Writing your autobiography can be a great way to tell your life story and provide a keepsake for friends and family. And you don’t need to be a famous person or a professional writer to do it. Read on to find out how to compose an autobiography that’s both informative and interesting…
You don’t have to be famous to write your own autobiography. Some people create a memoir simply because they enjoy writing, while others want to preserve their life story for future generations. They may not intend it to be read by anyone other than their own family.
Unfortunately, many of those who want to document their life shy away from the project, fearing that composing an autobiography is too difficult for the average person. In reality, anyone can write a memoir suitable for an audience of family members and close friends.
If you’re afraid your life hasn’t been “big enough” to merit an autobiography, don’t worry. Your family will want to know about your personal history and relationships with others. They’ll also be interested in how you felt about events you’ve lived through, and the lessons you learned along the way.
“Look for the times when your life changed the most, and when you changed the most,” recommends poet and memoirist Janice Erlbaum in The Autobiographer’s Handbook (Holt Paperbacks). “Those are the times of peak drama in your life.”
Whatever your motivation for writing your autobiography – and whatever kind you want to write – these tips can help get you started.
1. Get a feel for the work.
One of the best ways to learn how to write your life story is to read some of the great autobiographies that have been committed to print. For example, Benjamin Franklin, Katharine Hepburn, Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela and Billy Graham all wrote excellent autobiographies that are still read today.
You can find examples of how to write an autobiography in the stories of sports figures, great religious leaders, government officials, doctors, railroad workers, singers and actors, along with ordinary people who found meaning in their lives. Choose a category or person that inspires you, and read several examples of how great life stories are shared with the public.
Reading different styles of writing can also help you get a better feel for how to write an autobiography that will best suit your own story.
2. Understand your intended audience.
The next step in the writing process is to determine who your readers will be. If you’re writing your life story to give to your grandchildren as a keepsake, your word choices and tone will be drastically different than if you’re writing for the general public.
Writing for family members requires less detail when describing familiar settings and people. Instead, provide your own memories and perspective on events, and try to include interesting facts and anecdotes that family members may not already know.
Those outside your group of friends and family will need a more complex word picture to grasp the settings and characters in your story. Think of how you would describe these people and events to a stranger: What would someone need to know in order to understand them?
3. Develop a core concept.
Many great autobiographies have a central idea that unifies the entire life story throughout the book. Persevering love, faith in the face of hardship, overcoming tough odds, going from rags to riches, or lessons learned over time are all inspiring themes.
What is key to the story of your life? Determining one main reoccurring theme will help weave continuity and interest throughout your autobiography.
4. Jump-start your memories.
Think about all the different periods in your life. You may recall long-forgotten events and people you haven’t seen in years, or discover new meaning in your memories as you string them together.
Looking through family photos and talking with parents, grandparents, your spouse and old friends can help you remember significant events that are rich with details and entertaining stories. Diaries, letters and even emails can help spur your recall.
Ask each family member to bring one favorite story from your life to the next family reunion. The person with the best story wins a prize, and all of the entries can be used as possible material for your autobiography.
Include all five senses in your writing whenever possible. Rich, detailed writing can bring your story alive for your readers. Think of how you will answer the following questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?
5. Organize your story.
Determine where your journey with the reader will begin. Will you start with your birth, or skip your childhood and begin with your first true love? Some writers choose to list their story chronologically from their childhood to the present day, while others opt to arrange their book according to themes or major events.
Whichever format you choose, having a written outline will help keep you organized.
Some writers benefit from making notes on index cards and organizing them in a recipe box. Others prefer compiling notes and ideas on a computer – they’re easy to search, and quite a few programs and apps are available to help you keep everything organized.
As with any kind of writing, it’s important to set a firm start date, as well as a weekly goal to help keep you on track. Set a specified daily word count, or decide to write one chapter per week. Determine a date when you’d like to have a first draft completed.
6. Keep your focus.
Find a quiet time to write every day – a time when you can get lost in your memories and let your thoughts flow from your fingertips. Some writers prefer early-morning hours, while other write better late at night. Find a time that fits your schedule and set a regular appointment to write your story.
It may be helpful to surround your work area with inspiring items such as family photos, inspirational quotes and your favorite music.
Staying focused on why you’re writing your autobiography may be difficult as time progresses. Write out a mission statement that describes the inspiration for writing your life story, and refer to it when you feel a drop in your motivation.
7. Keep it interesting.
After you have written out a particular scene or event, go back and read what you wrote aloud. Check for any awkward phrasing or sentences that are bogged down with too many details. Your story should move the reader smoothly from one scene to the next.
Cutting out unnecessary words and overly long sentences can help your writing flow without being interrupted.
You writing should be descriptive. The best way to do this is to “paint a mental picture” with your words. For example, simply stating that Uncle Joe smelled bad after being sprayed by a skunk is not as interesting as describing everyone’s reaction to Uncle Joe when he walked into the room.
8. Use writing tools.
If you find that you’re struggling, autobiography templates can help you get started. Available in books and online (including on some genealogy websites), these tools present you with a series of questions about your life. You simply answer them, and the templates arrange your answers into story form.
A good dictionary, thesaurus, and word processing program are also indispensable tools when writing an autobiography. But don’t use big or complicated words in an attempt to impress your readers – instead, choose language that best helps you tell your story.
9. Edit your work.
Editing and improving your work can be a difficult process, even for a professional writer. Consider having friends and family read a draft – their suggestions could help you finish your autobiography more easily. And they may find spelling and grammar mistakes that you’ve missed.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to make their suggested changes – as the author, you have the final say.
Before you consider the work finished, you may want to set it aside for a few weeks, then read it with fresh eyes. Does it say everything you want to say? Is it missing important events, or are there stories you still want to recount?
At the same time, don’t fall under the spell of perfectionism. Your autobiography doesn’t have to be the greatest book ever written for your friends and family to enjoy reading it. They want to know what really happened in your life!
Writing your autobiography can be an enlightening and enjoyable process. By following a structured plan and working to keep your focus and motivation, your life story may soon be a reality that will be treasured by your loved ones for generations to come.