If you are wondering how to write an autobiography or how to write a memoir, then welcome! It is my passion and life’s work to write people’s stories and the purpose of this site is to freely give resources so you’ll be inspired to write yours. I think everyone should get it done and it lights my fire each time a reader or student shares a win. This article will help you by giving you an overview of the whole writing process from beginning to end. The paragraphs are short, but they link to additional resources on ways to tell your story, and how to do so beautifully. (Tip: Many of the video links are only available by clicking from this page since they are part of courses for my students. You won’t be able to find them anywhere else).
Oh, and in case you are new to these parts, I am Rhonda Lauritzen, a professional biographer. I’ve written and published many life story projects and I regularly teach this topic at conferences such as RootsTech. My specialty is writing true-life stories that read like a novel. Coaching authors is another joy. I have the privilege of walking beside writers in their writing journey, and it is a journey.
Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this article, a primer to walk you through the entire process of how to write your autobiography.
Stories have a way of bringing families together. Children who know their family stories are happier and more resilient because they know they are part of something bigger than themselves. Stories shape our values. They are the way we teach without being preachy, and stories are the only way we will be remembered.
Finally, the act of finishing will change you. I believe–because I see it firsthand–that when you tell your story, it changes the ending. In this spirit, there are some important reasons why you should be the one to write your own story, so I recorded a tutorial on the subject of When YOU should be the one to write it. I hope you enjoy this bit of inspiration. You absolutely can do this, and you should.
- Decide what kind of project you want to complete
- First question, ask: What is your purpose in writing your story? Who is your audience?
- Decide the point of view and tense
- Create a writing routine
- Ask yourself great questions
- Gather your most important stories
- Consider how to approach sensitive subjects and writing about the hard stuff
- Focus on writing vignettes (short stories)
- Set a scene with dialogue and sensory details
- Create a timeline and organize it chronologically
- Write a bad first draft
- Mind your structure – storyboard it
- Edit your story
- Do the interior layout and print your life story
- Be gentle with yourself – there are good reasons why it may take a while
- Do it now and it will be enough
- Ways you can get help with your autobiography
- Get help by reading books on how to write an autobiography or memoir
- Get help by taking a memoir writing class
- Get help by joining a writing group
- Have a breakthrough by starting with oral history
- Get the help of a personal writing coach
- Have a ghost writer do it for you
A note about the links and resources here: As mentioned earlier, by following the links in this article you’ll get a great education on the writing process, all for free. We also do a free, live tutorial on Thursday mornings at 10 AM (Mountain time), about 20 minutes each. Click here for details about our free weekly tutorials. In addition, I spent years creating a curriculum that guides you through process of how to write an autobiography, with short video lessons, practice exercises, and examples. It’s well-organized, efficient, and proven by many students to help you finish. You can certainly get most of what you need for free in this article, but the course has been carefully edited for brevity, and it includes all the practice exercises to build your confidence. The video tutorials linked here were recorded live, so they are longer and more candid than the bite-sized videos in the course. Hence, the course is powerfully efficient, and you can stop and come back without losing your place. Either way, I’m just happy if I can help you in some way. Click here to explore my life story writer’s bundle.
Alright, now let’s get started!
First, here are some helpful definitions especially related to memoir vs. autobiography
- Memoir: A memoir is a personal story focusing on a specific time or theme in your life.
- Autobiography or life story: An autobiography or life story that generally covers a person’s whole life.
- Series of vignettes: A series of personal stories or essays, not necessarily in order or organized by theme.
- A journal: A regular, personal writing practice. Click here for an article on how to start and continue a journal writing habit.
- Oral history: Recording someone’s voice, their personal memories, and family stories. (Note: we have found oral history to be the easiest and most enjoyable way to complete a life story. If you feel overwhelmed, be sure to scroll to the oral history section at the bottom of this article)
Your approach will differ if you are writing for yourself or your own family versus if you want to publish into the commercial market. I’ll be brief and blunt here. My advice is to do your first project just for yourself and as a gift to your family. Even if you end up publishing it (such as on Amazon) for the fun of it, you are unlikely to recoup back your costs unless you are famous or if you have a business purpose in mind. (That’s a great goal, by the way, and I would definitely encourage you to go for it if your story will help your career).
