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BlogPerfecting your Craft

Posted on Jun 05, 2024

How to Write an Autobiography: The Story of Your Life

Anyone who’s lived a long, interesting life (as many of us have in one way or another!) may dream of someday turning their life into a book. However, the practicalities of how to write an autobiography can be daunting — especially to those who don’t have much writing experience.

If you feel ready to write your autobiography but aren’t sure where to start, this guide will take you from opening lines to (hopefully) publishing your autobiography for all the world to read.

1. Understand what an autobiography entails

When asked to picture an autobiography, you might think of a celebrity tell-all or political memoir. This isn’t inaccurate; a memoir would definitely fall under the autobiography umbrella. But to be really precise, there are a few key differences between memoirs and autobiographies:

  • Memoirs tend to be more thematic and focus on a central narrative (similar to a novel), whereas an autobiography is highly factual and reads more like “classic” nonfiction.
  • Memoirs focus on a specific period or theme in a person’s life, while autobiographies aim to give a complete, chronological picture.
  • Lastly, many memoirs are written while the writer is still young. An autobiography, though, should be written later in one’s life — at a point where one’s life story can be told comprehensively.

An autobiography is also different from a biography in that it is always narrated by the subject. Note that we’ve said “narrated” instead of “written” because, indeed, many autobiographies are created with the help of ghostwriters!

Ghostwritten autobiographies aren’t just for celebrities, either. People from all walks of life work with ghostwriters to record their stories or simply guide them through the process.

If that sounds like you, have a look through our vetted ghostwriters on the Reedsy marketplace. You might just find your dream collaborator!



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Should you write a memoir or an autobiography?

In other words, if you’re still young (be honest here!), and/or if the book you want to write is more a series of vignettes revolving around a central theme, you may have a memoir on your hands. If that’s the case, check out our guide to how to write a memoir for more tailored advice.

But if you’ve already lived a long, interesting life — one that you feel prepared to share chronologically and completely — then an autobiography is the medium for you.

2. Outline your life's main “beats”

You might think you don’t need to be too picky about what to include in your autobiography since it’s supposed to be a “complete” account — and you’d be mostly right! That said, even in a fairly exhaustive autobiography, it’s still useful to identify the key “beats” before you begin.

What should you include in an autobiography?

While each person’s autobiography will be unique to them, readers expect certain “beats” to be covered. To get the ball rolling, here’s a list of classic autobiographical beats to hit:

  • 🐣 Your birth and family background – possibly including how your parents met, where they were living at the time of your birth, whether you have any siblings, etc.
  • 📚 Your early days at school – including the friends you made (whether long-lasting or not), your academic achievements (and failures), and any critical moments related to your future goals/actions.
  • 🧑🏽‍💻 Your first job – this is often enlightening for readers, particularly if it had some bearing on your later career; whether because you realized that you loved the work or, more likely, that you didn’t want to work your first job forever.
  • 👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩 Your first relationship – similar to your first job, this is often a major stepping stone into adulthood and understanding your priorities.
  • 🏡 Any further family, career, or life milestones – speaking of which, after all the “first time” beats, it’s up to you to decide what to include! A few ideas here could be:
      • Moving house;
      • Having children;
      • Getting promoted;
      • Receiving an award;
      • Traveling somewhere new;
      • Or discovering anything significant about yourself.
  • 💼 Your retirement – if applicable, this will likely be one of the last beats you cover; it might include why you decided to retire, how you are spending your time nowadays, and any plans for the future.

Remember that each beat you include should contribute to a holistic portrait of your life — whether it’s something that shaped your character or lends context to another parallel moment later on.

But not everything will be relevant. There’s no need to include random things that have no bearing on any other event or important element of your life; that said, the lucky thing about memory is that you likely won’t recall most of those things anyway!

Need some help outlining your autobiography? Check out our Biography Outline Template below — while not entirely chronological, it’s a great starting point for any aspiring autobiographical author.



Biography Outline Template

Craft a satisfying story arc for your biography with our free template.

