Every writer will, at some point, be presented with the opportunity to write creative non-fiction. In this article, the prolific biographer. Mike Ekunno, teaches us how to write an autobiography, biography, and memoir. Ready to learn from this maestro? Keep reading.
To understand how to write an autobiography, you must consider how a biography differs from an autobiography.
A biography is the story of one’s life which when written by the subject becomes an autobiography. A memoir is also a biography or autobiography but concerned more with the subject’s career and public life. Understanding these terminologies will help you on your journey to learning how to write an autobiography.
While late Owelle Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s My Odyssey is a good example of an autobiography, Malam Nasir el-Rufai’s The Accidental Public Servant is a memoir. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is another good example of a memoir.
Autobiographies and memoirs are often written with the assistance of professional freelancers. By prior mutual agreement, this fact can be hidden. When anonymous, the paid author or co-author becomes the ghostwriter. He/she is paid off and loses all future claims to authorship or co-authorship of the work.
A Detailed Guide On How To Write An Autobiography.
At this point, you’ve probably ascertained that there isn’t much of a difference in the process of writing an autobiography and a biography.
Below is a step-by-step guide for writing that award-winning autobiography or biography.
Draw Up The Outline For Your Autobiography Or Biography.
Generating an outline is like drawing the building plan for a construction project. As with building construction, the outline is of existential consequence for the biography or autobiography project.
In the classical biography, the outline follows a chronological order beginning with family genealogy, birth, childhood, education, career, and so on.
But with a memoir, the outline is episodic dwelling on the milestones in the subject’s career path and public life. The freelancer must work with the subject-client to tease out a workable outline.
Since the chapters of the resultant book will mimic the outline, a grouping of topics in the outline is to be done with an eye for coevality and volume. By coevality, I mean those events that occurred around the same period of time.
These should naturally be grouped together. However, the chances of overlap of references to the same event are always there. And this shouldn’t be a worry at the outline stage.
How To Group Your Headings and Sub-Headings.
While grouping the headings and sub-heads, the writer should be sensitive about achieving approximate uniformity in the volume of each chapter. This is to forestall a scenario where one chapter is five pages long, while the other is twenty-five pages long.
The autobiographer or biographer has a duty at this stage to tease out as wide a range of events and occurrences as possible. This should include their ramifications done by asking the kind of searching questions that will help the subject clarify fuzzy connections.
In other words, this is not the time for minimalism. Rather, it is the time to be expansive. Understand that the outline will form the compass for the project. Just as architects take one section of the project and blow it up for details in the plan, the biographer also has to explore the detours and subheads to the main headings and events.
Embarking On Background Research For Your Autobiography, Biography, and Memoir.
In the run-up to beginning the biography or autobiography and having drawn up the outline, one should prepare oneself with background research. This step is important for autobiographers, biographers, and memoirists.
Many writers wonder how to find materials for their autobiographies and biography projects. If you’re such a writer, you should consider exploring the most popular sources of research materials.
Sources of background research can be divided into:
How To Use Written Sources During Your Background Research.
Written sources include files and diaries relating to the period under consideration. Also, newspaper cuttings if the issues involved were captured in the media. There would probably be pictures and other graphic records.
As social media becomes a prominent part of our lives, future biographers may also have recourse to social media archives. Clients who had public service careers should be mindful of the Official Secrets Act. Also, be well advised on excerpting official documents.
The oral sources would include relations and workplace colleagues of the subject. However, these sources needn’t be approached at the onset until the outline progresses and these sources’ perspectives become relevant.
The ethics of the business demands that the freelancer must obtain the client’s fiat before speaking with these third-party sources. In the sub-genre known as unauthorized biography however, the freelancer operates more like a sleuth to unearth what may not be favorable to the subject which makes the requirement for the subject’s prior approval unnecessary.
One of such unauthorized biographies happened by serendipity in Nigeria in relation to a man of letters who fell out with his biographer. Interesting right?
The Quest for Volume and Why It Should Matter To The Writer.
During the outlining and research phase, think about the volume of the project. The volume will determine how successful you’ll be in your quest to figure out how to write an autobiography or a biography.
Most biography-writing projects are faced with a mortal threat in the quest for a sizeable volume for the resulting publication. This is caused by the subject-client overestimating the quantum of the story he/she has got.
Also, the volume is often a source of worry to many writers who are in the process of figuring out how to compose an autobiography or biography.
Many prospects for autobiographies think because the story of their life appears huge to them, it can actually make a good volume in book form. For others, it is a question of not having the ability of a raconteur to tell their story in a compelling way.
One client of mine ended up with essay-type print-outs of her life’s story which were useless to me. I had to subject her to a re-telling of the narrative in order to give it flesh as a story.
Many who think of their story as vast start off well, but end up with something very scanty. This is where the professional freelance biographer comes in to help achieve your dream of writing a biography.
Again, many biography prospects do involuntary self-censorship of their stories or adopt a minimalist approach believing the reader would not be interested in the details.
It is the duty of the professional biographer to tease out these details glossed over by the subject during recorded interviews with follow-up questions.
If you’re experimenting with styles and ways to write an autobiography, you can adopt the strategies of professional biographers. Put in a lot of details. It is better to over-write and cut than under-write and look for augmentation.
Handling The Interview Session.
For a freelance biographer whether writing overtly or ghostwriting, the interview sessions with the subject are of utmost importance. The freelancer should pre-arrange each session in consultation with the subject-client and agree as to venue and time.
Over time, all parties will come to know what works best for them as to durations, venues, and times. Many biography prospects are senior citizens and would be managed as such.
