Picking the Best Format to Write Your Life Story

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26 Nov 2018

PICKING THE BEST FORMAT TO WRITE YOUR LIFE STORY

You’ve had an interesting life, and you want to share your story with the world. You want to share lessons learned, leave a legacy for your family, or preserve favorite memories. You’ve thought about writing a book more than once, but you’re not sure where to start.

In fact, you’re not even sure what kind of book you should write. Should you tell your story in chronological order, starting with the day you were born? Should you aim for a series of “snapshots” of important events in your life? Do you want to focus on one aspect of your life, like your career? Do you want to write about a challenge you’ve had to overcome?

We know. That’s a lot to think about. First of all, don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed.  A book is a big project, and there are several great options for writing your life story. In this guide, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular options, and help you decide which is best for you.

Autobiography or Memoir?

Although you’ve probably heard these two terms used interchangeably, there’s actually a difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Both are great options for telling your story, but the option you choose will depend on things like your goals for the book, the focus of your book, and the types of stories you want to share.

The Autobiography

An autobiography is a sweeping factual narrative of your life. It’s written in chronological order from your birth to the present moment. It is based on factual events rather than memories and emotions, and highlights the experiences and accomplishments throughout your lifetime. All autobiographies are written in first-person, typically by the author themselves, but can also be written by a ghostwriter.

While this format is normally used by famous people who have a lot of accomplishments and experiences to document, anyone can write an autobiography

Within the autobiography format, there are two main approaches.

  1. You can write your life story strictly based on your history and accomplishments, listing the events of your life in consecutive order so your readers can learn about you and your life experiences.
  2. You can write your life story based on a particular theme. How would you define your life in one key message? Maybe it’s the idea that love conquers all, or a theme like overcoming adversity and never giving up. By determining one main theme and weaving it through the all facts of your life, it makes for a more interesting story and creates a better flow.

In fact, many of the best autobiographies out there have a central idea that blends with the author’s entire life story throughout the book.

  • Pros: This is a little easier to write, due to the chronological and factual nature of the format. Unlike some of the other options available, an autobiography can be straightforward and simple; there is no need to use literary devices or embellishments.
  • Cons: Presenting your life story in a strictly factual, linear way can be less interesting than a memoir. The “just the facts” approach also means you’ll need to do lot of fact checking and research. Also, it can be difficult writing about yourself, especially in the first person, without it feeling stilted. You might find that you sound too humble or even too arrogant — it’s hard to strike the right balance.

Suggested Reading

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela by Nelson Mandela

Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash

Life by Keith Richards

The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Eleanor Roosevelt

The Memoir

Unlike an autobiography, a memoir focuses on a more specific point in time based on your memories and the feelings of that time period. It is meant to re-create the past instead of merely record it, which makes for a more interesting read. This format is also written in the first person but is less formal. Instead of emphasizing factual events, a memoir is focused on how you remember or were affected by these events.

One of the great things about this type of format is that it gives you, the author, great flexibility. You can write about anything. This is also a great option if you find that you really enjoy writing:  because a memoir covers only one aspect, event, or time period in your life, you can write numerous memoirs about other experiences.

You can write a memoir about your childhood, your travels, your family, your career, or anything else. Think about a key theme or lesson and how it affected or shaped you then and now. You can write about a single personal event that happened; a single historical event; a series of connected events that have a common thread; or an external person or event to you and how it/they affected or shaped you, your life, and your outlook on life.

  • Pros: You can write  about virtually any topic, theme, experience, or event. Plus, because you’re writing about your own memories and events in your life and not about your accomplishments, it’s easier to write without sounding stilted or over-indulgent. And if you love to write, you can write numerous memoirs.
  • Cons: Writing a memoir takes a little more writing skill to make the story flow in an interesting way. Also, your memories could be less clear than the real events which could possibly open you up to liability issues. Other things to consider are privacy of others and the potential of alienating yourself from friends or family depending on your subject matter.

Suggested Reading

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape by Emma Gingerich

Drunk Mom: A Memoir by Jowita Bydlowska

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

Many Ways to Write Your Life Story

Now that you know the difference between an autobiography and a memoir, it’s also important to know that these aren’t the only two ways to write your life story. Consider these optional formats:

The Diary or Journal

Many people regularly journal or keep a diary to chronicle their life’s experiences. If you have kept a journal over the years, then you are even closer to writing your life’s story.

If have never journaled before, you can start right now to keep track of your daily life and use that as a springboard to writing your story. Using a theme or single topic as you journal can be a good way to get started.

Plus, if you do it in this format, you can take a mix of both the autobiographical format and the memoir format by doing it chronologically but with more emotion and not as much fact.

You can also simply intermix the memoir and diary formats together and write your memoir as if you were doing journal entries.

  • Pros: You may have already been keeping a diary or journal throughout your lifetime, so it makes a great format to start with as much of the writing is already done. You can also still build around a central theme or simply write your memories out in this format.
  • Cons: Many diaries or journals contain mundane thoughts, feelings, and daily events that aren’t interesting to write about or read. It can be harder to go through each entry and extract the interesting parts from what is probably not all that interesting. Oftentimes, keeping a diary or journal will lead to a lot of rambling and usually there isn’t a cohesive theme or event to it.

