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How To Write An Autobiography

Feb 10, 2008
Maybe you've had an interesting life, or done some amazing things, or perhaps you just want to write about your life for your own sake and for your family. Whatever your reason, writing an autobiography can be both fun and challenging. The purpose of this article is to explain the process of writing an autobiography using what is commonly known as the "index card method" of writing. If you haven't already done so, you should familiarize yourself with this method of writing... it is one of the easiest and most powerful systems of writing in existence!

Collecting For Your Autobiography

The first thing you need to do to be ready to write your autobiography is to start collecting the stories, memories and events that you want to include. The best way to do this will probably be to type small notes into a program like Text Block Author for each event or topic you want included. If you have military or war experience, your collecting might include photos and newspaper clippings from the war. You might also collect favorite songs at various points in your life, letters to and from old friends, and even things like favorite toys, books, or anything else you can think of that will enhance a person's picture of "you". You are basically studying yourself at this stage, so be thorough and complete, and don't be afraid to include things that you are shy or embarrassed about. Some of the best autobiographies are those that reveal things that others didn't previously know about the person. The most difficult thing about writing your autobiography will be getting to where you are able to write about who you are rather than about who you want to be.

Some people might feel pressure to "enhance" their autobiography with things that didn't really happen ... thinking (mistakenly) that they've had a boring life and "people wouldn't want to read this". What I'd say to those people is this: write the truth, and write it well. A well-written story about a boring life will mean more to people in the end than a poorly written story about an exciting life that never really happened. An ordinary person can have an extraordinary autobiography with the right information written in the right manner.

Organizing And Categorizing

How you "categorize" your autobiography will depend in part on what information it contains. For example, if you are writing primarily about your childhood you're going to take a different approach than if you were going to cover your whole life to the present. Let's look at a couple of approaches and how the method of writing in How To Write Almost Anything can be applied to them. There are probably more ways to do it, but I'm only going to talk about two of them here.

The Modular Approach - What I call the modular approach means to treat each part of your life as it's own independent module. These can be broken up by time spans, topics, or defining events. For example I might have a section of my autobiography called "Child's play" detailing my childhood up til about 12 years old. Then, for my life, the next module might be about the difficulties I went through and overcame in Junior High And High School. After that I might talk about some religious and social experiences that overlap with the previous section, but still deserve their own "Module". Then I might have one for "Entrepreneurship" and another for "Family Life". In the example I've given here, I'd be breaking up my life more according to topic than time. Some things (in a time-line sense) would be skipped altogether... especially if they didn't involve a topic that I wanted to cover.

To accomplish the "categorize" stage when using the modular method, you simply need to go through the events and notes that you have collected from your life and start assigning them categories. When everything has a category of some kind associated with it, you can go through those and see which ones fit best together. For me, I might have a category of "Programming" and another one of "Writing", and I might fit both of these in the "Entrepreneurship" module. Whatever you do, be creative and be flexible. Remember you can change and adjust a you go if you need to. Just sort things out into categories, then into "modules", and then order those into an order that makes sense (usually this will be roughly chronological).

Using the modular approach, in the end you should have a number of stand alone modules that don't have to be placed within the context of the rest of the story in order to make sense. This means that one module is not necessarily a continuation of another. It's just a new story about a different topic. There will be some overlapping ... but don't worry about that. Just go with it and see how it turns out in the end. You will probably like the results.

The Chronological Approach - I'm not going to make any effort to hide my bias here. I don't like this way of doing things! The reason I don't care for the "chronological" approach for an autobiography is that, unless you have a really interesting life, it can be painfully boring. If you aren't careful your autobiography will end up reading more like history book. This format is great for information purposes, but really sucks when you just want to enjoy what you're reading. This is my opinion, of course. You may love stories told in order. I guess I just don't think that way. My thinking is scattered. That must be why I like the "index card" method of writing so much, and must be why I created the software to use it.

So how would you use this method of writing if you intend to organize your autobiography in chronological order? I would start by going through all the notes and items I've collected and assign them an age or a period of time. Once you know roughly when everything happened, group everything into spans of time. Break it up around every 10 years or so. Then, within each of these time spans, just arrange and organize your thoughts, notes, experiences and memories into an order that works. Try to find the balance between chronological and good story telling. For example, if you had a horrible event happen when you were 10 years old, but other things that were good happened right afterwards, you might say something like

"By around the age of 10, I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I had found a love for music and writing, and was enjoying every minute of developing my exciting new talents. But on September 15th, 1987, my life was changed forever when..."

Do you see what I did there? I didn't tell the events "in order", because I felt I could achieve a more meaningful effect by telling "the good" first, and then introducing a major "bad" turning point. You can do the same within any given timespan, where it makes sense to do so. Don't get so stuck in chronological order that your life reads like a history book. Oops. There's that bias again. (By the way, the above example is fictional. Nothing traumatic happened in my own life at the age of 10, with perhaps the exception of my first "real" kiss.)

Communicating Your Story

The best advice that I have to give when it comes to the "communicating" stage of writing your autobiography is to keep your writing conversational and informal. Again, a biography runs a big risk of sounding like a history book, and in most cases, that's not what you want to go for (unless you are writing a history book). So keep it simple, concise, and casual. One way to think of it would be like if you were confiding in a close friend. Just talk, share, and be grateful that someone is listening.

Other than that, all there is to do at this point is to follow your outline that you organized in the previous step and just write! If you have done the first two steps well, this stage will be easy. You just follow the outline, and write the story of your life!

Many people dream of writing an autobiography someday. I hope that this article will help make that dream a reality for you.
About the Author
To learn more about this method of writing and get the software designed for it, visit the author's website: How To Write Better And Faster.
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