When researching how to write an autobiography, it’s also important to research “how to write an autobiography WELL”.
But just in case you didn’t research those two search terms, this article touches on how to write your autobiography well and also the “how-to” steps to get it done!
Unsurprisingly, this is one of the more popular of the book genres that self-published authors gravitate towards.
People want to share their own inspirational stories with others, impart their knowledge, and ultimately compile their lives into a neat narrative for their kids and grandkids to read…and we’ll teach you how below.
But, like writing any other book, it takes a little know-how and practice to write a good autobiography. In this article, we’re here to break down what to include in an autobiography, what to avoid, and how to write your own. Let’s get started!
What to Include in Writing an Autobiography
So first, what are the key components of an autobiography? A lot of people conflate ‘autobiography’ with ‘memoir,’ but there are a few differences between memoirs and autobiographies.
Namely that a memoir is a more artistic take on a specific period in a person’s life. It’s going to read a little more like a traditional novel, usually, and it’s going to take a little more creative liberty.
In an autobiography, here’s what you’re looking for:
1. An Entire Lifetime
An autobiography will cover the entire life of the subject. It’ll cover upbringing, schooling, lack of schooling, teenage years, the whole thing. It might not spend an equal amount of time on each of these areas—for example, if an astronaut who went to space in her thirties wrote an autobiography, she might not spend quite as much time on her uneventful childhood in midwestern suburbia as she does on, say, her space adventures.
The purpose of an autobiography is, at its core, to document the subject’s life. So even if we skim some parts, we should still be getting the full picture.
2. Attention to Detail and Chronological Order
Since autobiographies are about chronicling their subject’s life, it makes sense that it should be in chronological order.
Research for your book is key.
A well-written autobiography should go from birth to the present-day. Again, it’s fine if there are some sections that are more eventful than others, but an autobiography shouldn’t fail to include entire decades of someone’s life.
Additionally, autobiographies should dig into detail. After all, we came to read this book to learn about the author’s super interesting life—we want interesting details, and we want lots of ‘em!
Where did they go to school, for example, and what did they study? What was their first job out of college?
In a memoir, someone might skip over some parts of their life because it’s not what they’re there to talk about. But an autobiography can’t afford the same exemptions.
I’ll put it like this: say I read a biography about Joe Smith, a man I just invented. If I pick up another biography and find out that he actually went to college at Stanford and graduated at the top of his class, but didn’t end up using that degree in his later work, I would think the first biography was poorly researched and incomplete.
3. A Clear Narrative
People’s lives are messy, complicated, and, not to get all existential, sort of without a climax or summit point. We have plenty of spiritual awakenings, moments of clarity, or points that feel like culminations in our personal character arcs, but if we mapped these out over the course of our lives, we wouldn’t find a solid Freytag’s Pyramid structure.
When it comes to autobiography, it’s important to remember that these are still books. They’re still stories. While they might not follow conventional fictional storytelling methods, there should still be a common narrative to thread all of these events together. It shouldn’t feel like a string of unrelated events—it should feel like a story.
A few common narratives: rags-to-riches, voyage and return, person vs. self, person vs. society.
4. Balanced Characters
An autobiography should also include balanced characters!
Now, I know what you may be thinking: real people are a hot mess. Much in the way we don’t write dialogue exactly how people talk, because it would be nonsense, we also don’t write people to be exactly like real people. Real people can be boring, inconsistent, random, and difficult.
While an autobiography should absolutely not edit people to make them more pleasing or more suited to an easy reading experience, it should make the characters in the story realistic, and it should portray them with nuance and balance. Developing characters is just as essential in an autobiography as any work of fiction.
If the mother in an autobiography, for example, is just plain absolute evil, it’s going to read flat, even if that mother really was cruel to the subject.
What to Avoid When Writing an Autobiography
Now that we know what sorts of things you should include in your autobiography, let’s talk about some things you should avoid.
1. Mundane Detail
It’s true that there’s beauty in the mundane. Plenty of people, myself included, lead relatively normal and uneventful lives that still have their moments of extreme beauty and significance. And there’s nothing wrong with autobiographies about regular people!
You don’t have to have gone to space or become a billionaire to have had a life worth commenting on.