Please know that I wholeheartedly believe that writing your life story is one of the most important endeavors you can undertake. That said, at the outset of any project, I sit down with my clients and have what I call the “dream crushing” conversation. I share how difficult the market for memoir and autobiography is and what the costs are likely to be. In short, there are MANY powerful reasons to do this work, but making money isn’t generally one of them. Here is a straightforward article by one of the most prominent bloggers on writing, Jane Friedman, in which she gives some tough love for writers. It’s entitled “Why your memoir won’t sell”.
Decide now to do it for your own purposes and for future generations. That is reason enough. Trust me on this.
Now let’s shift to the nitty-gritty.
Early on in your writing process, you will want to decide whether to write in the first person or third person. If you are writing your own autobiography or memoir, it’s generally easiest to write in the first person. If you are writing someone else’s life story you can write a first-person narrative in their voice (tricky, but can be wonderful), or a straight-up third-person narrative. Third-person is how most family histories and biographies read.
Will you write in the present-tense or past-tense? Generally, a memoir or life story is written in the past-tense, and this is the most straightforward way to go. It’s not the only option, though, and writing in the present tense can give a story a wonderful sense of immediacy. It can heighten suspense and immerse readers in a scene. This is a more advanced writing technique, however, and if you are not experienced, I would advise sticking to first-person, past tense.
If you’re going to do this, then commit right now to figuring out a regular time when you will write. Create a schedule and stick to it, showing up at the appointed time and writing something even if it’s not much and even if it is bad. For great, practical wisdom on how to create a new habit, I highly recommend, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. My other favorite book on winning the battle against procrastination and resistance is The War of Art: Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. It’s genius and I recommend it to all my students. Stephen King’s book, On Writing also has sage wisdom in this regard.
- Related article: Are you avoiding something with productive procrastination?
- Read this great kick-in-the pants by one of my favorite authors, Steven Pressfield. It’s entitled, “Put your ass where your heart wants to be.”
Note: This article contains Amazon affiliate links so if you purchase a book on Amazon I get a small commission. It’s a tiny portion of our income, but it helps pay the Internet bill.
The way to get started is with great questions. My recommendation is to get writing as soon as humanly possible. Sit down, turn all notifications off, close the door and set a timer. Find a writing prompt and free write for 20 minutes without stopping. Just let ‘er rip. You will be amazed at what shows up on the page.
We love questions here at Evalogue.Life. If you are writing your own life story, you are essentially interviewing yourself. Start here and the rest will flow. Here are some resources for you:
- First, we have compiled a comprehensive page of great questions for interviews or as writing prompts here.
- Next, we have also created a pretty booklet that you can purchase to prompt your own life story questions or to ask in oral history interviews. We use these in our professional work and have also made them available on Amazon.
- Finally, treat yourself to a download of this free printable of our all-time favorite questions. This single sheet is a great place to get started. It’s narrow enough to not overwhelm you, and we’ve tested these questions through countless professional interviews.
We also recommend going through photos and other memorabilia to trigger memories and ideas. This is something we always like to do with clients.
We have put together a free oral history toolkit to help with your project. You can get it here:
Although it’s fun to write random memories that describe a past time and place, the most important things you can write about are those specific events that shaped you into who you are today. What are your values? Catalog these, then write about how you came to internalize those values. What mistakes have you made, and in what ways did those mistakes help you become a better person? How did you get through the hard stuff? In summary, I recommend that you curate a canon of personal stories. Here are two resources:
- Read article: How to curate a canon of business stories
- Watch this tutorial video on how to curate a canon of personal stories
Speaking of writing about adversity, this is one area that trips up many writers. We’ve spent years gathering best practices and practical wisdom to help with these thorny issues and I put together an entire online course devoted just to “Sensitive subjects and writing about the hard stuff.” Hence, this topic warrants a deep dive because there are nuances, and you don’t want to handle these matters carelessly. Your personal answers about the right way to handle a situation are not likely to come from a surface-level review. For example, you may encounter family sensitivities, secrets, surprises, and you will likely have to grapple with family members having different views of the truth. How should you handle trauma and abuse in your story?
