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I have never kept a diary, and some time back I thought it would be fun to work on some sort of autobiography to note down any memorable events etc. I am not famous, and even if completed the 'audience' for this is basically going to be a few relatives & friends, besides having it serve as a substitute diary to chronicle past events.

Besides being an unknown, I am also not a writer, and do not know how to plan books or anything longer than a short technical article. How should I prepare and attempt to write an autobiography if I'm aiming for an interesting and factually correct read?

Some considerations:

  • Chronological order or some alternative arrangement (interactions with particular people? Aspects such as school life, entertainment etc.?)
  • How do I start & pace myself to try and sustain interest in this project?
  • Its unlikely to ever see print of a single copy; so should I take advantage of any digital features (better hyperlinking, multiple data views) by aiming for only digital version?
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Entire books have been written about exactly this: How to organize and plan a book. Perhaps telling us more about this specific project would help narrow down the question, letting people give you more targeted advice. The question os how to avoid offending people could probably be a question all on its own. And if you have specific weaknesses as a writer, perhaps those could be brought up in yet a third question. (Not suggesting you open multiple questions, but illustrating just how broad this question is.) Good luck on this project, and welcome to Writers! –  Neil Fein Aug 2 '12 at 8:32

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Unless you are near (what you think is) the end of your life, you don't have enough data yet to know what will ultimately be the best organization. So don't try to create an outline; just start writing pieces.

Chronological seems logical but might not be very engaging. Is reading a day-by-day (or week-by-week) diary where not a lot happens at once interesting? Not usually. But the slices of life that you get through journaling can add up to interesting collections, re-arranged.

I think you will get the best results by doing this digitally. Specifically, use a blog so you can cross-link and tag entries. This does not mean you have to publish your blog to the world; blogging sites like Dreamwidth, Livejournal, and others allow you to set access control for individual entries or entire journals. I started an online journal more than ten years ago and it's still surprising what entries I return to -- ones I didn't know at the time would be significant -- and which ones that I thought important turned out not to be.

Tagging allows you to index on the fly. Over time you can organize existing entries into groups, via linking, based on whatever criteria make sense -- time, broad themes, ties to specific people, or whatever.

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If it were me I would just start writing without any sort of outline or rules. I would write whatever I felt at the moment and as little or as much as I was moved to write. Once you have a lot written it will be obvious to you how it should be organized in the book. As with any large project that is overwhelming at first I get nowhere until I just start doing it. There are no rules to autobiographies or writing for that matter and in my experience the best works are those that were written with a no-holds barred attitude and are written by following the heart and not the head. Write the book as if you are the only one who will ever read it and it will be everything you hoped for and more.

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My advice is to find some element (with an emotional content) that changed across your life and put down a list. The goal is to have an outline of major events. Then fill the gaps between those "milestones". For me, a list of girlfriends worked pretty well (without turn out to be a book about my sex life). Everything could be suitable for the purpose (like a list of your jobs, without turn out to be a book about your career :D). About your three points:

  1. yes, I'll suggest a chronological order (it's easier if you follow my previous advice)
  2. Just start typing it without too much thinking
  3. It only depends by your purpose..

Hope this helps.

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Well, chronological is always a useful way of telling this sort of story, but it might not be the most engaging. As strange as it sounds, even a biography has to have a story. Sometimes the best way to do this is start it at a singular event, then go back to see how you came to that point. The idea is to show how your life molded you into the person that you are. This also starts to dance into a memoir, but that isn't a huge issue.

Of course, since his is a biography the order you write the events isn't going to change the events themselves, so I would just simply start writing things as they come to you. Make sure to date when they happened so you can organize them later, also talking about one event may help jog you memory of another even, so writing it non-linear might help keep events fresh in your mind.

As for how to pace yourself and keep interest in the project, well that's a challenge every writer faces. Going old traditional might be the best choice: writing some every day, having a fix time to write with little distractions and daily goals. Even so that is a larger question to deal with.

Lastly, using digital features to try and keep things organized. Believe it or not, blogging software might be the best choice in this case. Using software like that you can tag and link pretty much every post you make, allowing you to navigate things easier. You can also host in in the 'cloud' so you can access in anywhere (and you can keep them private, so no one can read them without your permission). In the end though, don't let worry about how to use it stop you from starting the project. Really the very first step is going to be to start writing it, before that everything else is really just academic.

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