Suggested Reading

Oregon Trail Journal of Medorem Crawford by Medorem Crawford

Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII by Helen Electrie Lindsay

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864 by Barry Denenberg

Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil

The Biography

A biography is the telling of person’s life story, typically a famous person, by another author. It is written in the third-person voice (he/she) and is also factual in content and written in order from birth to the present moment, just like an autobiography.

But just because biographies are normally written by someone else, there is no rule book that says you can’t write your own biography! All you need to do is take your story and write as if it happened to someone else. You can also write your memoir this way using a he/she form of writing.

  • Pros: Writing in the third person vs. first person can help you detach from your story so you can see it more objectively. Also, much like an autobiography, this format is based on facts and an easy to follow timeline, so you can write in a more direct way without a lot of added fluff like you would in a memoir or autobiographical novel.
  • Cons: Writing in the third person form can be difficult when writing about yourself and your achievements. You also must still focus on the historical events of your life and the facts which means a lot of research and fact checking is necessary.

Suggested Reading

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different: A Biography by Karen Blumenthal

Robin by Dave Itzkoff

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

The Autobiographical Novel

Another way to present your life story is writing a fictionalized book based on the true or remembered events of your life.

Why write your life story as if it were made up and put it into novel form? Certainly, there are risks when you write your life story and present a factual (autobiography) or semi-factual (memoir) account. Liability, privacy, protecting other people who are still living, and a sensitive subject matter are all good reasons to choose this format.

Of course, writing in a fiction format can also be a good way to embellish on facts that aren’t quite so interesting. Just remember to never make up facts and portray them as truth within your life story. You can use truth within your fiction, but not the other way around.

  • Pros: By choosing this format, you can avoid hurting family, friends, and other people that are a part of your story. You can also protect yourself from liability issues by presenting sensitive topics and information as fiction. Plus, if you don’t fully remember all the events you’re writing about, it might be better to present them as fiction. And writing in novel form allows you to embellish on the facts that aren’t quite so interesting.
  • Cons: Presenting the truth as made up doesn’t give the healing or closure on certain events or topics in your life which is something many people try to do when telling their life story. Also, you want people to know it is your story and writing in fiction can cause confusion to your audience.

Suggested Reading

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Contents May Have Shifted: A Novel by Pam Houston

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Alternative Formats

Want to do something completely unique? The great thing about writing your own story is that, well, it’s yours. And that means you can tell it any way you choose. The only limit is your creativity.

Here are some ideas of other formats you can try:

  1. Like almost everyone, you probably have a phone in your hands at any given moment. Start taking video of important experiences and events to create a video autobiography.
  2. Create an audio or oral autobiography by voice recording yourself talking about your life, history, events, or anything you want to talk about to your intended audience.
  3. Take a series of photos of you with captions and create a digital photo autobiography that chronicles your life by placing it online, CD, or another digital format.
  4. Using photos, letters, certificates of achievement, journaling, and paper, make a one-of-a-kind keepsake scrapbook that tells your life story. It will be visual, unique, and something you and your family can treasure.
  5. Do you like to take your own photos? Create a digital memoir using photos you have taken across a life event, experience, or topic.
  6. Maybe you’re an artist and have created paintings and drawings over the years. Consider putting them all together into book form that helps tell a story of your life, similar to a memoir or across your life like an autobiography.
  7. If you are an avid social media user, you could consider taking your social media conversations, social media posts, even your text conversations and compile your life story around these things, even using a similar format. Group them together by topic or theme to make for easier reading. If using text messages or comments made by others, be sure to get permission from them before you publish in any sort of way so as not to plagiarize.
  8. Write a series of short stories and put them together into a book, like an anthology. They can be stories about similar topics or events or can be completely separate and random.
  9. Create a book of poetry with each poem detailing aspects of your life or memories.
  • Pros: You can present your life story in anyway you choose! You can be as creative as you want while possibly even starting a new niche in this genre – you could be a trendsetter!
  • Cons: You have fewer examples to follow to help you along with telling your story, especially if you are a new writer. You’ll have to be extra creative and make up your format as you go which might extend the time it takes to get your project completed.

Suggested Reading

Crack Street Victim Lane: Addiction memoirs / poetry, written in the Crack House, and while sleeping on the street by Samuel Arcelay

Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir by James Watters (Author), Jean Howard  (Photographer)

Scrapbooking + Memoir = ScrapMoir 7 Steps to Combining Your Photos, Your Memories, Your Stories by Bettyann Schmidt

Author
Shelly Spencer 
Shelly Spencer has been a professional writer for the past 25 years with a specialized focus on grant and RFP proposal writing. She has written for small start-up and mid-sized businesses as well as numerous non-profit organizations and also worked at a daily newspaper editing and proofreading display advertisements and real estate articles. Shelly has experience in writing for a variety of industries in all types of copy, including articles, blog posts, e-books, websites, proposals, brochures, press releases, newsletters, and more. Choosing not to go the traditional route, Shelly gained her skills through hands-on experience and by studying direct mail, B2B, and SEO copywriting through various American Writers and Artists Inc. (AWAI) programs. She is an AWAI verified direct response copywriter having completed their Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting and the Master's Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. She has also completed the Secrets to Writing High Performance B2B Copy by Steve Slaunwhite and Dan Kennedy's Writing for Info Marketers, both through AWAI, and The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Program by Great Escape Publishing. Shelly is a member of the Professional Writer’s Association (PWA) and the International Travel Writers and Photographers Association (ITWPA).

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