How to write an autobiography
Want to write an autobiography? Don’t miss these top five tips to get you started
You don’t have to be famous to write an autobiography. Even if you’re not a public figure, writing an autobiography is a great way to capture the life you’ve lived, preserve your memories and give your descendants something to remember you by. Imagine how interesting it would be if your ancestors left autobiographies of their lives – your autobiography could still be read by your family in 100 years time!
If you want to write your autobiography, here are five first steps to help you get started:
To start, try brainstorming what to include in your autobiography. Write brief notes on everything that happened in your life, without judging or second-guessing yourself – when and where were you born? Who were your family? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school and university? What jobs did you do? When did you get married? Where did you live? When were your children and grandchildren born? What hobbies and organisations did you get involved with? What are you most proud of, or made you most happy? What were the most challenging times in your life?
When you’ve had a brainstorm, look at what you’ve written – what stands out?
2. Come up with a structure
When you’ve brainstormed your ideas, you can sift through them to see which are the best. What are the most important moments in your life? What do you most want to include in your autobiography? Remember, you can’t include everything, unless you want the book to be enormously long!
One of the keys to writing a successful book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is having a structure. You should know how your book starts, how it finishes and roughly what points are in the middle. For instance, you could try listing each chapter in your autobiography, and what you want to include. Remember it’s not set in stone, and it’s normal to change things in the course of writing a book as you come up with ideas you like better.
More like this
3. Use details
The secret of good writing is in the details. Don’t just say what happened, paint a picture in words, and remember to use all your senses – describe in detail how things looked, or sounded, or smelled, or felt, or tasted. This is particularly useful in writing about your childhood – what did you eat? What was your house like? What did you wear? What songs were on the radio? Future historians might be fascinated by an account of what ordinary life was like in the 1950s or 1960s!
4. Go back to primary records
Just like with researching your family history, old documents and photographs can help enhance your story. Try looking at the papers you have in the attic. Can you include old photographs, or extracts from documents such as diaries and letters, in your autobiography? They’re a great thing to talk about with your family as well – asking if they remember who else is in a family photograph, or where it was taken, can add some more detail to your story. Remember to check out our guide to cleaning, storing and displaying old photographs to make sure your collection is being cared for properly!
5. Get help
If you want further help writing your autobiography, you may want to look for a writing class or group in your area, or ask a trusted friend if they’ll give feedback on your writing. It’s good to hear from other people what they thought of your writing, and how it could be improved.
Alternatively, if you don’t have the time to write your autobiography, or would prefer to trust it to a professional writer, companies such as LifeBook, StoryTerrace and Book of My Life offer a professional ghost writing service that does the work for you. A professional writer will interview you about your life and memories, write your story and turn it into a professionally-published book. You can have a look at their websites to get a sense of their services and how much they cost.
Rosemary Collins is the features editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine