less daunting once you have read some compelling autobiographies written by others. Try these:
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin — Benjamin Franklin. Not just because it offers historical insights, but because Franklin shows a wonderful example of optimism and hope, even against the odds.
- Agatha Christie: An Autobiography — Agatha Christie. This powerful autobiography shows how to intertwine the personal with the professional in a beautiful way.
- Dreams from my Father — Barack Obama. If you want to know how to look inward in a way that causes others to look outward, this is the book to read.
A Child Called It – Dave Pelzer. This autobiography offers insights into ways to tackle extremely difficult and painful subjects in a way that may change the way readers go about their lives.
How to Write an Autobiography Essay
Autobiographical essays are not only shorter that autobiographies, but they also generally serve an entirely different purpose. Students are often asked to write these essays for school, or even to gain entrance to the college of their choice.
You may not want to lay your entire self bare for an autobiographical essay, but such essays should unquestionably show enough about yourself to make your readers understand what makes you unique. That means self-reflection should be included — an autobiographical essay should not simply show you in your best light.
If you like, you can use these tips as you brainstorm:
- What was really hard for you? How did you overcome that challenge?
- How have the people in your community changed your life?
- Which injustices have you felt called to fight against?
- What are your hopes to the future, and where did they originate?
- What would you change about your life, if you had the power?
Your essay will ideally have a balance of hope and optimism, and self-reflection. It is important to show how you have grown as a person, and why you are ready for the next chapter in your life.
Tips for Writing a Great Autobiography
No matter what else it is, your autobiography should always be:
- Honest, open, and authentically you.
- As factually accurate as possible. You offer your take on the past, yes, but an autobiography is creative non-fiction and not a novel. Don't make things up. You may leave things out, but it's best not to purposely spin your autobiography to make yourself look good.
- Filled with lessons you've learned.
- Interesting to read. Otherwise you'll lose your audience quickly.
So, how should you start your autobiography? That's up to you — your opening paragraph should feel like a beginning, but within those confines, you have many different choices.
- Nelson Mandela started his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, with an anecdote about how he got his name. He sows the seeds for the turbulence he would experience throughout his life.
- Ronald Reagan started his autobiography, An American Life, at a later point in his life, by recounting how he didn't get a job he had wanted. He shows how random events can shape a person's life, as the fact that he didn't get the job put him on the path to the highest office.
- Malcolm X chose to begin his autobiography with a retelling of his mother's struggles with a group of Klansmen while she was pregnant.
- Michelle Obama starts her memoirs by sharing her simple childhood dreams.
All these beginnings have three things in common — they make an impact, they make you want to keep reading, and they set the tone for the rest of the book.
What mistakes should you avoid while you write? For starters:
- Clogging your autobiography with details that don't contribute to the overall arc. A few here and there add flavor, but too many will cause readers to lose interest.
- Writing mainly about other people's actions, rather than describing your thoughts and feelings.
- Not planning a theme in advance, which can make your autobiography look incoherent.
How can you write an autobiography about someone else?
An autobiography is by definition a book written about one's own life. Ghostwriters can help aspiring authors write their autobiographies in close cooperation with the person in question.
Should an autobiography be written in the first person?
Yes. It's your story. If you incorporate elements of fiction based on your life, you can write in the third person and market the book as a novel with autobiographical elements.
What do you need to write an autobiography?
Self-knowledge, research, perseverance, and bravery are needed to write an autobiography. A good computer and some excellent book writing software also help.
How long should an autobiography be?
In general, an autobiography is likely to be anywhere from 50,000 to 10,000 words long.
How much does it cost to write an autobiography?
This is very hard to calculate and will depend on your circumstances. If you reduce your workload to take the time to write your autobiography, the process can be costly. Self-publishing can also be expensive, depending on how you do it, and working with an editor is not cheap either. If you go the traditional publishing route and your story is captivating enough, however, you can ultimately make a profit.
How to write an autobiography for kids?
If you are writing an autobiography to pass on to your kids or other children in your family, or any autobiography that is meant specifically to be read by children, you can still tackle complex and difficult subjects. You should, however, make sure that the subject matter is age-appropriate. Your vocabulary will be simpler, as well.