I remember having to pre-order one such client’s favorite wine to be at the ready at our rendezvous. With a glass of this drink, he came alive in his best narrative elements and began to ‘sing.’
More tips on having a successful interview session.
- The freelancer should come to each interview session prepared with extra batteries for the voice recorder and a clear idea of where the day’s session stood on the outline.
- Also, there should be a way of identifying the voice files with alphanumeric codes in the transcription file in order to be able to access the right voice file at the right time knowing the approximate time count of anything needed on playback.
- Files that have been transcribed and vetted by the subject should be deleted to free up space in the recorder.
In working as a freelance biographer, progress comes incrementally. It comes through many continual cycles of the interview – transcription – vetting – final drafting – vetting until the work is complete.
Narrating one’s life story can be an emotional rollercoaster and freelance biographers should come loaded with a good swathe of emotional intelligence to manage their clients.
The major part of managing clients comes in their tardiness with timelines. He is expected to vet and approve a transcribed section in one week but he has not got back to you after one month.
How To Get Payment For The Writing Project.
Except the writer has achieved name recognition in the trade of biographing, there’s always the prospect of being regarded with suspicion by most clients. One way to assuage this suspicion is to agree to a Pay-As-You-Go arrangement.
This aspect might come in handy for anyone who’s in the process of figuring out how to write an autobiography. Chances are that you might want to employ the services of a professional biographer.
In a Pay-As-You-Go arrangement. the client pays on a pro-rata basis as the manuscript progresses according to the outline. (This is another raison d’etre for the outline). If the project does not go to full term and gets aborted midway, neither party would feel short-changed.
When the full manuscript is ready, a professional book editor should be engaged to edit it. This goes beyond spellings and typos and nothing can fully capture all the ways in which a good editor can improve a literary piece.
Sections of the story with legal implications should be shown to a lawyer. An experienced lawyer will do a good job of vetting your book for possible libel. It is the duty of a good freelancer to not presume to be a Jack of all Trade in these matters. It is wise to advise the client as a fiducial power.
Talking of the fiduciary relationship between the client and freelancer on a biography project – this cannot be overstated. The implication of this for the freelancer is that all information received in the process should be treated as privileged and of confidential nature.
A contractual agreement should be endorsed by both parties at the beginning with provision for arbitration if things don’t go well.
Backing Up Files For The Book And Why It Matters When Learning How To Write An Autobiography..
Backing up files is of acute importance in writing a biography. The freelance should use the client as a veritable back-up resource, in so far as the relevant section of the manuscript has been paid for.
No writer should depend solely on their digital devices for back-up of sensitive work. Always use email to send your drafts. Emails provide an unwitting but reliable back-up in the event of any system crash or loss.
What’s The Purpose Of An Autobiography or A Biography?
One of the first things the subject-client must determine is the goal of the proposed memoir, biography, or autobiography. Reviewing the goal of the project will help you determine if you really should go through the long haul of learning how to write an autobiography or a biography.
People embark on writing autobiographies for different reasons including:
- financial gains
- setting the records straight
- leaving a legacy for posterity.
Most memoirs from past public officers are written for posterity and to court the favorable judgment of history. However, past American presidents and entertainment industry celebrities write for financial gains also.
The more common thing is to find a combination of these goals undergirding one’s excuse for penning an autobiography, biography, or memoir. In Nigeria, if one hasn’t lived in the public space, one has no business writing an autobiography or expecting any commercial success from the publication.
Also, any expectation of massive financial returns has to be highly moderated except one were ready for an elaborate launch at the book presentation.
Wrap Up On How To Write An Autobiography, Biography or Memoir.
Writing a book is not an easy feat. You have to plan, strategize, and give a lot of thought to the literary elements at your disposal. While drawing up your outline and unearthing background information, take note of subtexts, themes, and plotlines that you can play up.
Don’t overestimate or underestimate the volume of the material. To do this is to risk boxing yourself into a corner. Remember, it is better to overwrite than to underwrite.
Have you written an autobiography, biography, or memoir? Let us know in the comments section. Your experience might help those who are learning how to pen down an autobiography, memoir, or biography.
Author’s Bio: Mike Ekunno is a creative writer, book editor and freelance biographer with copious credits in reputable literary journals including The Blue Nib, Nzuri Journal, Written Tales, Bridge Eight, The First Line, Crack the Spine, The Hamilton Stone Review, Creative Writing News, Dugwe, Gambling the Aisle, Warscapes, bioStories, The African Roar Anthology, Ebedi Review, Rigorous, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Dark Matter Journal, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continental contests.
His career path has passed through film, television, radio and newspaper. He was Senior Speechwriter to late Prof Dora Akunyili as Information and Communications Minister and Special Assistant to DG of Radio Nigeria. His children’s book, Cowboy Lamido, is on the approved text for schools in the FCT and across the states.
Interested in writing for Creative Writing News? Our submission guidelines are on the Write for Us page. We look forward to hearing from you.
Photo credit: Stephen Phillips – Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash
Jun 27, 2020 at 5:14 pm
Thanks, Mike for this enlightening post.
I am interested in writing about sections of my life, for instance, my childhood, education and marriage all in separate books. As I am no celebrity yet, don’t you think writing memoirs about snapshots of my life is the way to go?
Jun 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm
Thanks for your interest.
It all depends on what you want to achieve. Everybody can put down their life stories but you have to be a celebrity or public figure to expect commercial success from the venture.
Again, when you talk of ‘in separate books’ how’re you gonna handle that seeing what we said about the quest for volume?
But please don’t give up on documenting your life – celebrity or not.
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