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How to Write an Autobiography in 9 Steps

You might not have figured it out yet, but people love to know about the “behind the scenes” of other people’s lives, especially of the rich and famous.

Generally, people want to know everything there’s to know about everyone.

So it comes as no surprise to me that many autobiographies (by famous actors, musicians, politicians, and sports stars) have made it on the bestsellers list.

And for the writer, an autobiography offers a chance to share the happenings in their life with the world.

Do you want to pen your own biography and don’t know how to go about it? You don’t know how to start telling your life story? Don’t know what should be part of that story and what shouldn’t?

If you’re worried about these things, then this article has been made for you!

I’ll cover everything you need to know about writing an autobiography—the differences between an autobiography and other biographies, the main elements of an autobiography, how to go about writing an autobiography, and other things.

how to write an autobiography in 9 steps

What is an Autobiography?

It is a non-fiction story of a person’s life, written by the person whose life is told in that biography.

So, an autobiography is a biography written by the subject himself, which is not the case with other subgenres of the broader genre of biographies.

Standard biographies are written by someone other than the subject, making autobiographies more appealing because the story is being told firsthand.

Since the subject is telling his own life story in an autobiography, the story usually covers the most meaningful moments, people, and events in the subject’s life from birth up until the time of writing or publishing.

Biography vs. Autobiography vs. Memoir

Well, let’s get the broader biography out of the way first. Since an autobiography is a subgenre of biographies, they are one and the same. The only difference—as I have already briefly explained— is that other biographies are written about the subject but by someone other than the subject, while autobiographies are a person’s life history written by that person.

Biographers are good at learning and researching their subject; on the other hand, an autobiographer already knows the subject.

Now, you ought to know that an Autobiography and a Memoir are a bit identical, but a Memoir is different from an Autobiography in this way:

A memoir is used to elaborate a larger theme or idea and—instead of telling the writer’s life story in a chronological narrative—a focus on personal experience and emotional truth to tell a good story with a theme behind it.

biography vs. autobiography vs. memoir

The Main Elements of an Autobiography

Now that you have a good idea of what an autobiography is, let me introduce you to its main features.

As a genre, an autobiography has some technical elements. Let’s take a look at some of them:

Purpose

Every author has a purpose for writing a book. You don’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m going to write a book for the sake of writing, with no purpose or message.”

Obviously, the purpose of an autobiography is to give an account of the writer’s life up to that point.

Tense

Well, it is nonfiction and the events have already happened, so—usually—it’s written in the past tense.

However, most biographies end in the present tense, and—in certain cases—the tense changes into the future tense toward the end of the book.

Structure

This feature of an autobiography isn’t always the same with every book, but most of the books in this genre have a similar structure.

One of the features under “structure” is chronology order. Since the book chronicles major events in the writer’s life, it’s usually written in chronological order. And, to show this chronology, the author uses time connectives like “after that,” “before,” “then,” “finally,” and among others.

an autobiography tells a true story about people, places, and events.
A mind map with questions to help you finish your autobiography.

An autobiography—just like all biographies—tells a true story, so the author usually uses the names of real people, places, and events. In addition to that, the book is—more often than not—specific about times, dates, places, and other similar details.

Includes personal memories and specific details and descriptions.

A well-written autobiography doesn’t just unload stories on the reader, the author also offers some observations and analytical reflections on how the events mentioned in the book shaped them. The author also uses the autobiography to share his feelings, thoughts, and plans for the future.

Some autobiographies include important photographs that give the readers a visual representation of the story.

How to Write an Autobiography in 9 Steps

Writing an Autobiography isn’t that complicated, but you need to know how to go about it, so this is the most important section of this article, especially if you’re clueless about the autobiography writing process.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to writing an autobiography:

1. Brainstorm

a man looking at printed papers on the wall
A man looking at printed papers on the wall.

This is the stage where you sit down and try to pick the most relevant events in your life—you compile all life experiences that you think might be worth a read. First, you list all the exciting or life-changing experiences from childhood up to that very moment (from playing in your background as a little child, to high school memories, up to your first day at your first workplace), then select the cream out of that list.

