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Writing An Autobiography: A How-To Guide With Key Tips

Writing An Autobiography: A How-To Guide With Key Tips

I’ve always felt that writing is an intimate activity; neither the writer nor the reader misses the inner workings of the writer’s mind. More so is the case with writing an autobiography. You’ll not only delve into the nitty-gritty of your thoughts but also critique your own life in the process of penning it down.  

Sounds a tad uncomfortable, doesn’t it? And yet, it is this very genre of non-fiction that has one of the strongest readerships. Besides, no matter the discomfort you put yourself through whilst writing it, the minute your autobiography reaches the reader, it takes on the task of inspiring others. 

There’s a tendency to believe that a biography, and more so an autobiography, is meant to be written by only a subject who’s a stellar performer in their career and highly popular for it. This is far from true. Sure, such a person could have a great ability to inspire their fans and readers, but even an ordinary person is capable of it.  

You see, it’s in how you tell your life’s story that the inspiration lies, not necessarily in the popularity of it. Famous or not, every one of us deals with hardships in life and does one thing or another to overcome them. And therein, lies the narrative for every gripping autobiography… 

In this article, I’ll help you understand what an autobiography is; go through the differences between biography, autobiography and memoir; provide some autobiography examples; tell you what to include in an autobiography; highlight the things that make for a compelling autobiography; and tell you how you can research your own life (yes, you read that right) to make your autobiography as authentic and balanced as possible. 

What Is An Autobiography? 

When thinking about the meaning of the word autobiography, it can be helpful to compare the subgenre with others which it’s confused for (biography and memoir). So, in this section, I’ll highlight the nuances of each genre/subgenre.

Autobiography Definition

An autobiography is a non-fictitious story by a person about their own life. It’s a subgenre of the larger genre of biography.  

Let’s look at biographies in more detail.

Biography 

A biography is typically written by a writer who’s highly knowledgeable about an individual and their life. They might be written post-humously (sometimes, the individual could still be alive), and may or may not be authorised (given express permission by the individual or their family).  

Take, for instance, the award-winning Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by author Sally Bedel Smith. This book does the behemoth task of showing the reader what it meant for a young woman – Queen Elizabeth II – to take on the monumental task of being a monarch and do so successfully for decades. This book is certainly a magisterial biography. Though it doesn’t explicitly mention whether or not it is authorised, it certainly seems like it was, because the writer met the Queen on various occasions during the course of her research. So, if watching The Crown on Netflix has left you thirsting for more, you need only read this biography. 

Another highly compelling biography is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Openly authorised, this book is a testament to not only its visionary of a subject, Steve Jobs, but also life in the digital era that we live in. In over forty interviews with Jobs himself, and more than a hundred interviews with his friends, family, colleagues and competitors, Isaacson chronicles Jobs’ rollercoaster life as a creative entrepreneur. Jobs was known to irk his friends and foes alike with his brutal honesty and this is reflected in his biography too. He holds nothing back and neither does anyone that talks about him, making this book one of the sincerest biographies ever written. 

autobiographical-writing

Autobiography 

An autobiography, however, is written by the subject themselves. The writer looks back on their life, putting all major events from their birth up until the time they complete the book under the microscope. They explore their past with the wisdom-filled lenses of their present. Needless to say, the authenticity of such a story is arguably higher than in a biography. I mean, who better to write your life’s story than you! Here are some great examples of autobiographies. 

One of the most-read autobiographies of all time is perhaps Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk To Freedom. The book details the story of the man who spent twenty-seven years in prison for marching against South African apartheid and then went on to become the president of a free country. It’s not only the narration of a revolutionary man (which in and of itself is significant), but also a story of triumph over racism and colonialism.  

Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way was a stellar record breaker with a pre-order of 1,500,000 copies of the autobiography, easily overtaking even Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs! The man was a legend on the cricket pitch and it’s no wonder fans want to read about what his life is really like, directly from the horse’s mouth. Suffice to say, Tendulkar’s penmanship matched pace with his batsmanship; his innings began even before the match did! 

I’m one of those people who’s rather reluctant to watch a movie unless they’re certain it’s an inspiring, or at the very least a positive, one. One such movie that’s an all-time favourite of mine is The Pursuit Of Happyness starring Will Smith (who incidentally happened to publish his own autobiography Will earlier this year). The movie is an adaptation of Chris Gardner’s own autobiography by the same name. We’ve read many a story of single mothers struggling to make ends meet. But Gardner’s is that of a single father’s rags-to-riches story, which also shows him doing his best to be a good father to his son. For someone who grew up without a father, Chris’ own parenting is both heart-warming and inspiring, even keeping his overnight rags-to-riches story aside. 

