Writing your autobiography is, at its core, no different than writing any other type of nonfiction book. You still need to write for a specific target audience — even if the subject matter happens to be 100% about you!
To be successful, you need to learn how to write an autobiography that can truly make a difference in people’s lives. In order to do that, and before you even put pen to paper, you first need to clearly establish whose life you want to impact and what is the core message or central theme you want to convey to them.
Once you have this important information nailed down (which are the first two steps of the 10-step process), the rest will just flow naturally to a happy conclusion you’ll be proud of.
Step 1: Define Your Target Audience
Whenever someone picks up a nonfiction book, chances are they’ll be tuned into the frequency that rules their lives: WIIFM. If you’re wondering what this acronym spells out, it’s What’s In It For Me. Whether we like to admit it or not, many of us (most of us?) tend to approach our lives and make decisions in a self-centered fashion.
Of course, we deeply care about our loved ones and friends, but outside of that close realm whenever we’re presented with new information, especially if it entails making a purchasing decision, our headphones are constantly playing WIIFM full blast.
If you want your book to cut through that filter, you must know clearly what’s in it for your target audience, otherwise your book will never be picked up and consumed.
Yes, your autobiography will tell your story, but it must be written in a way that a specific group of people can identify with it, see themselves in your story and be able to learn valuable lessons that’ll help them in their lives.
The worst kind of autobiography you can write is a chronological description of your life’s events beat by beat without any central theme — although highly relevant and meaningful to you and those who know you, it’ll lack meaning for anyone else.
Only someone with a highly celebrated trajectory and large following like Michelle Obama might get away with that simplistic approach (although her recent book Becoming has a well thought out through-line) but only because she knows her target audience very well.
This is an inescapable aspect of the world of nonfiction. Before you write your book, you need to find out who your audience is.
Step 2: Define Your Central Theme
Now that you’re thinking about your target audience, it’s time to nail down your central theme or idea. The best way to approach this task is to reflect on your life as it is right now. What are the lessons you feel have shaped you the most:
- Overcoming a major obstacle, like poverty, injustice, gender, racial, sexual orientation or other systemic prejudice, etc. that many others also suffer from
- Overcoming a major illness or a major physical or psychological trauma that will give hope to other sufferers
- Achieving a level or personal, psychological or spiritual freedom that others are passionately seeking
- Helping make your community or the world a better place and wanting to inspire others to follow your path
Or maybe you have the experience of an immigrant, a refugee, a victim of abuse or a single parent who against all odds and with minimal resources managed to put your children through college, perhaps for the first time in your family.
Now, I don’t mean to imply here that you have to endure a great deal of suffering in order to be in a position to write an autobiography, but in order to be successful you must have a specific life experience that will make a significant impact on others, that will resonate clearly with your target audience.
This through-line in your life experience will become your central theme or idea.
Step 3: Research Other Autobiographies
Once you know your central idea and who your target audience is, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and begin to research the field.
One of the best ways to accelerate mastery at something is to learn from the masters themselves. Go to the library, or if you have the means, purchase 3-5 popular autobiographies and read them cover-to-cover, at least twice — first as a reader, then as a writer.
Now, these books don’t have to be written by famous people or by celebrities, but they do need to be bestsellers. You’ll be surprised how many non-famous people have written bestselling autobiographies — they just found a message that deeply resonated with their target audience!
In the second pass, make copious notes of how the author is using certain descriptive devices or perhaps certain hooks or angles to drive their narrative. Note how they manage to permeate their central idea throughout their book chapter after chapter.
Note how they make use of the power of story-telling to enhance the reading experience and make it more engaging, entertaining or emotional.
Next, allow yourself to be swept away by the text and laugh or cry as you read; go where your emotions take you. But then, re-read the same passages with a clinical approach and try to figure out how the author is achieving such a deep level of connection. These are the powerful lessons you need to learn from masterful writers.
By the time you’re done with your reading passes, you should be armed with plenty of notes to be ready to begin the next phase (if you own the books, you should have plenty of dog ears, highlighting, underlining, notes in the margins and overall messiness).
Step 4: Brainstorm Your Life and Your Story
With steps 1-3 under your belt, it’s finally time to begin dissecting your own life. Now, the reason that we left this step till now is that it makes no sense to make an inventory of your entire life before you know your central idea or your target audience.