Although most of the initial events won’t make the final list, write them down anyway—it’s better to have too many to choose from than to have less.

These are some of the things you can include in your initial list are:

  • The most substantial events and experiences in your life.
  • Significant individuals or entities that have made an important impact in your life.
  • Things you have achieved, the challenges you have overcome to achieve the listed achievements, and the most significant failures.
  • The lessons all your life experiences have taught you (life-changing or not).

2. Organize Your Lists

You have written down all those important events, places, and people, what do you do next?

Put your lists in order.

The things in your lists have to be organized into subsets of the biography and items in the same subset have to be similar or in the same category—create subsets for significant events, significant people, life lessons, challenges, successes, et cetera.

This order helps you with the next chapter: creating the outline.

3. Conduct Some Research

The thing about brainstorming on your own is that you only write down the things you can remember.

But… Some forgotten memories could make your autobiography a lot more exciting or engrossing.

That calls for research! You need third parties to help you recall some useful information (whether completely new or additional information).

It’s your life story, so you don’t really have to go any farther than your friends and family. Ask the people close to you about all the details from the moments you’ve listed and others that you might’ve forgotten.

Just like you, the people you ask won’t have all the details or your full life story, but if you piece together the bits from their narratives, you’ll have a better story.

4. Decide on Themes, Message, the Questions your Autobiography Will Answer

After getting all the bits and pieces in one place, comes the unenviable task of laying down the purpose of your autobiography and the content that is going to help you achieve that.

Decisions, Decisions!

An autobiography is not mere personal history written reeking of subjectivity and with no substance, so you have to choose and write down the questions your autobiography is going to answer.

a lighted signage that says, this is who i am.
A lighted signage that says, “This is Who I am.”

Autobiography readers are interested in getting to know the person behind the curtains and for an autobiography to be good, you need to fuse the raw stories with a little bit of mature perspective on your experiences (with an edifying touch if you think your life story can have that much of an impact on a reader’s life).

Use the dominant themes of your life to unify the stories together, connecting different stages of your life. Past and present always have some thematic consistencies, so try to analyze themes that have been consistent throughout your life. It might be a place that you traveled to over and over, your childhood sweetheart who eventually became the love of your life, an ever-present crush, your spiritual journey life, etc.

Whatever theme connects different stories or stages in your life is useful as long as you are creative with your storytelling, they’ll work.

5. Create an Outline

The next step involves organizing the pieces from your brainstorming stage. You’re telling your life story, and it still is just that: a story.

Therefore, crafting an outline has to consider things like logical flow and pace—a good pace through your life’s most interesting or significant events using logical flow is likely going to keep your readers interested from beginning to end.

You might want to tell the story in chronological order, but you can also spice it up by going back and forth or interrupting the chronological narrative with some important/interesting events that may or may not relate to the part of that chronological narrative.

6. Telling the Story

You have sorted everything out, you have your autobiography outlined, and it’s time to tell the story.

Underline story, because after all, it’s just a story.

The story needs to have some sort of structure, your autobiography needs a great plot. It has to have all the points that make a great story, things like conflict, goals, tension, a climax, and ultimately a resolution or—at least—a hint of a resolution.

I’ve already talked about the need for the story to flow logically, this is not something you brush aside—it’s a must.

While sorting out such important elements of the autobiography, you also have to remember that you’ll have to use your voice in writing the book—readers are interested in your life story, told by you!

If you’ve never written anything as large as a book, you can hire a ghostwriter to work with; otherwise, it takes time and lots of writing practice to discover an authentic writing voice.

7. Write Your First Draft

writing the first draft of my autobiography
Autobiography typed on an old typewriter.

Now you are ready for the most important part of the autobiography crafting process: writing it!

Anybody who’s ever written a book will tell you that it’s almost impossible to write a perfect finished book on your first go.

Remember you’re just trying to attempt a first draft.

You don’t have to be perfect, but make sure you write a good one—it doesn’t really matter if your first draft looks like a chicken footprint in the mud, as long as it has content, you are going in the right direction.

