They say that everybody’s got a story that could break your heart (and by “They,” I mean Amanda Marshall). With enough confidence and the right tools, even the most benign, pedestrian events can speak to a range of people on a deep and powerful level. That’s where you come in.

Whether you want to share the truth about an impactful, formative event or simply want to explore your own life lessons so far, an autobiography can be a great way to get your thoughts on the page. We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about how to get started writing an autobiography of your own.

What is an autobiography?

An autobiography is a nonfictional, first-person account of the author’s entire life. It’s written from their own subjective perspective and includes everything from early childhood to the present day. The autobiography is intended to be a broad overview of the author’s life, showing the path they took to become who they are today.

Your autobiography can be as long as a full-length novel, or it can be a shorter overview in the form of an autobiographical essay. The length is determined by how many life events you want to explore and how much detail you want to present to your reader.

An autobiography is a bit different from similar mediums like memoir, biography, and autofiction. You’ll sometimes hear some of these terms being used interchangeably (especially autobiography and memoir), so it’s important to know exactly which form you’re trying to write and market.

How to start an autobiography

Ready to begin writing your own life story? Here’s the step-by-step process you’ll need to take from start to finish.

Step 1: Decide if you’re writing an autobiography or a memoir

First, you’ll need to decide how much time you want your story to cover. The words “autobiography” and “memoir” often get used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing.

A memoir is similar to an autobiography in that it’s written by the person who is the subject of the story. However, it differs in that a memoir focuses on one specific single event, experience, or limited range of time. Instead of being a factual account of the author’s whole life, a memoir might focus on their experience overcoming illness, discovering or discarding religion, studying at a prestigious university, opening a business, or traveling across the world. Memoirs are designed to share one particular experience or lesson in the author’s life.

Autobiographies cover a person’s entire life story, while memoirs focus on a single experience.

Step 2: Begin with an eye-catching title

To start, make a list of potential titles. They can be silly, serious, thought-provoking, ironic, or inspirational. You might choose a single word, a phrase, or a quotation. Then, look back over your list and see which ones jump out at you and make you want to know more.

Long Walk to Freedom, Crying in H Mart, and Angela’s Ashes are a few examples of autobiographies and memoirs with effective titles.

Step 3: Create a timeline of events

Next, start writing out your significant experiences in chronological order. You don’t need to worry about what to include or leave out just yet; start at the beginning and make brief notes on all the major events of your life.

Consider the moments when things shifted and put you on a new path, and the choices you made along the way. This is what separates the wheat from the bargain bin: a trajectory and sense of dynamic change. Your autobiography should show that you’ve learned something along your journey or emerged from your struggles anew.

When the reader closes your book (or finishes reading your autobiography essay), they should have a sense that the main character (that’s you!) at the end of the story isn’t the same person they were when they began.

Once you’ve organized your thoughts and memories, you’ll have a range of raw material to work with. Then you can decide which key events you want to focus on when you begin your first draft.

The best stories feature moments of conflict and change, whether fictional or nonfictional.

Step 4: Explore your key relationships

Now, consider who the most impactful people in your life were. These might be family members, friends, colleagues, romantic partners, or people you didn’t particularly get on with. Although there are probably a lot of people who have made walk-on appearances in your story, you’ll want to highlight a handful of key secondary characters to support your story’s protagonist (you) along your journey.

If an autobiography has too many supporting characters and not enough characterization, the story can become muddled and hard to follow. That’s why you may need to pare down the ensemble-cast work party and let your readers get to know the people who matter most.

Step 5: Develop your characters

Characterization is just as important in creative nonfiction as it is in fiction writing. Readers want to see individuality and complexity in your real-life cast of characters. It can be difficult to step back from people you’ve known, and maybe even loved, to present them in all their messiness and nuance—but nuance is what makes a good story.

Remember that your readers won’t have all the knowledge and memories of these people and won’t be able to fill in the blanks the way you can. Things that might seem obvious to you because you know them won’t be obvious to your readers. Therefore, pay attention to your character development work just like you would with a completely made-up character.

Step 6: Pinpoint your theme

The most powerful autobiographies, like the most powerful works of fiction, stay with us because they make us think. Theme is how you communicate a message to your reader and get them asking questions about the world they live in.

Consider the events and relationships you’ve highlighted and ask yourself what key message they all have in common. It’s probably something that you feel strongly about, either consciously or unconsciously, and you’ve chosen to focus on elements that reflect this theme.

For example, your autobiographical theme might be the importance of family bonds, or, conversely, the importance of finding one’s own path through life. It might be the restorative power of art, of the impact of spirituality in times of uncertainty and crisis. See if you can uncover what you’re really trying to say by telling this story.

As you explore your life experience, consider its underlying key message.

Step 7: Create a chapter breakdown

It’s almost time to begin the writing process. Take all the bits and pieces you’ve compiled and assemble them into an outline. Decide where in your life you want to begin, how much time you want to cover, and where you and your reader are going to stop along the way.

Each chapter should cover an entire scene, event, or fixed period of time. How narrow you want each chapter’s focus to be depends on how much sensory specificity you want to deliver through each moment. Consider that full-length autobiographies start at around 50,000 words. If you’ve decided on 10 events or time periods to explore, each chapter should be a minimum of around 5,000 words long.