Imagine if this task were moved to step 1 and you spent several days, weeks or even months recalling, perusing, cataloging and writing down events, anecdotes, thoughts and even spent time interviewing family members, only to find out later on that just half of the information you collected is actually useful for your central theme, and the other half relates to stuff that your target audience doesn’t really care for.
This is why it’s critical that you leave this step until now, when you’re clear why you’re writing an autobiography — to be of service to others!
So, now it’s time to make an inventory of your life events from birth to present as they intersect with your central idea, those life experiences that were foundational to you becoming who you’ve become.
What you are (generally) looking for are:
- Stories with vivid characters from your past
- Events that have had an impact on you in relation to your central theme
- Anecdotes that add substance to your story
- Characters that were central to your life experience (positively and negatively)
- Vignettes and recollections from childhood
In short, anything that relates directly to your central idea. Take lots of notes because these details will form the foundation of your entire autobiographical project. Armed with this information, it’s now time to begin the outlining process.
Step 5: Mind Map Your Autobiography
Now it’s time to take in all this information and turn it into a mind map. Mind mapping is a technique that encourages creativity through radial thinking. It’s triggered by taking a main idea (in your case, your autobiography’s central theme) and placing it at the center of a chart, like the one below:
You then proceed to break down this central idea into its main components, branching out radially and away from the middle of the chart. Next, you go a step deeper by breaking down the main components into sub-components, also radially out, and then repeat this process as many times as necessary.
Your goal is to take all of your information and place it on the mind map by first tackling the major elements of your life as they relate to your central idea, and then breaking them down further into more specific aspects of your biography.
This process may take you some time, so don’t rush it. Your mind map will be quite a living document at the beginning, and you may end up making constant changes and small adjustments as you fine-tune it.
One way to go about it is to use a large table with index cards or color-coded post-it notes spread out on top so that you have the freedom the shuffle things around as you build out your mind map.
As you go through the process, make sure to constantly take pictures of the evolving map with your smartphone to keep a record of your progress in case you want to quickly revert to a previous idea.
When will this process be completed? It’s hard to say, but you’ll know you’re ready to move on when you feel that you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. When you do, it’s time to create your outline.
Step 6: Outline Your Autobiography
Once your mind map is completed, the creation of your book outline will be a cinch. All you have to do is to make each main branch out of your central idea a chapter and each sub-branch a sub-chapter.
Beginning with the first branch out of the center of the mind map, create a linear structure in your word processor like this:
A- Branch 1
1- Sub-branch 1-1
2- Sub-branch 2-1
3- Sub-branch 3-1
B- Branch 2
1- Sub-branch 1-2
2- Sub-branch 2-2
C- Branch 3
1- Sub-branch 1-3
2- Sub-branch 2-3
and so on…
Your main goal in creating your outline is not just to act as the precursor of your table of contents, but to act as writing prompts to get your creative juices going so you don’t have to struggle to come up with content. In fact, you’ll notice that with the right prompts the book will begin to write itself!
Step 7: Come Up With a Title (or Working Title)
Now, for inspiration, come up with a title, or at least a working title that relates to your central idea and to your target audience. This title must capture the essence of your life experience and it’ll act as the beacon that will guide you through your writing.
Don’t worry about making it “catchy” or compelling at this stage because you’ll be tweaking your title as you move forward. Just come up with something that you feel captures the essence of what you’ll be writing about and that reminds you of your target audience.
Step 8: Time to Begin Writing
All right! Now it’s time to begin the writing process in earnest. Remember that by using the mind map process you won’t experience writer’s block or struggle for words because you already have all the writing prompts you need in your book outline from step 6.
Believe me when I say that once you pick a section to work on (you can choose any section that inspires you that day, this doesn’t have to be a linear process) the words will begin with a trickle and then become a flood that will see you writing for several hours on end. In fact, you’ll need to have the discipline to write on a schedule or you may burn out!
Step 8.1) Write Every Day
The rule of every professional author is to write for the same amount of time every day. Now, while professionals are used to working for several hours at a time, I recommend that you work for a maximum of two hours a day, unless you’re no longer working full time and have extra time to spend, in which case I advise that you write for at most three hours.