Here are some resources to help you navigate sensitive subjects as you write your life story:
- Video tutorial that walks through some high-level details on: Sensitive subjects, writing about the hard stuff.
- Article – The hard stuff: How do we overcome it and then write about it?
- Article – Sharing stories about hard things can change lives
- Online course: Sensitive subjects – Writing the hard stuff (This is a self-paced course you can take any time. It includes the next time I teach it live via Zoom as a one-day workshop)
What follows is one of the most important parts of this whole article. Are you paying attention? Good.
It is this: Learn to write short stories, which I like to call “vignettes.”
A vignette is simply a short, self-contained story in which something happens. It has all the elements of a great story, such as a problem and the growth of the character, all in one bite-sized package. You can set the scene, use dialogue, and craft a satisfying ending. The protagonist, or hero changes from the beginning to the end.
If you can write one vignette and polish it up to engage readers, then you simply follow that template to write your whole life story. You get it done by writing one short story at a time.
Some people stitch the vignettes together into a seamless narrative, but others realize it’s enough to have a collection of stories that share the most important moments of life. In other words, don’t overcomplicate this. A story is told in moments, so focus on the moments one at a time. This is how you eat the proverbial elephant.
You can bring a vignette to life by describing the time and place, including some dialogue, and writing sensory details that immerse the reader.
One piece of practical advice is to create a timeline of your life early in your process and to organize your stories chronologically. Although you can certainly have flashbacks or use foreshadowing, the most straightforward way to organize your story is in date order. I don’t use anything fancy, just a simple spreadsheet with the date in the left column, a description of the event in the middle, and a reference to any source documents in a third column. That’s it.
When I am working on a manuscript, any time the story enters a new year, I type the year using header font. Although I remove these in the final book, these dates make it easy to use the “find” function to jump around a long document.
- Related video tutorial: Organizing a big writing project
- Related article from a colleague: Using scrivener for family history projects
Write your first draft as quickly as possible, and give yourself full permission to let it be bad. Many writing coaches advise this technique, and it works. Just get something onto the page, letting the words flow even if they are poorly written and rely upon cliché. It’s much easier to edit than write the first draft, so get it down with as much gusto and momentum as humanly possible. You’ll fix it later. As mentioned earlier, I really like Rachael Herron’s book entitled, “Fast-draft your memoir: Write your life story in 45 hours.” It’s immensely practical and her writing style is fun to read.
Storyboarding is one of my favorite subjects because having a framework for a strong story structure will save your tale from being boring and preachy. Elements of a good story including having a strong main character, a clear theme, and a central problem. Most importantly, the main character (you in your autobiography) must grow and change from the beginning to the end.
Some people like to create an outline at the beginning of the process. Since I have fully internalized the important elements of story structure, I keep them in mind as I’m working on a first draft, but I don’t get hung up until I get the first pass down. Then, I take a step back and look at what I have. I let the creative process surprise me in the first draft. After that is the time to sit down and storyboard it. Then, in my next draft, I work on beefing up the good stuff and will trim the parts that drag.
- Related video tutorial: Writing strong characters
- Related video tutorial (watch this after you have a basic familiarity with storyboarding): Story structure example – The Sound of Music
You will first self-edit your story, then probably do it again. Don’t let anyone read your early drafts. Once you have it in reasonable shape, schedule a read-out-loud session. Then self-edit again, get editorial feedback from someone else, have someone give it a good copy edit, and finish it.
Next, lay out the book for print. Here is an article with tips and template for a beautiful interior layout of your autobiography. There are many options. They might include simply running a copy on your home printer, having an office supply store do a spiral binding, printing copies for your family through Shutterfly or Blurb, or uploading to Amazon for sale. You’ll need to compile your photos and other materials at this time.
