You have decided to share your inspiring life story with the world by writing an autobiography.
While this may appear to be an overwhelming task at the outset, you may find your story almost writing itself if you follow the basic autobiography guidelines.
Autobiography writing can be incredibly edifying, especially when you identify recurring themes in your life that can ultimately inspire others.
Suddenly, the book isn’t just all about you. An effective autobiography is driven by an underlying purpose that uses the author’s life experiences to provide something useful to the reader.
Before beginning the autobiography project, it helps to define the reason for writing your life story.
Is the book to be a chronicling of your life to be passed down to future generations for posterity? Or, is the undertaking driven by a desire to use your life lessons to teach, motivate, help, or inspire others?
Regardless of the purpose for retelling your unique story, having a fundamental understanding of autobiography guidelines will keep you on track from start to finish.
What is an Autobiography?
The word ‘autobiography’ derives from three Greek roots: the prefix, auto (self), the root word, bio (life), and the suffix, graphy (writing)—self-life-writing.
In essence, an autobiography is a first-person narrative detailing the highlights of one’s life.
Because it is a true accounting of your life, it is important to stick to the facts and resist any impulse to embellish or fabricate.
Writing about your life will entail sorting through the key events, relationships, and life lessons learned and then turning these details into a manuscript that will hopefully captivate the reader.
It is important to note that an autobiography is different from a memoir.
Generally, an autobiography covers the author’s entire lifespan, where a memoir devotes attention to a particular period when faced with daunting challenges to overcome, or an unusual or life-defining event.
Memoirs are often written with a pen name to obscure the identity of the author, giving them more freedom to share the details of their life story. Authors use their real names on autobiographies.
4 Autobiography Ideas to Inspire Your Own
When you decide to tackle your autobiography, you may immediately find yourself stumped. “What should I write about?” you wonder. “How do I write an autobiography of myself?”
Consider these ideas to nudge you toward creating a compelling account of your life:
1. Research popular autobiographies.
Read some of the most popular autobiographies to gain inspiration for your own story, as well as to familiarize you with autobiographical structure and content. There are many to choose from, including:
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
- Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
2. Highlight an inspiring comeback story.
Consider a particularly trying period in your life, or an ongoing theme of adversity, and how it shaped you into the person you are today. Maybe you suffered from serious health challenges, abuse or neglect, or addiction. The idea is to take the reader on a journey through the struggles and toward the restoration of mental or physical health.
3. Target cultural themes.
Cultural themes make very interesting autobiographies. If you were born in a different country and experienced a childhood entirely different from the typical American child, it can make for a fascinating read. Share about the holidays, rituals, faith beliefs, and customs that are unique to your culture.
4. Leverage unique experiences.
Perhaps you rose to the top of your profession or were an accomplished athlete, performer, or public figure. Leverage those unique experiences, from the defeats and disappointments to the pinnacles of success, and inspire the reader along the way.
Remember that writing an autobiography is about revealing the pivotal moments in your life while allowing the reader a glimpse into your interior world. What inspired you, what scared you, what moved you—these are the rich details that keep the reader engrossed in your story.
5 General Tips for Writing an Autobiography
Autobiography writing follows the same basic principles of all storytelling. Writing an autobiography requires well-crafted prose, structure, and organization of timelines and themes, a defined purpose, and a keen awareness of the audience. Understanding how to write an autobiography involves the following steps:
1. Define your purpose.
What motivated you to embark on autobiography writing in the first place? What message do you want to deliver to the reader? Define the purpose for writing your story and keep that purpose in mind throughout the project.
2. Identify your audience.
Is the autobiography intended for family only? If so, there might be a need to consider family members’ feelings while writing the book. If your story is for a public audience, then consider how the book can use your life lessons to help others.
3. Create a timeline.
Sorting through a lifetime of experiences is a cumbersome task. Identify the key events that align with the purpose of your storytelling, and list them in chronological order. This becomes a guide for creating chapters or sections.
4. Add the details.
Under each key event of the timeline, add the details that will drive the narrative, the personal struggles, triumphs, lessons learned, as well as key relationships. Refer to journals, photo albums, letters, or any recorded descriptions of the key events to help refresh your memory and get the details right.
5. Bring your story to life.
To capture the heart of the reader, the story must have flavor and emotion and life. This is accomplished through good writing that paints a mental picture of your life and the people who inhabited it. Use descriptive words to bring the scenes to life, and do not hesitate to insert your heart and soul into the tale of your life.
How to Structure an Autobiography
Autobiography structure, as established by the publishing industry, should be kept in mind while writing your personal story. An autobiography essentially mimics traditional story principles, using the same core elements to help draw the reader into the story:
- Setup. Early childhood experiences, introducing family members, describing home life, school, friendships, family customs, and other foundational facts.
- Complication or crisis. Early adulthood experiences that caused strife, such as parents divorcing, moving out of state, dropping out of school, injuries that ended sports careers, substance abuse, or failed relationships. Major twists in your adult life, and pivotal moments that eventually lead to a major life achievement or victory.
- Resolution. This is where the theme of the book comes to fruition, where the author reveals the lessons learned after rising above adversity.
Generally, autobiographies are structured chronologically, unwinding the narrative from birth to the present. Even when using the chronological structure, these storytelling principles should be integrated accordingly.
Some authors begin the autobiography in the middle of their life story, introducing the crisis right off, and then reverting to their childhood days. This has the effect of grabbing the reader’s attention and making them curious about how the author got to that point, thus committing early on to continue reading.
Interested in Self-Publishing Your Autobiography?
Even if you already know how to write an autobiography, it helps to enlist the expert skills of a professional editor who can advise you on structure, format, and provide the full range of editing services prior to going to publication. Check out Gatekeeper Press today for a free sample edit of up to 1,000 words, and see for yourself how we can improve your autobiography manuscript.