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What Is an Autobiography?
An autobiography is a non-fiction story of a person’s life, written by the subject themselves from their own point of view. Autobiographies are a subgenre of the broader category of biographies, but a standard biography is written by someone other than its subject—most commonly a historian—whereas an autobiography is written by the subject.
Autobiographies are popular among the general reading public. A newly-released autobiography by a current political figure can easily top the New York Times bestseller list. Certain autobiographical writing, such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, can endure for well over a century and become part of the literary canon.
Autobiography vs. Biography
Whereas biographies are written about someone other than the writer, autobiographies take a more introspective approach. Famous biographers include Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has written about Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert Caro, who has written about Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses. Biographers are known for developing great expertise about their subject. By contrast, an autobiographer only needs total expertise on one subject: themselves.
Autobiography vs. Memoir
An autobiography is closely related to the nonfiction format known as a memoir, but the two forms are not identical. Most notably, an autobiography is a first person account of its author’s entire life. A memoir does not document the memoirist’s entire life story but rather a selected era or a specific multi-era journey within that author’s life. Alternatively, a memoir may concern its author’s entire life, but present it through a particular lens—perhaps highlighting the events leading up to and surrounding their professional career. As such, a memoir is comparatively focused when considered side-by-side with an autobiography.
For instance, a professional athlete may document her entire life in her autobiography, while giving special emphasis to an era she believes will grab the reader’s interest, such as the summer she competed in the Olympic Games. If that same athlete had opted for memoir writing instead, she may have focused the entire memoir around those Olympic games. Rather than function as the story of the author’s life from birth to the present, her memoir would focus on retelling the period in her life for which she is most known.
6 Things to Include in an Autobiography
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An autobiography should include all the most important details of your life story. This does not mean it should contain every tiny sliver of minutiae; a self-aware autobiographer will take stock of certain moments in their own life that may be interesting to themselves but not to an audience of strangers.
Here are some key elements to consider including in your autobiography:
- A description of your personal origin story: This can include your hometown, your family history, some key family members and loved ones, and touchstone moments in your education.
- Significant experiences: Add accounts of each personal experience that shaped your worldview and your approach to life in the present day.
- Detailed recollections of episodes from your professional life: Often these are the turning points that your autobiography will be known for—the moments that would inspire someone to pick up your book in the first place. Be sure to give them extra care and attention.
- A personal story of failure: Follow it up with a good story of how you responded to that failure.
- A unique and compelling title: Steer clear of generic phrases like “my autobiography” or “the story of me, my family, and famous people I know.”
- A first person narrative voice: Third person writing is appropriate for traditional biographies, but in the autobiography format, third person voice can read as presumptuous.
How to Write an Autobiography in 8 Steps
Setting out to write the story of your life can be daunting, particularly during the first draft. Here is a step-by-step guide to the art of writing your own autobiography:
1. Start by Brainstorming.
The writing process begins by compiling any and all life experiences that you suspect might be compelling to a reader. As you sort through your own memories, be sure to cover all eras of your life—from childhood to high school to your first job to the episodes in your life you are most known for. Many of these episodes won’t make it into the final draft of your book, but for now, keep the process broad and open.
2. Craft an Outline.
Begin to organize a narrative around the most compelling episodes from your brainstorm. If you pace your life’s important events throughout your book, you’ll be able to grip your readers’ attention from beginning to end.
3. Do Your Research.
Once you have a first draft of your outline, engage in some research to help you recall contextual information from the period you are writing about. Interview friends and family members to help you remember all the details from the moments you choose to recall in your autobiography. No one can remember the full history of their entire life—particularly their childhood—so prepare to do some cultural research as well.
4. Write Your First Draft.
If you’ve come up with the key biographical moments around which you can anchor your life story, then you are ready to attempt a first draft. This draft may be overly long and scattershot, but professional writers know that even the tightest final drafts may be borne of a long winded first draft.
5. Take a Break.
When your first draft is complete, take a few days off. You’ll want to read your work with the freshest possible perspective; removing yourself from the process for a few days can aid this endeavor.
After a brief layoff, begin proofreading. Yes, you should look for grammar mistakes, but more importantly, you should identify weak moments in the narrative and come up with constructive improvements. Think about what you’d look for if reading about another person’s life, and apply it to your own autobiography.
7. Write Your Next Draft.
Write a second draft based on the notes you’ve given yourself. Then, when this second draft is complete, show it to trusted friends and, if you have one, a professional editor. Their outside eyes will give you a valuable perspective that you cannot possibly have on your own work.
8. Refine Your Writing.
Repeat step 7 as needed. New drafts should be followed by new reads from new people. Throughout the process, you will refine your writing skills and your autobiographical know how. Hopefully you will end up producing a final draft that is leaps and bounds beyond what you produced in a first draft—but that still holds true to the most important elements of your life and your personal truth.
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