I’ve talked about some of the reasons why you might want to write an autobiography. Now, let’s turn our attention to how to write an autobiography.
Whether you’re a confident writer or not, I’m certain you’ll find some ideas here to help you write an autobiography you can be proud of.
Writing an autobiography – one step at a time
Learning to write an autobiography is not so very different from learning to exercise. You need to work to a plan, start slowly, put in the hours, and most importantly, make writing a habit. (Oh, and you have to accept that while you’re building up your writing muscles, the process might hurt a bit!)
Just like exercising, there will be times when you really don’t feel like writing. But the joy of sticking to a schedule is that the longer you do it, the more normal it will feel. And you’ll soon see the fruits of your efforts as your autobiography’s word count keeps going up and up.
Why do you want to write an autobiography?
Whether you want to write autobiography or memoir, you must first decide your reason for writing.
Passing on things you’ve learned about life or work, preserving your life story for your nearest and dearest, curating a social history, telling someone you love them in a book, exploring your life’s difficulties and moving on…
There are so many good reasons for wanting to write an autobiography… what’s yours?
You’ve got however many years of life to write about. Your story could go in so many different direction and talk about so many different things. You could probably spend a whole book talking about your job, your schooldays, or your relationships, but do you want to? Or would you rather present a more succinct account of your whole life.
If you don’t know exactly why you’re writing your autobiography, you’ll find it very hard to know what to include and what to exclude. Try and condense your reasons for writing to one sentence, such as:
I want my children to read my autobiography and understand what kind of person I was, and what kind of a parent I tried to be.
Who do you want to write an autobiography for?
Knowing why you want to write your autobiography may also inform this equally important question: who is going to read your autobiography?
Friends and family? People in your industry? Children who haven’t been born yet? A wider audience?
Again, it pays to have a very clear sense of who you’re writing your autobiography for before you write a word. That’ll help you decide what stories are relevant, interesting, and appropriate. It will help you set a suitable tone and level of formality for the book. You might even find that thinking of your intended reader immersed in your book will help you write more naturally.
Writing your autobiography to a proper plan
Don’t be intimidated by the thought of ‘writing a plan,’ as if it should be some very important text. Your autobiography plan can be as simple as a list of key events that you want to write about. Assuming you’re writing a chronological autobiography, simply order those events in date order. If you’re going for a thematic approach, order them by theme.
The more detail you put in your plan, the easier it’ll be to actually write your autobiography. For example, rather than simply writing ‘school days’ on your plan, note down anything about those days that’s germane to the autobiography you want to write. For example:
- Did any of your teachers have an especially positive or negative impact on you?
- In what ways did you excel? In what ways did you struggle?
- Who were your most meaningful friends? Wat about enemies?
- What developing character traits were emerging that mark you out as you?
Any time you spend working on your plan will be well worth it. Keep filling in additional details under each heading, and before you know it, you’ll be joining up events into a cohesive narrative.
Schedule your autobiography writing
A schedule?! Sounds like the enemy of creativity, doesn’t it? But schedules are good for three good reasons:
You have an awful lot of words to write, so it makes sense to break the job down into manageable chunks. Making your writing into a habitual activity will help you to do that.
Let’s go back to the link between writing and exercise. If you’re one of those people who likes to see their activity scores mounting, you’ll enjoy the satisfaction that comes of having a regular writing schedule that you need to tick off. (If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can share your writing schedule with someone so they can help you stick to your task.)
Routine and creativity may not seem like natural bedfellows, but writing to a regular schedule can actually make you more creative. Designating specific days and times to write can help to prepare your ‘writing brain’ for each session.
(Oh, and just because you have a writing schedule, you’re still allowed to write at other times too!)
How to write an autobiography – ideas to get you going
Now you’ve established your audience, your reasons for writing, made a plan, and set a schedule, here are my recommendations for writing your autobiography. And if you still hate the thought of all that writing, I’ve included some alternative ideas to help you get your story onto paper…
The nitty-gritty: How do you actually write an autobiography?
Let’s start with beginnings; if you’re wondering how to get your book off to the best possible start, here’s an article devoted to the subject of how to start an autobiography.
But even before you think about how to start your book, you need to know how to write it. So let’s consider the actual process of putting one word after another on the page. The key is to make it as easy on yourself as possible. Here are some ways to help you to master writing autobiography prose:
Build up your autobiography, bullet point by bullet point
As described above, it really, really helps if you start with a plan covering everything you want your autobiography to cover. This is the skeleton of your story, now you need to add some meat to the bones.
Choose one of the bullet points – it doesn’t have to be from the beginning of your story – and start filling in extra layers of detail. To give you an example of how that might work, let’s go back to the example of school days. I suggested that one layer of additional information might refer to influential teachers. If this was my own story, I would start adding further information like this:
- Struggled to leave Mum on my first day, but Mrs Kirkham took me under her wing.