The key to success is consistency. What you don’t want to do is be super excited and write for five hours solid until you’re creatively spent and then skip a day. This isn’t a recipe for success. Just make sure that during those two or three hours, everyone close to you knows not to interrupt your writing process (short of an emergency) so that you can write efficiently.
Also, when you write you want to be off the grid, even if you’re using a computer hooked up to WiFi. If you’re doing your writing online, say using Google Docs, fight the temptation to go on the Internet to browse something you want to research further — this will kill your creative flow. Do any online research that’s necessary outside of your writing time.
If you don’t have this discipline, the Internet will become a rabbit hole of wasted time that will stop your book project in its tracks, extend it unnecessarily, and worse, decrease the quality of your writing.
Creating a compelling autobiography that connects with an audience is an intimate endeavor that must only include you and your thoughts, with no eternal interference of any kind. So, stay away from your browser, set your portable devices to airplane mode and mute your computer’s sound.
Step 8.2) Use Your Authentic Voice
Whenever you write to connect with others, particularly through an autobiography, you must always write with your authentic voice. This is the only way to truly connect with your target audience. And in order to be truly authentic, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable.
An autobiography is a very personal account of your life and as such it needs to include your most vulnerable writing. This is the only way you’ll be able to create a deep bond with your audience. If you’re too guarded in your writing, if you try to put up any defensive barriers in order to protect yourself or your ego, your readers will disconnect.
One of the main reasons people struggle in their lives is because of their reticence to open up and allow themselves to be vulnerable (for many valid reasons) and they’re looking for authors to be open and honest, thus giving them encouragement or perhaps permission to do the same.
In short, never try to be someone you’re not and never hide behind your words — your audience will greatly appreciate it.
Step 8.3) Fictionalize Facts to Protect People’s Privacy
Finally, since you’ll be writing an autobiography, you’ll likely have no choice but to bring other people into your narrative, perhaps family members, perhaps friends or even total strangers.
In all cases, your job is to protect their privacy. So make sure to disguise relationships and names and on occasion places and times by fictionalizing them, unless those people give you explicit written permission to use their names and likenesses in your book.
You don’t want to be faced with a libel suit for writing something that someone else feels misrepresents them and hurts their reputation.
Step 9: Hire a Professional Editor
Once you have a completed manuscript, you’ll be making many revisions and rewrites; this is part and parcel of the iterative process called book writing. But at some point, over the weeks and months, you’ll feel that you’ve taken your autobiography as far as you can and it’s now time to hand it over to the professionals in the trade.
Professional editors are central to the success of books of any genre. You may find some very famous authors who don’t have an agent (Colin Dexter, of Inspector Morse’s fame comes to mind), but you’ll never find one without an editor. In fact, they would never dare publish an unedited book and neither should you.
Why? Because your book is your legacy and an extension of you and your reputation. A poorly edited book (self-edited or edited by a family member or friend who’s an English teacher) will be immediately deemed amateurish in the eyes of the world when it comes out, even if it looks okay to you. Your book will never be judged in isolation, but in relation to your well-edited competitors!
So, make sure that you budget for a professional editor to take your diamond in the rough and make it shine to its full splendor — you’ll never regret making this important investment.
Step 10: Hire a Professional Book and Cover Designer
Last but not least, and in spite of the popular saying to the contrary, all books are judged by their covers, and by extension by their layout. If you do this design work yourself, or farm it out to inexperienced hands, the result will always appear to be amateurish in relation to your well-produced competitors.
This is not a high expense and it’s worth every penny. If your book cover is not attractive and suited for the type of book you’ve written, it’ll be dismissed by the market and be destined to obscurity. The same goes for your interior design.
For example, the wrong choice of font may appear right to your eyes, but in the eyes of the readers it may result in headaches. Believe it or not, the wrong choice of font design, line spacing, font size and character spacing can make your book really hard to read.
Also, your font may be okay to read but happen to be the wrong font for the type of book you’re writing. Font is art and so is your writing and they must be in harmony to be enjoyed.
In short, make sure that you hire capable professionals to edit and design your book and you’ll ensure a lasting legacy of your life’s work.
Best of luck!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.