Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a famous figure to write an autobiography. In fact, if you want to write a novel or some other nonfiction book but just don't know where to start, an autobiography could be an ideal project to tackle.
There are many different kinds of autobiographies from which to choose, so you don't have to keep a narrow focus or use a cookie-cutter mold for your book or autobiography essay. Read on as we tackle how to write an autobiography.
- Different kinds of autobiographies.
- Steps to help you write your autobiography.
- Tips to strengthen your storytelling skills while writing.
Table of contents
- The Many Types of Autobiographies
- The Benefits of Writing an Autobiography
- Before You Write, Read
- The Complete Guide to Autobiography Writing
- How to Write an Autobiography: Conclusion
The Many Types of Autobiographies
An autobiography in its broadest terms is a book about a person's entire life (or at least the interesting parts), written by that person. If you wanted to write a book about someone else's life, you'd be writing a biography.
But within the autobiography genre, there are many other subgenres to choose from. These include:
An intellectual autobiography focuses on the author's life in terms of intellectual evolution and fulfillment. Often (but not always) written by people who have had a lot of schooling, the intellectual autobiography aims to analyze how certain experiences affected the author's life in terms of education, intelligence, and thought patterns.
A religious or spiritual autobiography is one concerning the author's spiritual enlightenment. If you've found God (in any form) or have gravitated to a more spiritual life as you've aged, then this could be a good genre for you.
Thematic autobiographies are those that look upon a person's life story through the lens of a certain theme. This could be love, loss, perseverance, family, or even something like mental health, addiction, or mental illness. If you've noticed a theme in your life that has influenced your choices repeatedly, a thematic autobiography could be a good choice for you.
A fictional autobiography is one that uses events from the author's real life while changing certain other elements freely. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what can and can't be real—or what percentage of each you must include. It could be that you use mostly real events but embellish them, change characters around, or make up certain exchanges. The most important part is that you don't claim it's a true autobiography when it's really a fictional one.
Autobiography vs Memoir
It can be easy to confuse an autobiography and a memoir—which is in fact a type of autobiographical writing. The big difference is that autobiographies cover the author's whole life. Memoirs, on the other hand, focus on certain aspects of the author's life, usually in service of a theme.
If you want to focus on your career or your childhood instead of covering your whole life, then a memoir could be a better fit for you. If so, you can check out our memoir writing prompts article.
The Benefits of Writing an Autobiography
There are a ton of benefits to writing an autobiography. There's an old adage that goes “write what you know.” And there's no better genre to do just that! By diving into your personal story and examining life lessons and experiences, you don't have to worry about getting writer's block. You know the plot and the characters, which can help you get into a rhythm.
This can not only give you confidence as a writer, but it can also make you a better writer as you go. A good autobiography is a lot like a novel in a lot of ways, so you use the same skills you would in a novel by painting a picture for your reader.
But the benefits don't end with developing as a writer. It can also help you deal with traumatic events and process significant moments in your life. The goal, after all, isn't to dwell on any perceived wrongs or get back at anyone. The goal is to make sense of your personal experience by turning it into a story that readers will enjoy.
Now that we've covered that introductory ground, let's get into how to write an autobiography, step by step.
Before You Write, Read
I would be remiss if I didn't say that you must first familiarize yourself with autobiography examples before you can write one. As such, here are some famous autobiographies to read so you can see how it's done.
- Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
- The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
- I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Complete Guide to Autobiography Writing
Writing an autobiography can be a rewarding endeavor, but it’s not easy. Even though it’s about your own life, it still requires research, time, effort, and some writing skill to get done. The steps below take you through the writing process, from choosing your focus to choosing your publishing avenue.
Step 1: Decide on a Type and Scope
While an autobiography covers the author's whole life, that doesn't mean that every single detail needs to go in. Even if you could remember what you had for breakfast on April 7th when you were ten years old, there would be no reason to include it unless some significant event happened at that time.
So the first step in the writing process is deciding what type of autobiography it will be. This, in turn, will help you decide on the scope. If it will be an intellectual autobiography, you may want to spend time focusing on your early schooling and how that impacted your ability to learn or your love of knowledge.
On the other hand, if you're writing an autobiography themed on marriage or romantic love, you probably won't have a lot of ground to cover during your childhood years.
Pro Tip: Write a short personal statement about why you want to write an autobiography. There's no wrong answer, but putting your “why” into words can help you keep focused through the process.
Step 2: Research and Outline
Once you have your scope in mind, you can start doing research and outlining in broad strokes the exact events you want to cover. This is when your idea starts to take shape in your mind and on the page.
Researching will mean delving into your family history, busting out the yearbooks, and opening up the (physical or digital) photo albums. It will mean talking to parents, friends, siblings, and other family members. To get things right, it's important not to rely just on your fallible memory. Get multiple perspectives and sources on any important event you plan to cover.