You can move things around like puzzle pieces until you’ve come up with a sequence that you feel best encompasses the story you’re trying to tell. This is why professional writers know it’s helpful to begin with a structural outline before they start to write an autobiography.

Step 8: Determine your hook

Because autobiography is such a saturated market, you need to “hook” your readers right from the very first sentence. A strong opening line should communicate the tone and voice of your autobiography, and show the reader that there’s an interesting story ahead.

Consider opening “in medias res” with a unique, concrete detail that catches the reader’s attention. This might be a setting where part of the story takes place, a tradition in your family history or daily life, or the unexpected juxtaposition of a cultural divide. A strong image or an intriguing dramatic question will encourage the reader to keep reading so they can find out what happens next.

Step 9: Write your first draft

Now the real challenge begins: getting your first draft down on paper (or screen). You’ve built yourself a road map—now all you have to do is fill it in with immersive detail, vivid settings, dialogue, introspection, and the occasional witticism.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect at this point. Just get it written so you have something you can shape in the next step.

Step 10: Revise, revise, revise

Finally: revision! This is where you take the sand you’ve been shoveling into a box and use it to build sandcastles. You may want to get some help from a professional editor to help tighten your prose and make your work the best it can be. You can also ask some trusted friends or beta readers to offer feedback on what works well and what could be improved.

Pay attention to which scenes feel fresh and exciting, and which feel like they drag on a bit too long. Remember to look for the elements we discussed above: strong characters, an engaging voice, tension and conflict, dynamic change, and a resonant theme.

A person’s life story can and should be as engaging as a fictional novel.

To see how some writers have worked with this medium effectively, let’s look at some autobiography examples that have resonated with readers.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Comedienne Tina Fey’s autobiography begins:

Welcome Friend. Congratulations on your purchase of this American-made genuine book. Each component of this book was selected to provide you with maximum book performance, whatever your reading needs may be. If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are.

Immediately the writer gives the reader a sense of what to expect. The book follows her rise to fame in an industry that wasn’t designed for women, and which presented one obstacle after another. This autobiography became successful due to its peek behind the Hollywood curtain and its humorous, relatable voice.

Spare, by Prince Harry (sort of)

As one of the fastest selling nonfiction books of all time, Prince Harry’s tell-all release certainly created a buzz. His autobiography begins:

We agreed to meet a few hours after the funeral. In the Frogmore gardens, by the old Gothic ruin. I got there first.

Immediately the book hooks the reader by raising several questions. Whose funeral is it? Who is he waiting for? Why the Gothic ruin? If Harry hadn’t already committed to penning his life story, this would have made for a cracking crime novel.

It may not come as a surprise that the roguish English prince didn’t write the volume himself; he hired a respected and prominent ghostwriter to get his thoughts onto the page. However, since it’s released under his name and is an account of his personal story from his own first-person point of view, it can be considered an autobiography rather than a biography.

This book was well-received due to its specificity and unflinching honesty. It’s a good reminder that sometimes the most powerful life experiences are small formative moments, rather than big significant events.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s famous autobiography begins:

When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed—“To Whom It May Concern”—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, ℅ Mr.s. Annie Henderson.

The book opens with a powerful, striking image of two very young children being posted across the country like mail-order packages. It communicates important socioeconomic details about the characters, and shows the reader that these lives are about to change forever.

A good autobiography can expand people’s perspectives.

This autobiography example follows the first sixteen years of poet Maya Angelou’s life, starting with her personal experience as a young girl and going until she reached a dramatic turning point in the form of motherhood. She chose a title that expressed her contrasting experiences of being a young Black woman in mid-century America: her exposure to prejudice and racial segregation felt like a cage, while her writing allowed her to “sing” in spite of her circumstances.

Angelou’s autobiography was a powerful account of a voice that, in 1959, wasn’t being heard on a grand scale. It didn’t shy away from the realities of the author’s struggles, but it also incorporated positivity and hope.

A note on writing autofiction

If some of the story you want to tell is sensitive or contentious, you may want to consider framing your autobiography as a fictional account—also known as “autofiction.”

Autobiographies and autofiction are both stories that explore and draw from the author’s life. The difference is that autofiction is given fictitious elements that offer the author a degree of distance and protection from the story. How much is true and how much is made up can vary from writer to writer.

For example, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a work of autofiction. All of the events in the novel are taken from her own experiences, but the names and many of the defining details were changed so that it could be called a novel.

Some writers like to add fictitious elements to their true stories so that their friends and family members won’t get mad at them. Others write autofiction so they can reflect on difficult experiences in a safer, more comfortable way. Autofiction can be a factual play-by-play of real life events with only the names changed, or it can be a blend of real and imaginary elements.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a famous example of a fictional autobiography.

Begin writing your life story

People come to autobiographical writing for a lot of reasons. They can help you gain insight into past experiences and how they shaped the person who you’ve become; they can help you understand and communicate your purpose in life; and, exploring in-depth autobiographical work can even make you a better writer.