You may or may not have noticed the slew of celebrity autobiographies filling the shelves at your local bookstore. People have loved digging up fun facts about other people since the dawn of time, and in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s impossible for someone famous to write an autobiography and not have it be a bestseller.
But what is an autobiography? What makes an autobiography different from, say, a memoir?
Buckle in! Let’s discuss.
What is an autobiography?
An autobiography, simply put, is a full account of a subject’s life as written by the subject. This is different from a biography, which is just someone writing their own life story in chronological order. If I wrote a book about my own life, that would be an autobiography, but if you wrote a book about my life, it would be a biography.
The objective of an autobiography is to be informative, interesting, and detailed. We want all of the fundamental facts about this person, we want them in order, and we want them to be, you know, worth reading about.
Autobiography vs. Memoir
You may see ‘memoir’ and ‘autobiography’ used interchangeably, but they’re actually different genres.
While an autobiography is a full picture of someone’s life, from the day they’re born to the day they finish writing it, a memoir sets out to do something else. It’s more artistic, generally, in its portrayal of the subject, and will usually read more like the writing of a traditional novel. Instead of focusing on a subject’s entire life, it focuses on specific moments or a specific moment. A memoir will also take more liberties with presentation since it isn’t as tied down with details, facts, and timelines.
A book about an older woman’s childhood that ends with her leaving home, for example, would be a memoir. We aren’t getting her entire life story, just one part of it. A detailed book about a person’s childhood, adolescence, and adult career, ending in the present-day, would be an autobiography.
By the way: the order of these events is essential to an autobiography. They’re told in chronological order from someone’s birth to their present-day. Writing a memoir plays around more with this structure, but autobiography does not.
How do you write an autobiography?
Now that we know what makes an autobiography an autobiography, let’s talk about what’s included in the best ones.
1. Write from an interesting perspective
This is a bit subjective, but basically, autobiographies should be interesting. Everyone’s life is important, of course, and everyone has a story to tell, but to make an autobiography interesting, we need an interesting subject.
For example: someone who never left their hometown, never challenged their ideals, and never changed much as a person probably won’t have a lot of interesting things to say about themselves, their world, or the things they’ve experienced. It doesn’t mean their life is boring! It just means their perspective might be a little flat.
By contrast, someone who’s undergone some transformative experience (which is nearly everyone on Earth) and given it some balanced, nuanced thought, challenged their own ideas, and considered these experiences in the context of the society in which they live? Delicious! Interesting!
This doesn’t mean that someone has to have undergone trauma or something ‘bad’ to write an interesting autobiography —it just means that someone needs to give their own perspective a critical lens so they’ve got something to say about the life they’ve lived.
2. Tell it chronologically with truthful accounts
Autobiography strives to chronicle someone’s life, which means it needs to be factual. The events will be told in order, from a person’s birth to their present-day. The information in it should also be true and detailed.
For example: in a good autobiography, we don’t want huge gaps missing. It may be that someone doesn’t remember a good chunk of their teenage years—if so, it should be said why that is, and how that forgetfulness impacts them now. An autobiography might not spend an equal amount of time at each stage in a person’s life, but unless it’s true to the person, we shouldn’t be skipping decades.
An attention to historical detail and factual detail helps autobiographies be the best versions of themselves. Ideally, an autobiography doesn’t just tell us about one person. It tells us about the world that person lived in, what it was like to be that sort of person living in that world, and how that kind of person saw other people. To get this rich, historical detail, we need a clear timeline, and we need honest storytelling.
3. Give details, juicy stuff, & fun facts
Autobiographies need some juicy stuff!
Let me be clear: a person need not land on the moon, obtain a billion dollars, or become a CEO in order to be an interesting person with an important story to tell. In fact, I’m often more moved by stories about regular people navigating regular life, just like me.
But autobiography should still contain important, pivotal details. This isn’t the place to sugarcoat or gloss over events, people, or places. If someone underwent something hugely interesting and impactful to their life, it should be in their autobiography, and it should be discussed at least a little.
A note: some people might not choose to write about particularly traumatic things that happened to them, and that’s totally fine. I just mean that we should figure out huge or exciting facts about someone off-hand in an autobiography—the person’s life should be front and center.
4. Research thoroughly
We want to know all about this person, which means we want to see some research. An autobiography should be extensively researched, fact-checked, and revised.
Memory is fickle and distorted, and writers are already kind of bad at being biased. A good autobiography will present a balanced point of view backed by interviewing, revisiting old places, and fact-checking to make sure the timeline adds up. Again, we’re looking for that nuanced, balanced perspective. If someone just writes a few hundred thousand words about their life however they remember it, it will probably come across in the finished draft.
