You may have heard people say everyone has at least one book in them. Maybe you’ve even been in conversation with someone who’s led such a fascinating life that you told them they should write a book about it.
But what about you? Have you ever wondered how to write an autobiography? If so, this article is for you. Read on for an explanation, tips, and exercises for how to write an autobiography.
What is an autobiography?
Let’s start with the basics. An autobiography, as defined by Merriam-Webster, “is the biography of a person narrated by that person: a usually written account of a person’s life in their own words.” Taking that one step further, Merriam-Webster says a biography is “a usually written history of a person’s life.” Examples include The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Autobiography vs. memoir
Going back to our friends at Merriam-Webster, a memoir is defined as “a narrative composed from personal experience.” A couple of examples are The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Boy Erased: a Memoir by Garrard Conley. While it is synonymous with autobiography in some instances, one surefire way to know whether it’s an autobiography or a memoir is by the title. If it says autobiography or memoir right in the title, you’ll know clearly which it is from the book’s cover.
How do you structure an autobiography?
Some really good advice from Kristin McTiernan as told to FirstEditing founder JoEllen Nordstrom in their webinar How to Structure Your Memoir is to structure your memoir or autobiography like a work of fiction. Start with the main theme of your life you want to get across to your audience, then choose scenes from your life that support that topic. You’ll be able to add the autobiographical information later (date of birth, place of birth, number of siblings, etc.) by weaving it into the story rather than just listing it like a rap sheet.
For example, if you define yourself as a military veteran, any scene from your life that is related to that can be added to support the main theme.
- Playing soldiers as a child
- Family members in service
- Being impressed by military units marching in a parade
- Building tree forts as a preteen
- Close friends being interested in serving as well
- Being a member of ROTC in high school
- Your actual military service
- Different locales you’ve lived in due to your MOS
- Spouse/children as part of military life
- Retirement as a veteran
Exercise: Based on your life story, choose the major thesis and write it at the top of a piece of paper. Under the thesis, jot down some of the scenes in your life that come to mind that correspond to that main theme.
Writing your story in chronological order could be the easiest and best way to get your story across, but not always. As Ms. McTiernan says in the webinar mentioned above, if your thesis is PTSD from military service, you may want to begin the story with one of the first firefights that caused the PTSD and go from there, with flashbacks and backstory to when you were younger.
What should it include?
Just like any fiction story, your true autobiography will have a story arc, and possibly character arcs as well. You’ll have an inciting incident, plot point 1 (first major turning point), plot point 2 (second major turning point), climax, and conclusion.
Within each scene, you’ll want to include as many of the 38 story elements as is feasible. No need to include them all, as that will just add fluff at best and turn your readers off completely at worst.
Some of the main story elements you’ll want in your story include the following.
- Entry hook
- Exit hook
- Sensory information
An example scene following our military theme could include strategy during a snowball fight you had as a youth. Engineering skills used to build the fort, who was on your team and why, leadership/follower skills learned, creating and stocking up on snowballs, and targeting the weakest opponent.
Add the sensory information that will help bring the scene alive for the reader. The sound of the snow crunching under your boots, the frozen fingertips from wet mittens, the splat of the ball hitting a jacket, the final victory/truce, and the smell and taste of hot cocoa going down and the feeling of thawing toes at home afterward.
The scene could be anchored in time by having a car go by blaring a song from the era or having the song playing in your head, such as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” while the fort is being built if the scene takes place in 1979 or later.
An entry hook could be an opening line: “This was war.” An exit hook could be something like, “We called a truce this time, but next time…splat!”
Exercise: Based on your theme and the different scenes you’ve listed, expand on each and add in details such as characters, dialogue, weather, feelings that you as the main point of view character experienced during each scene, and tension. These are the main elements that will keep the readers turning the pages.
It’s been said that the hardest part of writing a book is looking at that first blank page. If that happens to you, try writing a working title and your name on the page, just so it’s not blank, and take it from there.
After you’ve written a few scenes or chapters, consider sending it in for a free editing sample just to make sure you’re on track. The editors at FirstEditing.com are happy to help, and will give you constructive feedback to help you get your story out in a logical and interesting way.
Every story is unique, so don’t feel you need to follow these suggestions to the letter. Now that you’ve learned more about how to write an autobiography, do what works best for you to get your story across. The important thing is to get started and remember, your editor has got your back.