Where there’s a woman of colour who runs a Fortune 50 company, there shall be an autobiography of her. Ex-CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi’s My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future isn’t simply a story of her life but also a critique of the lack of work-life balance that society so readily accepts. Somewhat cut-and-dry, this autobiography makes the reader picture a rather ditch-feelingsbe-formidable Indra Nooyi. But, perhaps, that’s exactly what it took her to get where she did.  

What’s common amongst all these autobiographies is that they are highly inspirational, some with a big message for society in general. Where there’s talk of autobiographies, Anne Frank’s Diary Of A Young Girl is never far behind. The epistolary by the teenager lays bare her experiences as a Jew during World War II. The progression of her diary shows the maturing girl’s growing difficulty in maintaining self-awareness, a direct reflection of the impact of the Nazi regime. However, though the book falls under the umbrella genre of biographies, it’s more accurately a memoir. 

Memoir 

A memoir is another subgenre that’s all about a real person’s story written by the subject themselves, making them autobiographical. It is a long non-fiction narrative of the writer’s memory of their own life. Memoirs are often known – and read – for their exquisite literary quality. 

We had a memoir as part of the curriculum for my bachelor’s degree in English Literature. I recall a week during that semester when our whole class was really glum. When one of our professors asked us what was wrong, we all sighed collectively and told her we were reading Elie Weisel’s Night.  

Imagine that. A whole class of students were deeply saddened by the subject of a memoir, some even on the verge of tears, as we explained to the professor why we were all low. Elie Wiesel sure knows how to translate his pain into poignancy for the pages.  

The memoir (it also falls under another subgenre called faction) is heartbreaking to readers as it details the harrowing experiences that the writer lived through and perhaps relived as he wrote it. Night is a haunting rendition of Elie Wiesel’s experience of the Holocaust as a teenager. This event in history marks the failure of humanity, and to intimately feel a survivor’s account of this horror is a grieving experience. This, right here, is what memoirs are capable of.  

A memoir and an autobiography are similar on these counts – they’re both about real people and the real lives they lead. One way in which they differ is in their goal – memoirs are written to move the reader, to connect with them by way of emotive storytelling, while autobiographies are generally meant to inspire the reader, through a detailed exploration of who the writer really is. This is how they function primarily, even though both memoir and autobiography could potentially move and inspire just the same.  

Sometimes, autobiographies might be marketed as memoirs and this can be quite confusing. Even experts make the mistake of using ‘autobiography’ and ‘memoir’ as synonyms. A key difference is that autobiographies record the subject’s life from birth to present time, chronologically, whilst memoirs may go back and forth in time and often cover smaller time spans. Autobiographies place importance on facts and history, whilst memoirs lean heavily on emotional experience. This also means that autobiographies are more general in terms of the topics they cover, even though certain events may be highlighted more than others. On the other hand, Memoirs can be thematic with a singular event or experience or emotion taking the forefront.  

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How To Write An Autobiography 

If you’re excited to write your life’s story, then you’re in the right place. Here are the steps to writing an autobiography: 

Do Your Research 

Yes, it’s your own story. You might even assume that you’re the foremost expert on the topic of you. But think again. You might be surprised by how much you don’t know about your past, by simply going through family photos, and talking to your family and relatives about your childhood. They could give you several anecdotes that could brighten up your autobiography. Even talking to your ex-employers and bosses about the great and not-so-great things about your time in their company could give you a whole new perspective about yourself that you can then share with your readers. 

Create An Outline 

Writing an autobiography might seem like a mammoth task, especially if you’re not clear on what your narrative is. Are you telling your rags-to-riches story? Are you looking at the work-life balance battle you lead throughout? Or are you depicting your struggle against the societal restrictions placed upon you? If you have the narrative clear in your mind, then the outline is simply about listing all the various events of your life and seeing what aspects of them fit your narrative. Jot these aspects down; they’ll be the key points in your chapter breaks. Voila! You have your narrative, outline, and key points per chapter. 

Write The Draft 

Once you start writing your autobiography, try to get through it as quickly as possible. Aim for progress, not perfection, at this stage. The thing is, you’re bound to second-guess your own perspective the more you dwell on it, simply because everything seems important. After all, it is your life you’re writing about. However, this is exactly what could keep you stuck. Instead, move through it at a good pace, and later, when you edit it, you can slow down and decide what works and what doesn’t.  

Give It Time Before Editing It 

I never edit my writing soon after I’m done. To have a fresh outlook on my own writing, I need some time and distance from it. So, I give it at least two days, when it’s a small piece. But for an autobiography, I’d suggest giving it much longer; perhaps a month or two. Completing the manuscript in itself could take you months, if not years, and tire you out at the end of it. Take a long break, maybe even a vacation, where you work on something else completely. That way, when you return to edit your autobiography, you’ll have a renewed eye for error and detail. After this, maybe give it another two weeks before you fact-check and proofread. Once this is done, you’re ready to send it off to an agent. 