8. Take a Break, Then Proofread

You have finished your first draft, your mind is exhausted (your body too, probably), you need to take a few days off.

Or you might not be tired at all, you might even be full of energy, you still need a break.

Apart from reenergizing your mind and body, a break gives you a fresh perspective, and you can easily spot some imperceptible mistakes from your first draft.

After the respite, begin proofreading. You can hire a professional proofreader or do it yourself. A professional proofreader is likely going to look for grammar mistakes, typos, etc.

They are also going to look at mistakes in the narrative and offer constructive tips.

If you decide to go it alone (which, I think, is the right way to go about proofreading your first draft), you might want to use tools like Grammarly or ProwritingAid to help you with grammar and other errors in your draft.

9. Write the Second Draft, and then Another

When proofreading the first draft, take some notes. Those notes will prove useful and particularly directional when you start writing the second draft.

I’m sorry to break your heart, but your second draft won’t be perfect either.

What I’m saying is: you’ll have to repeat steps 7 and 8, in most cases the cycle you’ll have to be repeated more than once.

When you feel like the drafts are becoming riper, you can show your writing to others and request feedback.

This feedback will help you perfect the autobiography and your writing skills in general. Just remember that in all these rewrites, the most important thing is giving the reader bits of your life and revealing your truth.

Things you can’t leave Out of your Autobiography

Well, you could leave out some of these things, it’s your story after all, but what’s an autobiography without the most important details of your life?

I’m not saying that it should contain every significant detail in your life; certain moments in your life pick themselves and others are what your readers are looking for.

things you can’t leave out of your autobiography
  1. Significant experiences: Not all of them, just the experiences that shaped your worldview and changed your life in some way.
  2. Your background story: Sort of describe your personal history, which has things like your family history, hometown, siblings, parents, other key family members and friends, and moments in your career and education.
  3. Conflict and Drama: Your readers are looking for honesty and a bit of fun, and who’s ever lived a life without conflict and drama? No one? They want your life story told as it happened and if there were some conflicts and dramatic events along the way, they’re hungry for that too!
  4. Failure and Success in your professional life: You have to give recollections of your professional life, and it has to have some richness in detail. If you’ve achieved something in your professional life, there will be one or two people looking for inspiring moments in your story. When you serve them these moments, it will be good for both you and them.

Three Best Autobiographies of all Time

1. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

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By telling the full life story of this legend, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography tells the world how great a man and a leader he was. The book narrates his story from his childhood, young adult, dealing with apartheid and becoming a freedom fighter, his 27-year incarceration, and the pivotal role he played in building a new and democratic South Africa.

This is the book you read if you think you have some purpose to fulfill in life.


2. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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After reading this autobiography, you realize that this is the greatest teenager that ever lived.

Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, who, along with millions of other Jewish people, died at the hands of a moronic Nazi regime, gave us this beautiful piece.

In 1942, a thirteen-year-old Anne and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

She narrated her experiences during this period in a thoughtful, moving, and humorous manner. The book gave the world her views on human courage, frailty, friendships, and loneliness.

The Nazis might have taken such a beautiful soul sooner than every good person would have wished, but her legacy lives on through this autobiography.


3. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

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Who wouldn’t want to demystify the story behind the Queen of mystery?

Different from Mandela and Anne Frank, Christie is actually one of the world’s most influential and fascinating novelists and you already know that the story is going to be ingeniously told.

In this book, readers get to know Agatha Christie’s life story, told in her own words—from her childhood, her relationship with her mother and her mother’s death, the tragic events that had an impact on her, her two marriages, her first husband’s adultery, and most especially, about her writing.


Summary

You can write an autobiography whichever way you like, but you have to remember that an autobiography is a story.

A lot of focus has to be on the narrative. The book will be as good as the writer’s storytelling skills.

Your autobiography has to have all the necessary elements of a story, i.e., a plot (which is easier to come up with since you already know the whole story), a cast of characters, conflict, resolution, et cetera.

With all these things involved, the secret ingredient is still honesty. After all, people want to read a real-life story.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.