3. Try to write in chronological order

Having come up with a solid outline, you should now feel (somewhat) prepared to start writing your autobiography… and, ideally, to start writing it in chronological order.

While many books can be drafted non-chronologically, an autobiography is not one of them. This is because each new chapter quite literally builds on the last; this is different even from a memoir, which often skips around in time and leaves out details. The best way to ensure you’re not missing anything is to write your autobiography as chronologically as possible!

How to start an autobiography

On the note of starting your autobiography, it’s pretty straightforward: begin either with your birth or slightly before, e.g., with your parents. Unlike a memoir, which can start in medias res (in the middle of the action), an autobiography should start ab ovo, or “from the egg.”

This is one of the biggest benefits of writing chronologically: you always know where to start, and indeed, what should come next. Here are two strong autobiography openings to give a sense of how yours might sound:

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

When I was born, people in our village commiserated with my mother and nobody congratulated my father. I arrived at dawn as the last star blinked out… I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.

Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca and William Novak:

Nicola Iacocca, my father, arrived in this country in 1902 at the age of twelve — poor, alone, and scared. He used to say the only thing he was sure of when he got here was that the world was round. And that was only because another Italian boy named Christopher Columbus had preceded him by 410 years, almost to the day.

Though each opening takes a different tack — Yousafzai’s autobiography begins with her actual birth, while Iacocca’s begins even earlier, with his father’s arrival in America — both serve as effective starts to their respective books and set the tone for what’s to come.

Malala Yousafzai’s book I Am Malala begins with a striking description of her birth and her homeland's culture. (Image: Little, Brown and Company)

4. Include plenty of detail

In case we haven’t drilled down on this enough, let’s reiterate once more: an autobiography should be a complete overview of your life from beginning to end. That means that as you get into properly writing it, you should include as much detail as you can remember.

Taking one of our previous suggested beats — “your first job” — as an example, here are a few questions you might ask yourself to recount your memories in more detail:

  • How did you get your first job?
  • What made you want to work there?
  • What was the environment/atmosphere like — physically and emotionally?
  • What was your greatest accomplishment at this job? Your greatest failure?
  • What did you learn from working there? How did it affect your later career?

As you can probably tell from these questions, the natural corollary to the advice of “be detailed!” is to also be honest. Don’t shy away from your failures or regrets — an autobiography without mistakes is not an autobiography, but rather a puff piece.

Some of the cast of The Office
What was your first job like? (Image: NBC Universal, Inc.)

Examples of strong biographical detail

For those wondering how to inject detail into their writing, here are two examples from great autobiographies that do exactly that. Each takes a different approach to engage readers — perhaps you can pick up some descriptive techniques to suit your own life story.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

There was no natural light in my cell; a single bulb burned overhead twenty-four hours a day. I did not have a wristwatch and I often thought it was the middle of the night when it was only late afternoon. I had nothing to read, nothing to write on or with, no one to talk to [...] After a time in solitary, I relished the company even of the insects in my cell, and found myself on the verge of initiating conversations with a cockroach.

This passage’s evocative details — the single lightbulb, Mandela’s loss of his internal clock — convey the crushing loneliness of solitary confinement, yet also add levity with the bit about cockroaches.

This give-and-take style may be useful if you, too, are writing an autobiography which includes difficult or traumatic elements. Don’t shy away from the hard parts, but don’t let solemnity overpower your personality and voice!

Becoming by Michelle Obama

When you’re little, a piano can look like it has a thousand keys. You’re staring at an expanse of black and white that stretches farther than two small arms can reach. [...] The keys on Robbie’s piano had a subtle unevenness of color and shape, places where bits of ivory had broken off over time, leaving them looking like a set of bad teeth.

This passage uses sensory details and an intimate tone to draw readers in, describing not just how the piano looks, but how it feels to play. All this makes for a very compelling narrative style — almost like that of a novel. If you want your autobiography to flow this way, try reading more nonfiction in this style (indeed, many memoirs read quite similarly).

