Four things to consider before you begin writing.

Everyone’s life story is unique. It is a journey interwoven with the lives of others, interspersed with events, both planned and unforeseen. Different places, experiences, careers, journeys, relationships, tragedies and triumphs, moments of mirth, fateful meetings and everything in between. Once we have years of experience under our belt, some of us feel the urge to record our stories. The reasons for this may be purely personal, or perhaps for financial gain. We may wish to share our story with loved ones, produce a work of historical interest, impart wisdom and knowledge to future generations, or to ‘set the record straight’ where we feel others do not have a clear (or truthful) idea of who we really are.

Many high-profile people write autobiographies that are published and sold widely. Some are controversial, others inspirational. Most are insightful, interesting and usually (but not always), a good read.

Over the years, I have been honoured to help clients from a wide range of backgrounds and careers to publish their own life stories. In some cases, the task has been to first transcribe diaries they have either handwritten, or dictated. Others have required me to sit with them, listen to their stories and write the entire memoir based on their recollections.

There are FOUR main points to consider before you start writing your own life story, whether you decide to write it yourself, or engage the services of a professional writer to assist you:

  1. How much of your story do you want to tell? If you are young, your story may be a ‘work in progress’, an ongoing project recording previous decades of your life, or a particular experience, journey or event, such as Jessica Watson’s book ‘True Spirit’ and Jesse Martin’s book ‘Lionheart’, which cover their incredible adventures sailing solo around the world. On the other hand, you may have already lived an extremely full, eventful life and wish to record it ‘to date’. This is known as a ‘memoir’. For example, many sports stars and other famous or inspirational young people have published books about their lives – so far. Older people are more likely to want to record their entire life, usually as a keepsake and historical/genealogical record for relatives and future generations. People who have lived through one (or two) world wars, or the experience of migration, can impart a vast amount of historically rich and interesting information.
  2. How do you want to record and tell your story? Some people are avid writers and record-keepers, keeping diaries for most of their lives. Others, particularly the younger generation, prefer to record their thoughts on an audio device, dictating things as they come to mind, or keeping a video blog. You can type or write up your own notes as a draft, then have a ghostwriter work it into a story for you. There is also the option of sitting with a writer and telling them about your life. He or she will take notes, possibly recording your conversations, and then write the book for you. A good ghostwriter should liaise with you regularly, ensure all details are correct, and that the style of writing reflects your personality – as if the story has been written by you. Another thing you need to be clear about from the outset is whether you want your story to be written in the first person, i.e. autobiographically (my story, I did this), or third person, as a biography (his story, he did this). There is also the option of having your story told in a semi-fictional style – as if you are a character in a novel. In this case, names and places, timing and details of events may be changed. There are benefits to doing this, as you will see in TIP #1, below.
  3. Be prepared – get the details down. If you decide to retain the services of a writer, it’s important (and prudent if you are paying an hourly rate), to first record (by hand, audio or typed up) as much information about your life as you can. Try to create a timeline. Think of key dates, places and events (e.g. birth, education, marriage, migration, travel, significant career moves, children’s births, tragedies, triumphs, etc.). The more detailed information you can provide, the quicker and easier it will be for the writer to put together a ‘skeleton’ story that they can build upon. If you have photos to go with the story, all the better.
  4. What is your budget? One of the most important considerations! Depending upon how long your memoir or autobiography will be, having it produced professionally can cost a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you are engaging the services of a ghostwriter, have a figure in mind, and agree on the price before they start. You also need to think about how you want the finished product to look. Do you just want it printed on A4 paper? Do you want it bound? If so, how? How many copies do you want produced? Just one or two? A few dozen? Will there be photos? If so, how many? This all adds to the printing costs. Do you want it published? If so, do you want it to be in hardback or paperback – or as an e-book that will only be available online? Unless you’re a celebrity or very well-known, it is difficult (and expensive) to have a memoir or autobiography accepted, published and marketed by large publishing houses. Nowadays, many people opt to self-publish and market their works. These are all important things to take into consideration before you start.

TIP #1: As you progress, memorable moments and anecdotes are bound to spring to mind – often at bedtime, or when you are out somewhere and something triggers a memory. Make sure you note them down, so that they can be inserted into the appropriate place. The result should be a well written, engaging story that reflects your journey, including the highs, the lows, and the significant people (or animals!). It will also describe challenges and catalytic experiences that have culminated in who and where you are today.

TIP #2: Be cautious when naming other people, even if they have passed away. You can break the law by making slanderous or defamatory remarks that will offend those named, or their relatives. If you have any concerns, consult a professional. It may be better to write your story as semi-fictional – changing the names of characters and key details to avoid any risk of legal action. If possible, ensure you have the written permission of anyone you plan to name and include in your story. Even if you ‘think’ they’ll be okay with it, show them a draft of the manuscript and get their written permission to name them, prior to publication.

Have you written or ghostwritten a memoir or autobiography? Do you have any other tips for anyone who is thinking of writing their own story?

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