- Related article: Tips to digitize slides, photos and other family history
- Video tutorial: How I digitize large quantities of photos fast
The process of writing your life story may take longer than you think it should. Please don’t get frustrated. You might have some processing to do. Maybe you are learning better skills as you go. Also, writing physically takes time in the chair, and so does editing. It seems to take people far longer than they predict, but the result is worth it.
Just remember this. If you start now and you keep chipping away at it, you’ll find that it is enough. You can do this and you will see that the process changes you in ways you cannot predict right now. Get ready…now go for it!
If the process above seems daunting or if you get stuck, don’t worry. Here are some resources for getting support to write your autobiography.
There are some great books on writing memoirs and autobiographies out there. Three of my all-time favorites are Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Rachel Herron’s Fast Draft Your Memoir: Write your Life Story in 45 Hours, and Margo Leitman’s Long Story Short: The Only Guide to Storytelling You’ll Ever Need.
- Here is a full article that reviews my favorite books on writing, creativity, and story structure.
- Oh, and while I’m mentioning books I guess I should say that I also published a primer booklet and template: How to Storyboard. (More on this topic above.)
Your local university, community college, or library may offer life story writing classes. We also have several affordable self-paced courses and periodic live Zoom classes.
- Teaching is one of our life passions, so we invite you to check out our class schedule.
Joining a writing group can help you get regular feedback and learn to hone your writing skills. My writing group made all the difference in the world in finishing my first book. We periodically offer group coaching and a guided writing group experience.
One of the easiest and best ways to complete a life story is through oral history. You may be thinking that you have to sit down and write it, but this process is daunting for many. We have discovered that oral history is an enjoyable and efficient shortcut, and it might be all you need. Here are some resources so you can conduct your own oral history interviews, either by doing the writing yourself or by teaming with someone else to interview you. Perhaps you want to capture a loved one’s story, or maybe their story is important to include as part of yours. In any case, here are some resources to do it yourself:
- Click here to see our writing groups and courses.
- Get our free oral history tool kit by clicking here
- Related article: Why oral history is the easiest and most rewarding way to finish a life story
- Here is a short, fun video course that walks you through the whole process of oral history from recording equipment to asking great questions, to transcribing audio
Also, here at Evalogue.Life part of our business is conducting oral history interviews. We even mentor a group of professionals from around the world who do this work. Read about our professional oral history interview packages
Personal writing coaches are becoming more common, and we have also coached clients. For example, I worked with Rob A. Gentile through the entire process of writing, editing, and publishing his book entitled Quarks of Light: A Near-Death Experience. It ended up being an Amazon bestseller in a dozen different categories. Read about the process of working with Rob on his book here.
If writing is not your strong suit or if you simply don’t have the time, you can hire a ghost writer or personal historian to write your life story for you. Many people dream of writing a book but will never complete it, and this is what professionals do. Fees can range from as low as $5,000 for a short autobiography, perhaps by an inexperienced writer, to around $25,000 for a mid-range book. Experienced writers doing more complex projects for publication will increase from there. It is not unusual for a full book to cost upwards of $50-$100K (and even more), especially for anything high profile. Yes, it’s expensive, but having completed several books for hire, I can attest to just how many hours go into each project. The hourly rate isn’t nearly as high as one might think at first blush.
Thank you for taking the time to review this article on how to write an autobiography. May you be blessed in your work – this may be one of the most important projects you undertake. You may feel overwhelmed, but take this advice to heart: Do it now, and it will be enough. A story is told in moments, just like your life is lived in moments. You can do it, and you should. You got this.
Guide to writing sensitive subjects
Writing about the hard stuff can promote healing and inspire others - but there are some caveats. Get our guide book PDF, which includes tips and support.
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending. She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. She recently completed the history of the Old Fort where Pioneer Park now sits, a project commissioned by Salt Lake City. Check out her books: How to Storyboard, and Every Essential Element. She was also the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart