How to Write an Autobiography
A quick scan of the bestseller lists will quickly reveal that we are obsessed with the lives of other people.
Books by and about actors, politicians, and sports stars regularly top the charts, as we seek to catch a glimpse into the lives of remarkable people.
While many of these books are written by professional writers after meticulous research (biographies), just as many are written by the person themselves (autobiographies) – albeit often with the ‘help’ of a ghostwriter.
WHAT IS AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
Autobiography is a subcategory of the biography genre and, strictly speaking, it’s a life story written by the subject themselves.
Autobiographies are sometimes confused with memoirs and it’s no surprise as the two share many features in common. For example, both are written in the first person and contain details of the subject’s life.
However, some clear distinctions can be made between the two.
For example, a memoir usually explores a specific period of a person’s life, whereas an autobiography tends to make an account of the person’s life from their earliest years right up to the time of writing.
Autobiographies aren’t just the preserve of the celebrities among us though, each of our lives is a story in and of itself. Whether or not it’s a good story will depend largely on the telling, which is what this article is all about.
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WHAT ARE THE MAIN FEATURES OF AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
Once students have a good grasp of what an autobiography is, we need to ensure they are familiar with the main features of the genre before they begin writing.
Let’s take a look at some of the main technical elements of an autobiography:
Purpose of an Autobiography:
To give an account of the person’s life so far
Tense: Mostly written in the past tense, but usually ends in the present tense and sometimes shifts into the future tense at the very end.
Structure of an Autobiography:
● Usually written in chronological order
● Uses time connectives such as before, then, after that, finally, etc
● Uses the names of real people and events
● Is specific about times, dates, places, etc
● Includes personal memories and specific details and descriptions
● Reflects on how positive and negative experiences shaped the author
● Gives an insight into the thoughts, feelings, and hopes of the author
● May include some relevant photographs
● Usually ends with a commentary on life, reflections on significant large events, and hopes and plans for the future.
When teaching these specific features, you may wish to compile a checklist with the students that they can subsequently use to assist them when writing their autobiography.
One great way to help your students to internalize the main features of the genre is to encourage them to read lots of autobiographies. Instruct the students to be conscious of the different features discussed above and to identify them in the autobiography as they read.
If you have compiled a checklist together, students can check off the features they come across as they read.
When they have finished reading, students should consider which features were well done in the book and which were missing or had room for improvement.
TIPS FOR WRITING A GREAT AUTOBIOGRAPHY
As we know, there is more to a genre of writing than just ticking off the main features from a checklist.
To write well takes time and practice, as well as familiarity with the features of the genre. Each genre of writing makes different demands on our skills as a writer and autobiography are no different.
Below, we will look at a step-by-step process for how students can best approach the task of writing their autobiography, along with some helpful hints and tips to polish things up.
Let’s get started!
HOW TO START AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY WRITING TIPS:
TIP #1: BRAINSTORM YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY
The structure of an autobiography is somewhat obvious; it starts at the beginning of the subject’s life, works its way through the middle, and ends in the present day.
However, there’s a lot in a life. Some of it will be fascinating from a reader’s point of view and some of it not so much. Students will need to select which events, anecdotes, and incidents to include and which to leave out.
Before they begin this selection process in earnest, they need to dump out the possibilities onto the page through the process of brainstorming. Students should write down any ideas and sketches of memories that might be suitable onto the page.
While they needn’t write trivial memories that they know definitely won’t make the cut, they should not set the bar so high that they induce writer’s block.
They can remove the least interesting episodes when making the final selection later in the writing process. The main thing at this stage is the generation and accumulation of ideas.
TIP #2: CREATE AN OUTLINE OF YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY
After students have selected the most compelling episodes from their brainstorming session, they’ll need to organize them into the form of an outline.
One good way to do this is to lay them out chronologically on a simple timeline. Looking at the episodes in such a visual way can help the students to construct a narrative that leads from the student’s earliest childhood right through to the present day.
Students need to note that an autobiography isn’t just the relating of a series of life events in chronological order. They’ll need to identify themes that link the events in their autobiography together.
Themes are the threads that we weave between the cause and effect of events to bring shape and meaning to a life. They touch on the motivation behind the actions the author takes and fuel the development growth of the person.
Some themes that might be identified in an outline for an autobiography might include:
● Overcoming adversity
● Adjusting to a new life
● Dealing with loss
● The importance of friendship
● The futility of revenge
● The redemptive power of forgiveness.
These themes are the big ideas of a person’s life story. They represent how the events shape the person who is now sitting writing their story. For students to gain these insights will require the necessary time and space for some reflection.
For this reason, autobiography writing works well as a project undertaken over a longer period such as several weeks.
