Posts Tagged ‘editing autobiography’

Your Autobiography—Where to Begin, What to Include

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Many of my clients at Beaumont Hardy need help editing their autobiographies or autobiographical statements. At one time or another, almost everyone needs to compose an autobiography of some length—as an application essay for a school or a job, as part of a master’s thesis or dissertation, or as a potential nonfiction book project. These autobiographies can present many challenges.

In general, I recommend that writers think of their own autobiographies as stories, sifting through facts and details until a coherent “storyline” emerges. This “storyline” will often indicate a good starting point for the autobiography and will suggest which details are worth including (or eliminating). I also suggest that writers think of themselves as characters in their autobiographies, presenting details and events in such a way that they emerge three-dimensionally and realistically. The most successful autobiographies have about them a sense of the universal—some theme or idea that speaks to all readers. A writer who discovers and highlights this universality will usually create a very readable autobiography.

These general rules usually work, but autobiographical writing often requires the guidance of an outside editor. Because writers of autobiographies are, by definition, very close to their subject matter, an editor can help them choose details and descriptions that will most effectively present their own stories. I have helped many authors resolve the most common autobiographical dilemmas to produce concise, compelling autobiographies and autobiographical statements.

The first dilemma in writing an autobiography is to determine its scope. The contents of an autobiography are limited only by one’s lifespan. Thus, an autobiography could conceivably begin at the writer’s birth and exhaustively detail every moment until the writer’s last breath. Because only the writer’s mother and closest friends would enjoy such detail, at Beaumont Hardy I step in to cut away extraneous material to reveal only the most salient parts of a life.

Another dilemma of autobiography-writing is knowing how to present the information. Depending on the purpose of the autobiography, a writer might want to highlight some details that would be irrelevant in another autobiographical context. For instance, the focus of a short autobiography for a dissertation might be very different from that of an autobiographical job application essay. At Beaumont Hardy, I have helped many authors tailor their autobiographical statements to suit their particular purposes and audiences.

Writing a book-length autobiography is the most complex autobiographical dilemma, as the issues of scope and presentation become particularly important. Paring down a life to one paragraph or one essay is difficult, but shaping that life into an interesting book can be most difficult of all. I have guided many authors in refining the pacing and focus of their long autobiographies.

Feel free to e-mail me about your particular autobiography-editing needs. I can help you with content, editing and focus.