📚 Looking for more examples of brilliant biographical writing? Check out this list of The 30 Best Biographies of All Time to inspire you.

5. Do research to fill in the gaps

No matter how carefully you rack your brains, you won’t be able to recall every detail of your life. That’s where research comes in! Here are a couple of things you can do to learn more about yourself and your past.

Interview friends and family

While you’ve likely retained the core of each important life memory, some details will still elude you. For these, you might call on friends, family members, and anyone else who was in your life at the time — interviewing them should help flesh things out in your autobiography.

You might try a few different interview strategies, depending on what you’re hoping to achieve:

  • Ask specific questions based on what you can’t remember/don’t know (e.g. “Whose wedding was that again?” or “Why did Dad quit that job in Pasadena?”);
  • Ask your subject to recount everything they can about an event (e.g. “Tell me how you remember our high school graduation”); or
  • Ask them if they have any key memories of you which they would like to talk about.

The first interview style will be the quickest, but the latter two might yield more interesting results. If you’re prioritizing thoroughness, we’d highly recommend calling up a few old friends or close family members, sitting down, and recording your interview for a few hours.

Consider sitting down with friends and family — perhaps over a meal — to interview them at length for your autobiography. (Image: Pexels)

Do “traditional" research if needed

Having written as much as you can, and interviewed other people to add their stories, you might still find yourself missing information. If applicable, this is where you could turn to “traditional” research — that is, looking up relevant records and documentation, or even taking a field trip or two to previous neighborhoods.

It’s up to you how far to go with this; just don’t go mad, and try to avoid any rabbit holes that tempt you to write an entirely new book. (Then again, that could always be your next project! Check out our post on how to write a nonfiction book to learn more.)

6. Give your draft a discerning edit

You’ve finally finished a detailed draft — congratulations! Even if you don’t do anything else with your autobiography, your friends and family will be wildly impressed, and your descendants will have a fascinatingly thorough record of your life.

But if you want to publish your autobiography — or even if you suspect it hasn’t turned out quite as expected — you’ll now need to enter the editing stage. There are a few different types of editing to consider for your autobiography, including:

  • Structural editing to heighten the impact of your key beats;
  • Line editing to improve the syntax, flow, and clarity of your sentences; and
  • Fact-checking and proofreading to ensure your book doesn’t contain any errors.

Again, it’s up to you how extensively you want to edit your autobiography. If you’re doing it yourself, we’d suggest going top-to-bottom — first structural editing, then line editing, then proofreading — to avoid unnecessary work. (Check out this post on how to self-edit your book for key tips!)

And if this all feels overwhelming, you can always work with a professional editor to get your autobiography in tip-top shape. Autobiography and memoir specialists can help turn your work into an Iacocca-worthy masterpiece.



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7. Format and publish your autobiography

Now comes the really fun part, if you so choose it — formatting and publishing your autobiography for everyone to read!

Biography fans out there will know that auto/biographies often contain a selection of personal photos within the text. If you’re envisioning this, it will require specialty formatting; you’ll either need to intersperse photos throughout the text or format your book with a “photo section” in the middle (the more common option).

A selection of photos from Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, showing the progression of Jobs' life. (Images: Simon & Schuster)

You can do this with free book formatting tools like Reedsy Studio. Or if you’re not confident in your formatting abilities, consider hiring a professional typesetter to help!

As for publishing, many autobiographers choose to self-publish their books to get them out as quickly as possible, and to have more control over the process. However, if you’re interested in selling your autobiography to a publisher — a reasonable option if you are a businessperson, and especially if you already have a decent following — we’d suggest this post on how to write a non-fiction query letter to get you started.

Whatever path you take, whether you decide to publish it or not, writing the story of your life is an incredibly enlightening endeavor. If you're interested in novels instead, check out this advice from NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt! We hope this guide has helped you on your journey; indeed, as autobiographical writing teaches us, the journey really is the greatest reward.

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