This is also a great time to get permission to use people's names in your book. Everyone you include in the story by name should give their permission. While this isn’t legally required, it’s a courtesy. However, it’s unlikely you will be sued for anything you say in a book unless it is blatantly slanderous.
Research is a time-consuming step in the process. But it's essential for forming your autobiography in your mind. You may even learn things about your family that you never knew before!
Just write everything down (or record it) so you can reference what people have said later. Using all your research, start crafting an autobiography outline in a Word document or on paper.
Pro Tip: If you're not sure you have enough to say to fill a book, you can write an autobiographical essay first. If you still feel like you have a lot to say after writing an essay of a few thousand words, then you may have a book's worth inside your head!
Step 3: Craft Your Story to Entertain
Since you don't have to include every single detail in your memoir, you get to prioritize certain things over others. And while most autobiographies move in chronological order, it doesn't preclude you from using a hook to engage your readers.
Perhaps you want to open your autobiography with a single event that changed your life. If this means jumping forward in time in your autobiography introduction to hook the reader before jumping back to your childhood, then that's perfectly fine.
The point is, your autobiography needs to entertain the reader. And to do this, you can craft it like a novel. The one thing your book shouldn't be is full of dry, academic writing.
You're the protagonist of the autobiography. And being a human, you're flawed. Make this clear to the reader while also giving them a reason to like you and root for you early in the book. Unless you're writing a fictional autobiography, this needs to be a true anecdote. But it shouldn't be hard to find.
Think about all the other people in your story as characters. Each family member is there as a supporting role to you, the protagonist. Like you, they need to be interesting, if not always likable. It also helps to include conflict early on. Most people experience plenty of conflict in their lives, so this isn't usually hard.
When you think about your autobiography in this way, you can then refine your outline – or write a whole new one—with this in mind.
And once you're confident that you have the structure you want, it's time to start writing!
Step 4: Write Your First Draft
Since you're writing about your own experiences, you'll probably want to stick to the first person point of view. This is the most common autobiography format—even for those written with the help of a ghostwriter. For many authors, this comes naturally because it's how we tell stories to each other.
That said, writing “I” over and over again can get a little old. This is normal. Just take it as an opportunity to vary your sentences instead of starting every one of them with “I.”
The writing process is different for every author, but it's important that you commit to a certain word goal per day or week. Make this goal attainable and stick to it. If you go weeks or months without getting words down, you'll just have to work harder to get back into the rhythm of autobiography writing.
That said, give yourself room to make mistakes during the first draft. When you accept that your first draft won’t be perfect and only focus on getting the words down, things get a lot easier. You can always go back and edit later. But you won’t have anything to edit if you don't write!
Step 5: Pause—Then Edit and Rewrite
When you're done with your first draft, let it sit for a couple of weeks or a month. This will allow you to get some distance from the words, which can help you look at them with a critical eye when it comes time to work on your subsequent drafts.
Some authors even do this after each consecutive draft. But many find that it's most beneficial after the first one.
Whether you wait a week or a month or more is up to you. But you can certainly find a sweet spot that works best for your writing schedule.
Recording your life story is no easy task. And you will, by definition, be close to it. So this distance is imperative to achieve a dispassionate look at it. From there, you can make changes and re-work it until you think it's ready for another pair of eyes.
Step 6: Get a Professional Editor
Once you've made your autobiography as good as you can make it, it's time to seek help. While you can certainly give a copy of the book to some friends and family to see what they think, keep in mind they're likely biased. Chances are they're also not professional editors, either.
This is why it's always a good idea to hire an editor—preferably one who's familiar with autobiographies. Of course, there are many different kinds of editors. And taking a critical look at your book in step 5 is important for choosing the right kind.
If you think there are some structural issues with the book, you may want to hire a developmental editor. If you want someone to find typos and grammar issues, then a line editor may be best.
For more information, check out our article on different kinds of editing.
No matter what kind you go with, getting the feedback of an unbiased professional can do wonders for your autobiography.
Step 7: Publish!
Even if you're not looking to make millions with your autobiography, publishing can still be a lot of fun. While it's hard to get a book deal for an autobiography unless you're already a celebrity, self-publishing is always an option.
With a formatted manuscript and a professional cover, you can have your book up on Amazon and other online retailers in short order. You can even order author copies of your paperback to give to friends and family.
To learn more about this process, check out our self-publishing hub.
How to Write an Autobiography: Conclusion
Whether you want to sell your autobiography to a wide audience or simply have it around for future generations of your family to read, writing about your life experience is a worthwhile endeavor. It can help you become a better writer while reflecting on your life and the lessons learned.
To cover your life story in a compelling manner means leaving some things out and focusing more on others. Pivotal moments in your life should be the “plot points” of your autobiography. Striving to meet some goal should create a through-line for the reader. And the setbacks on your way to that goal can create the conflict needed to keep things interesting.
Of course, all this should be true—unless you're writing a fictional autobiography!