TIP #3: DO THE BACKGROUND RESEARCH ON YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Even though no one knows more about the topic of an autobiography than the author, research is still a necessary part of the writing process for autobiographies.
Using the outline they have created, students will need to flesh out some of the details of key events by speaking to others, especially when writing about their earliest experiences.
The most obvious resources will be parents and other family members who were privy to the joys of babyhood and their earliest childhood.
However, friends and ex-teachers make excellent sources of information too. They will enable the student to get a different perspective on something they remember, helping to create a more rounded view of past events.
For older and more advanced students, they may even wish to do some research regarding historical and cultural happenings in the wider society during the period they’re writing about. This will help to give depth and poignancy to their writing as they move up and down the ladder of abstraction from the personal to the universal and back again.
When students make the effort to draw parallels between their personal experiences and the world around them, they help to bridge the gap between author and reader creating a more intimate connection that enhances the experience for the reader.
TIP #4: FIND YOUR VOICE
Students need to be clear that autobiography is not mere personal history written dispassionately and subjectively.
For their autobiography to work, they’ll need to inject something of themselves into their writing. Readers of autobiography especially are interested in getting to know the inner workings of the writer.
There is a danger, however. Given that autobiographers are so close to their material, they must be careful not to allow their writing to denigrate into a sentimental vomit. To counter this danger, the student author needs to find a little perspective on their experiences, and following the previous tip regarding research will help greatly here.
A more daunting obstacle for the student can lie in the difficulties they face when trying to find their voice in their writing. This isn’t easy. It takes time and it takes lots of writing practice.
However, there are some simple, helpful strategies students can use to help them discover their authentic voice in their writing quickly.
1. Write to a close friend or family member
All writing is written to be read – with the possible exception of journals and diaries. The problem is that if the student is too conscious of the reader, they can find themselves playing to the audience and getting away from what it is they’re trying to express. Showboating can replace the honesty that is such a necessary part of good writing.
A useful trick to help students overcome this hurdle is to tell them to imagine they are writing their autobiography to an intimate friend or family member. Someone who makes them feel comfortable in their skin when they are around. Students should write like they’re writing to that person to who they can confide their deepest secrets. This will give their writing an honest and intimate tone that is very engaging for the reader.
2. Read the writing out loud
It’s no accident that we talk about the writer’s ‘voice’. We recognize the actual voice of people we know from its many qualities, from its timbre, tone, pacing, accent, word choice, etc. Writing is much the same in this regard.
One great way to help students detect whether their writing captures their authentic voice is to have them read it out loud, or listen to a recording of their work read out loud.
While we don’t necessarily write exactly as we speak – we have more time to craft what we say – we will still be able to recognize whether or not the writing sounds like us, or whether it’s filled with affectation.
As the student listens to their own words, encourage them to ask the following questions:
● Does this sound like me?
● Do the words sound natural in my voice?
● Do I believe in the events related and how they were related?
Finding their real voice in their writing will help students imbue their writing with honesty and personality that readers love.
TIP #5: DRAFT, REDRAFT AND REFINE YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY
In the first draft, the brushstrokes will be large and broad, sweeping through the key events. The main notes of the tune will be there but with sometimes too much ornamentation and, at other times, not enough. This is why redrafting is an essential part of the writing process.
Students should understand that every piece of writing needs redrafting, editing, and proofreading to be at its best. There are no masterpieces full-borne into the world in a single draft.
For many, the tightening-up of a piece will involve the merciless cutting out of dead words. But, for some, the redrafting and refining process will demand the adding of more description and detail.
For most, however, it’ll be a little from column A and a little from column B.
Often, it’s difficult for students to get the necessary perspective on their work to be able to spot structural, grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. In these instances, it can be best to enrol the eyes of a friend or family member in the role of editor or critic.
One effective way of doing this in class is to organize the students into pairs of editing buddies who edit each other’s work in a reciprocal arrangement.
These ‘edit swaps’ can be continued through to the proofreading stage and the final, polished piece.
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A Final Thought
Employing the 5 tips above will go a long way to ensuring a well-written and engaging autobiography.
While autobiography is a nonfiction genre, it is clear that with its emphasis on narrative, it has much in common with other fictional genres. So, it’s important when teaching autobiography that students learn to recognize the important role of storytelling in this genre too.
As with all good story-telling, there are some necessary elements to include, including a plot of sorts, a cast of characters, and an exploration of some central themes. For this reason, teaching autobiography often works well after the students have completed a unit on fictional story writing.
When all is said and done, the best way a student can ensure their autobiography is worth a read is to ensure they find the story within their own life.
After all, we’re obsessed with the lives of other people.
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Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.