aging hands write an autobiography

How to Write an Autobiography: A Beginner’s Guide

Why to Write an Autobiography

Everyone has a good story to share. An autobiography is an opportunity to tell a life story and shape how others remember us. It’s an entire lifetime of experiences and memories, and a unique path through life’s ups and downs that is worth recording. This blog post will provide guidance and tools on how to write an autobiography.

A Memoir is an Autobiography, but an Autobiography is Not a Memoir

The difference between a memoir vs. autobiographies is that a memoir is a subset of an autobiography. Both a memoir and an autobiography tell the tale of a life, but an autobiography captures the whole story while a memoir describes a mere chapter. An autobiography walks the reader through a chronology of life, while a memoir moves back and forth through time as needed to illustrate the point. While an autobiography truly is a life story, a memoir can focus on certain aspects or time periods to tell a specific story.

What’s Included in an Autobiography?

An autobiography should include at least the following details:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Childhood and pivotal events
  • Major life events (including dates and how they changed the course of a life)

From there, fill in the blanks.

How to Get Started

  1. Create an outline. Start from the very beginning, then make a list of major formative life events. It might look something like this autobiography template:
      1. Born in [Place] on [Date]
      2. Description of family
      3. Went to school [Place] for [Number of Years]
      4. Attended [Name of University]
      5. Joined the workforce at [Place of Employment]
      6. Started a family
      7. Career change
      8. Major life event
      9. Grandkids
      10. Major life event

    Or it could look entirely different; that’s the beauty of telling a unique story.

  2. Identify the main characters. Who were the most influential people? How long were they part of the story? How did they define what happened? Identify them and where they fit into the story so the reader recognizes them if they are mentioned again.
  3. List life events in chronological order. Remember, autobiographies are written in the order events occurred, making it easier for a reader to follow along. Associate dates with all the events that are shared, like a timeline.
  4. Expand some events into more detailed stories. Some life events deserve a little more narrative. For those extra impactful ones, feel free to break out of a matter-of-fact manner of storytelling and add in some emotion and drama. Spend more words on these life-changing instances.
  5. Write an opening and a closing. Once a lifetime’s worth of events is accounted for, it’s easier to summarize and extract the main points to convey to a reader, and frame the autobiography with opening and closing statements.

Tips for Writing Good Autobiographies

  1. Be genuine. Tell the story as it really happened. Don’t try to take on anyone else’s writing style or make it more interesting than it is — the most interesting version of the story will be the one that’s told most honestly.
  2. Write in an authentic voice. No need to get fancy with the language. Part of being genuine in writing is using words as if sharing a personal experience with a friend. Just say it like it is.
  3. Take a trip down memory lane. A great way to kick-start the creative process is by sorting through old photos, journals and other memorabilia to jog memories of the past.
  4. Figure out the audience. If there’s no intention of sharing or publishing the autobiography, then there is no audience. In that case, write to an imaginary person in the future. If there is an intention to share the autobiography, then identify the audience and keep them in mind throughout the process.
  5. Have someone else read it. This can be nerve-wracking but it needs to be done. Having someone else’s eyes on the work exposes inconsistencies in the story or blanks in the timeline. It can be even easier to have a stranger review the work in a setting like a writing group.

Sharing a life story with a community of writers can be a liberating experience. It’s a wonderful way to feel heard while getting constructive feedback. The Heritage at Brentwood offers a Life Bio 101 class that helps seniors share the details of their life journey in a supportive setting. Discover how to write your own story at The Heritage, and learn about other activities that nurture creativity and build social connections. Contact us to learn more.