Write A Book Proposal 

Another thing to consider is that most agents will want a book proposal from you when you query them. Of course, before you do that you need to know which non-fiction agents to reach out to and what they are looking for. Be prepared for rejections; you knew this was never going to be easy. Do not take the rejection to be a personal critique of your life. Just keep pitching your book to agents until the right one picks it up.  

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Tips For Writing An Autobiography 

Apart from the obvious – write in the first person – if you’re considering giving autobiography writing a go, then, you’ll need to bear in mind the following: 

What Gives The Full Picture?

An autobiography compulsorily covers the subject’s whole life until the point they are done writing it. This means you’ll need to cover your childhood, upbringing, education (or lack of it), adolescence, career, relationships, lifestyle and more. So, knowing what to include in your autobiography can be tricky. Of course, you can’t place equal importance on each of these. If you’re a fitness expert, then it makes sense to spend more time on your lifestyle section than any other. Still, it’s important to let your readers know everything that shaped you into who you are today. So, whilst the emphasis might be on you as a fitness expert, the reader will also want to know how you handled life as a parent, child, employee, friend and more. They’ll want the full picture, the complete you. 

How Much Is Too Much? 

The best autobiographies provide as much information as a reader might crave about the subject, yet know when to stop. Keeping the reader – who doesn’t know you – in mind is crucial at every turn. The things you think are very important to you, might not be very interesting for the reader. Yes, this is your story, but once your story reaches the reader, it’s their review that decides how impactful it really is. 

What Ties It All Together? 

Life is messy; it’s hard to sort through the clutter and find the thread that ties it all together. But this, you must do, for your autobiography. Even though it will contain various aspects of your life, they need to have a common narrative. At the end of the day, it’s a book. It is a story. So, you’re going to have to write it like one. Here are some examples of narratives: transformations throughout life, lessons you learnt from every stage or area of life, you versus your public persona, you versus the society. These narratives don’t have to be combative, just problematic enough for any human to relate with. 

How Balanced Is It? 

By its very nature, an autobiography is revealing. It can unfurl the good, the bad, and even the ugly. How elegantly each of these is handled can make or break the autobiography. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs does this with a flair unmatched by most other books of the biography genre; the extensive research he did makes for a balanced view. Despite the candid voices, none of it reads like a smear campaign. You can take a leaf out of his book and apply it to your own autobiographical writing. If you can research your own life, by way of getting varied perspectives from friends, family, and even foes, then, you might have a nuanced approach to the storytelling of your own life. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Write An Autobiographical Story?

There are lots of things to include when you’re writing an autobiography. Autobiographical stories cover an entire lifetime, pay close attention to detail, are often written in chronological order, and have a clear narrative. They also have balanced characters and are well researched and fact checked.

What Is The Purpose Of Autobiographical Writing?

Autobiographical writing is generally written with the aim of depicting an important experience, topic, or challenge in the writer’s life. Beyond this, the aim tends to be much more personal, and dependent upon the subject of the book. Writers may hope to entertain, educate, or inspire their readers, or showcase a different perspective.

How Long Is An Autobiography?

There aren’t any specific rules when it comes to the length, or word count, of an autobiography, but they tend to be between 250-450 pages long. Autobiographies written by people who are well known and already have an audience tend to be longer, as their readers are more likely to commit to the text and take the time to read a lengthier tome.

Autobiographical Writing 

Writing an autobiography is a highly intimate affair; it’s bound to bring back certain uncomfortable memories, perhaps even trauma. If at any point, you feel it’s getting too heavy to handle, put the project on hold, seek out a therapist and come back to your book once you feel it’s safe to do so. Let your therapist know that this is in fact the reason you’re there – to be able to write your book from a safe space. 

You may want to consider not talking about your book with loved ones until you’ve completed the first draft. Then, let them know that your book might include them and not all of it might be easy to digest. They might not like it, but in the end, this is your story and you get to tell it from your point of view. If you ensure to focus on your own journey in the book, rather than blame others, then this shouldn’t be an issue. If someone still feels uncomfortable with the contents of your book, know that there isn’t much you can do about it. It’s their job to deal with their own feelings. Don’t let them guilt trip you. 

Try not to worry too much about the repercussions of writing your life’s story before you even begin. Remember why you’re writing this in the first place – your life is inspirational and there are readers who’d love to read about you. With that in sight, just get started and complete your autobiography. 


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