Read this post about how to research a book for more help.
5. Use a satisfying narrative
Autobiographies also need a satisfying narrative. These are different from fiction books, and they don’t need to read like a thriller novel (in fact, it’s probably better if they don’t). But they should still have some connective tissue throughout to make the reading experience satisfying.
This can be hard to do, because as it turns out, life is random, chaotic, and not at all neatly categorized into three acts. Sometimes, autobiographers will separate these acts into childhood, adulthood, and old age. But more often than not, they’ll pick a narrative structure to sort their information.
A few common narrative arcs found in autobiographies and memoirs alike: rags-to-riches ( CEOs, famous authors, entrepreneurs), person vs. self (mental health, self-help, abuse narratives), person vs. society (activists, marginalized voices commenting on their experiences), voyage and return (common in people who travel a lot).
Authors will also often use comments on society as a way to shape their work. For example, a marginalized author might write about their struggle to accept themselves in a society that shuns them, or someone who travels often might have something to say about the ethics of visiting certain places or the difficulties of backpacking in an unfamiliar land.
What Not to Include When Writing an Autobiography
We know now what autobiography includes and what a good autobiography should try to do. But what doesn’t belong in an autobiography?
Here, I’d like to take a moment to talk about some things that just don’t belong in an autobiography. They also don’t belong in memoir or general fiction, but they tend to come up in autobiography most frequently.
1. Boring, mundane details
It may be that something pivotal happened to someone whilst enduring a long lecture in their junior year of college. And if that’s the case, I want to read about it! What happened, what was the impact, and how did the person change?
But if the author is just putting us through college lectures, entire days of high school, business meetings, and so on with no real objective except to make sure they don’t skip anything they remember? I’m gonna lose interest.
This is where the narrative comes in handy. If something in the story isn’t actively participating in that narrative, and it doesn’t contain important information about the subject, we don’t need it. If someone went to college and it didn’t end up affecting them or mattering that much, it’s okay to sum it up in a few sentences.
Think about it this way: in any given fiction book, you wouldn’t excuse chapters that included nothing relevant to the central arc. You’d be furious with the author for putting you through hoops for no good reason. It’s the same in an autobiography, even if autobiographies don’t read like fiction books.
2. Accusations and pitchforks
Autobiography isn’t the place to take old rivals to task for their crimes. For one, it can get the writer into legal trouble, and for another, it just isn’t a good reading experience.
Autobiographies shouldn’t have horrible, cruel depictions of ex-boyfriends and girlfriends. They shouldn’t set out to vilify people or pit the reader against someone. The objective isn’t to convince everyone that Stacy was a total lunatic—it’s to tell the complete, full story of Joe Smith. And if Joe Smith spends a full chapter writing about how Stacy is a total lunatic, the reader is probably going to have more opinions about Joe’s self-reflectiveness than they will about Stacy.
3. Disorder and disarray
Autobiographies need to follow a structure, and they need to be organized. Some newbie writers will reach for journal entries as an autobiographical structure, and this almost never works, because, as I mentioned before, our lives just aren’t structured and they don’t follow a narrative.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. We have autobiographies from people undergoing extreme circumstances which come to us in journals or essay collections. But generally speaking, autobiographies should follow some sort of structure.
Also, remember: an autobiography ought to include everything. Having a ton of disorder means the author is likely to leave gaps without any information about the subject or confuse the timeline, both of which ruin the reading experience.
Looking for some autobiographies to get you started? Look no further!
Here are a few examples of autobiographies:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
- Becoming by Michele Obama
- Me by Elton John
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
Wrapping Up The Writing of an Autobiography
Many people mistake or confuse autobiographies compared to memoirs.
Which is why, when answering the question, “What Is An Autobiography?”, one also has to ask the question “What is NOT an autobiography” or “How does an autobiography differ from a memoir?”
An autobiography is a personalized account of an individual’s life, written by that person. It may be factual or fictionalized to some degree and the main focus will always be on that one individual rather than others around them. A memoir can also refer to someone else’s life story but the author must have witnessed it firsthand.
To write your own autobiography, you’ll need to consider what not to include so as not to tarnish any other people in your story who are still living (or even those who aren’t). You’ll want this document for yourself down the road so don’t forget about things like photos!
For example: in his memoir, “Paw Prints On Our Hearts“, written by Self-Publishing School coach, Kerk Murray, tells the stories of some major life events in his life as he experienced them with dogs in his life.
Using the theme of processing parts of his life through phases of canine companionship, Kerk reveals how his story led him to start an animal rescue foundation, which sales from his book go to support.
If you’re interested in writing a Memoir, check out our video training series below!