- When she knew I liked Doctor Who, she saved me the promotional cards from boxes of Weetabix cereal.
- After she retired, they planted a tree in the garden to commemorate her service to the school.
As you can see, by adding further bullet points, I’ve given myself more storytelling angles to explore. Now, I can add in more detail to flesh out those points. For example:
I remember the day we went out to see her tree being planted. It wasn’t long before I was due to make the transition to secondary school, and I can still remember thinking – in my youthful way – about how that tree would be there forever. Somehow, it felt like a significant moment in my life, as well as hers.
Using this method to fill in layers of information and give greater nuance can help you build your book quickly and easily. What starts out as making additional notes very soon morphs into actually writing your book without you even noticing.
This way of writing autobiography gives your brain a break too. Having all the key events listed before you start writing lets you relax, and pick off the bits of the story you want to write about.
Write without hesitation – the ‘carry on writing’ method
I just spent a few extra seconds deciding if ‘hesitation’ was the best word to us in that title. Madness! What I should have done was get it down and carry on writing, knowing that I’d be going back to double check it afterwards. And that’s the knack. Don’t stop to think too hard about what words you’re using, just let the words come and get them on the page. Don’t stop to correct mistakes, you can sort them out later.
Want to write an autobiography? Remember that you’re already a master storyteller
Even though your autobiography is based on the facts of your life, you’ll quickly find that simply writing out the facts of your life can be a very boring process. Nobody wants to read a catalogue of your life’s events; they want to be amused, entertained, and moved by your story. So you are going to have to work to keep their attention. Just like a novelist keeps readers hanging on every word, so you have to do something similar if you want to write a page turner of an autobiography.
The good news is that I’m sure you already know how to do this. Telling a story on a page is not so very different from telling your story to your partner, or telling your friends in the pub. But while novelists get praised for their ability to entertain their readers, the rest of us just tell our stories without any of the awards and plaudits!
Humans are all master storytellers. It’s in our DNA. We learnt from stories at school. We bonded with people through a shared love of stories. Or we made connections by sharing stories. So we instinctively incorporate so many of those storytelling techniques when we’re in full flow and spinning another tall tale about what happened to us on the way to work.
We all know how to use exaggeration, dramatic momentum, misdirection, humour, and all the other things we need to make our stories interesting. We just need to apply those same techniques to our writing.
Trust your tone of voice
Your tone of voice is unique. And your tone of voice for writing autobiography will come through in the way that you write.
Be brave. Don’t self-edit too heavily. Your words and phrases are a big part of your distinctiveness.
Your writing should only be as formal as you are. If you’re always using contractions and colloquialisms, make sure your written autobiography voice does too.
If you’re known for your ‘industrial’ language, why would you edit all the expletives out of your book?
Give us some character in your autobiography
Your autobiography is all about you, and as described above, your tone of voice will help to characterise you in your writing. But your autobiography will be richer and more interesting if it’s populated by other interesting characters.
If you have made enemies in your life, make sure you really let their odiousness come through in your writing.
If you’re talking about close friends and family, make sure your writing does them justice. Let your words paint those characters and show your love for those people.
Two alternative ways of getting your story out there
Recording (and writing your autobiography)
If you want to write an autobiography and you’re struggling, record it.
Take one of the subjects you want to talk about in your book, and instead of writing it, vocalise it. Act like an interviewee telling your story and record it to your phone or a Dictaphone.
Afterwards, you can transcribe the recordings to your autobiography document. (Yeah, the recordings are going to need work, but at least you’ll have the raw stuff in place to work with.) Or, you can edit the recordings into an audio autobiography if you prefer.
A video autobiography
Choose someone to act as your interviewer. Let them work with your friends and family to prepare a list of questions they’d like you to answer about your life. Find a good location, set up a camera – or a phone on a tripod would do – and create a video autobiography. The raw footage will need some editing together, but your video will make a great alternative to a written autobiography.
Take care of the edits, typos, and structure
‘Writing a autobiography…’ whoops! Writing an autobiography is only half the job. Editing an autobiography, and taking care of those pesky typos is going to make your book so much better.
Use your edit to pay attention to the structure of your story too:
- Does everything you’ve written support the story you’re telling? If not, do you really need those sections?
- Have you sequenced your book in the best way? Would it make it more interesting to start with a dramatic sequence from your life story?
- Is there a sense of ebb and flow in your book? Do moments of calm follow dramatic moments?
- Does every character you talk about get a proper introduction and exit from your story?
- Even though your life continues, you should still strive to bring your book to a satisfactory conclusion.
Write an autobiography with a ghostwriter’s help
Hopefully there are enough writing hints here to help you write your autobiography. If you’re struggling, remember that a ghostwriter (like me) can help you write an autobiography. Or they can write the whole thing for you, if you prefer.
If you want to talk to me about the autobiography writing process, book yourself on a call and see if I’m the autobiographer for you…