You don’t need to be a professional writer to share your life story. We all gain wisdom from our unique life experiences, and other people may be able to benefit from your special perspective. When writing an autobiography, you can take inspiration from the work of other authors.
Some autobiographical books, such as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, recount extraordinary lives. In other cases, when the author is not famous or newsworthy, he or she may decide to craft a memoir instead of an autobiography. For example, Mary Karr worked as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University and struggled to pay the bills before she published The Liar’s Club. That memoir went on to become a New York Times bestseller.
In this article, we’ll review the difference between autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. We’ll also discuss the best way to begin writing a book about your own life.
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How Is an Autobiography Different Than a Biography?
A biography describes a book written about an individual person. Usually, the content of a biography covers the subject’s entire life, from childhood to death. Of course, when someone writes a biography about a living subject, the material in the book only includes events in the subject’s life prior to the date of publication. An autobiography differs from a biography because, in an autobiography, the author writes about his or her own life rather than the life of another person. Often, you’ll find autobiographies shelved in the “biography” section of a bookstore or library, so some people consider autobiography writing to be a sub-genre within biography writing.
Biographies and autobiographies often concern newsworthy people. After all, the main character must be interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention through all the phases of life—childhood, adulthood, and old age. In some autobiographies, such as those written by Malcolm X and Anne Frank, the author does not survive into old age. In the case of both of those famous autobiographies, the written material was compiled, edited, and published posthumously. When writing an autobiography or a biography, most authors and editors try to include as many significant life events as possible.
How is an Autobiography Different Than a Memoir?
Like an autobiography, a memoir is a first person account of the author’s own life. Unlike an autobiography, a memoir only concerns significant events that fit a particular theme. Most memoir authors have a unique point of view, even though they appear to be ordinary people at first glance.
As an example, imagine an ordinary man who experienced an extraordinary love story over the course of his life. When he writes his memoir, he might structure his book to highlight that relationship. Anything unrelated to the love story—his high school teachers, his career advancements, his Tuesday night bowling games—would likely be excluded from his memoir. By narrowing the focus of the book, the man allows the reader to engage with the most interesting parts of his personal story.
When you begin collecting stories for your own autobiography, it can be helpful to assemble documents and reference materials. For instance, you may want to pull photographs, journals, and old passports. Making a family tree can be helpful, as well. Since you’ll be telling the true story of your life, you’ll certainly want to get all the dates and family history right. Some autobiography writers interview family members and friends in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of important events. Once you’ve assembled all the research materials, you’ll be ready to get started with your first draft.
As you begin to write, think about how you would tell a good story to a close friend. Don’t focus on the writing process or selecting the perfect words. Instead, try to brainstorm and roughly sketch as many stories as possible. Some people even find it helpful to use a voice recorder. To fill an entire book, you’ll need plenty of content. In the early stages, focus on getting as many stories on paper as you can. It may be helpful to arrange the stories in chronological order.
Choosing the Best Stories
Most memoirs range from 70,000–90,000 words. Once you have about 60,000 words written, you can begin thinking critically about the structure that would best suit your life story. For instance, if you’re writing a memoir, you may want to look at the best stories you’ve assembled and craft a thesis statement to serve as a guideline for your second draft. You would not need to include that thesis in the finished product—it would only be there to help you in your editing process.
Returning to the example of the man with the love story, he might craft a thesis like this one: If you want to find true love, you have to be willing to take risks. Using that thesis as a guide, he might select the stories from different parts of his life that contribute to that theme. He might include a story from early childhood wherein he was unwilling to take a risk and missed out on an opportunity. Although that anecdote doesn’t relate to the love story at first glance, it fits into the overall message of the book.
During this phase of revisions, you can choose a structure that works for telling your tale. Some autobiographies have a chronological structure, others use flashbacks, and others have a more experimental format. If you plan to hire a ghostwriter, you’ll probably want to engage him or her at this phase in the process. Since you already have quite a bit of material written, the ghostwriter will be able to work faster and more efficiently than they would in the earlier stages. Not only will the ghostwriter be able to fix grammar mistakes and introduce strong writing skills, but they will also be able to provide an outside opinion about which stories are most likely to hold the reader’s attention.
Selecting a Title
Of course, many successful autobiographies have been published with simple titles. You could choose The Autobiography of [Your Name], and your book would be in excellent company. That said, you may want to try something a bit more creative, especially if you’re not a celebrity with instant name recognition. One idea is to pull a particularly vivid image from the book.
It may be helpful to make a list of some of the strongest imagery and lines from your second (or third or fourth) draft. You can narrow down the list to 3-5 choices, then ask your loved ones—friends and family—which title they would be most likely to pick off the shelf. Remember, you can always change the title later; however, having a title can help you to imagine your book as a finished product sitting in the stacks of a library. At this stage in the process, you’ll probably need to hold fast to that vision. Editing and revising your book will take time, and you’ll need to remain motivated.
Publishing an Autobiography
These days, you have lots of options for self-publishing an autobiography or memoir. The do-it-yourself route is easier than ever with Amazon, Apple, and B&N Press all offering eBook publishing platforms. Plus, aggregators and print-on-demand publishers provide new ways to reach audiences and publish printed books on a budget.
For those who want the support of a publishing company, you should start by finding a literary agent. Most literary agencies provide instructions for submitting a query letter on their websites. Basically, a query letter acts as a brief pitch, telling agents why they should be interested in your book. If the agent likes your query, they’ll ask to read your manuscript (or a short proposal). Unless you’re a newsworthy figure or a professional writer with lots of experience, it’s best to have a manuscript complete before you begin reaching out to agents. Be prepared to send the finished manuscript as soon as you receive a positive response to a query letter.
A literary agent’s job is to take your “finished” manuscript, make editorial changes, connect you with a publishing company, and then help to negotiate your publishing contracts. Generally, publishing companies do not consider a project unless they receive it from a professional literary agent.
A Reading List
Now that you know more about writing and publishing an autobiography, you should probably take some time to gather inspiration. Here are just a few of the best-selling autobiographies and memoirs that any aspiring writer should read!
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.