However, readers don’t want the mundane to be mundane. Every scene in an autobiography should be doing some work, and if it’s just taking us through a business meeting or a high school history class or another commute to work without any broader comment on how that event impacted the person’s life, we probably don’t need it.
This is why it’s really important to learn about the craft of writing, even if you’re not a fiction writer.
2. Smear Campaigns
Remember what I said earlier about having balanced characters? Autobiographies are not the place to wreak havoc on your ex who broke your heart ten years ago. You need people’s permission to publish their names, and publicly slandering someone will not only get you sued (though you can avoid getting sued while still telling your story), but it will probably turn off a lot of your readers.
This is where perspective becomes important. If you have someone in your life who was cruel to you, it can be painful to look at them with a complicated, nuanced lens. It isn’t necessarily about making everyone look good so much as it is about making everyone look honest.
3. Glossing Over the Big Stuff
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting to an interesting bit of an autobiography, only to discover that the author has elected to skim over it. If you traveled to Europe with nothing but a backpack and a couple dollars, I want to know about that! If there was a specific relationship in someone’s early life that really impacted them, I want to see how that followed the person into adulthood.
How To Write an Autobiography: Necessary Steps for Quality
Okay, we’re ready to get started on our own autobiographies. This advice will also be helpful if you’re doing something smaller, like a personal essay, and it might even help if you’re looking into writing a memoir!
1. Do a Deep Dive
First, get into your childhood. Revisit old artifacts you might have from when you were a kid, stop by old haunts, and write down whatever you remember.
This might mean a trip to your hometown (if possible), it might mean fishing that box of childhood keepsakes down from your attic, or talking to your parents about where you grew up.
Don’t be afraid to get into the nitty-gritty. Write down the good stuff and the bad, too.
A side note: if going back into your childhood and revisiting these old memories is traumatic for you, your best course of action is to take that directly to therapy and revisit the autobiography later. It will not make for a better autobiography if you retraumatize yourself.
2. Research Your Subjects
Talk to your parents, reconnect with your old childhood friends, hit up some old professors. If you intend to write about them in your autobiography, you’re going to want to talk to them. You should also make sure to visit places, research events you went to, and talk to other people who experienced the same event you did.
A few reasons. One, you want to make sure you’re giving the most balanced perspective you can.
You’re not a journalist, but you are writing a book, and that means you want to be nuanced and fair. Two, memory is very weird, and this will not only give you the chance to correct things you may have remembered strangely, but it will also help you remember things you might have forgotten over the years.
3. Outline Your Autobiography
Ah, the book outline! You can’t escape it, not even in an autobiography. Do yourself a favor and grab a narrative structure and use it here. Maybe you pick rags-to-riches—look up the components of that story arc, map them out, and fit all of your information into those boxes.
Doing this is going to make your autobiography organized, satisfying to read, and easy to follow.
Once you’ve got our outline, draft your autobiography until it’s completely finished. I personally recommend going through it as fast as you can, but use whatever method works for you. If you’re writing a particularly harrowing piece, you may need to take breaks and come back to it when you’re ready—don’t stress yourself out.
5. Give it Time
After you’ve drafted, let it sit for a little while. Work on other projects and give it the chance to breathe. This will give you some emotional distance from your finished work. This emotional distance is important when you’re writing anything, but it’s especially important when you’re writing an autobiography.
All of our lives feel important to us, and it’s hard not to take a critique on an autobiography as a critique on the life you’ve lived, but ultimately, the autobiography will need to be critiqued, revised, and edited. Adding some space makes that process much easier.
6. Revising and Fact Checking
And, at long last, you’re in the revising stage!
Once that autobiography has sat for a little while, dust it off and get to revising. You should be looking for gaps in the chronology, anything that drags, flat characters, arcs that don’t go anywhere, and above all else, incorrect information.
To help with this stage, try approaching it like a novel. First, check to make sure you’ve got a clear narrative. Then, start playing with individual sentences, characters, settings, and events. Lastly, go through with a fine-tooth comb and fact-check everything.
7. Publish Your Book!
You’ve got an autobiography! You have a few options now: you can self-publish your autobiography, you could traditionally publish it, or you could keep it for yourself and your loved ones. Whatever you choose to do with it, congratulations on writing an entire autobiography!