Writing Autobiography 
Writing and Revising an Autobiography

Paragraphing in autobiography

To write your story, you'll use four kinds of paragraphs. The first two are narrative and descriptive. Focus each on an individual scene or action. When you shift scenes or change actions, more than likely you'll begin a new paragraph. (For examples of these paragraphs, see The Ready Reference Handbook, 6b1 and 2.)

The third kind of paragraph you'll write is the dialogue paragraph, presenting the words of one of your characters and a signal statement to introduce that speech. Listen to this writer describing an automobile breakdown during a cross-country trip with friends: 

     Behind us, a quarter mile away, shimmering in the desert sunlight by the side of the road, sat our broken-down car. Ahead of us, down a broad drive, surrounded by a lush lawn dotted with sprinklers sounding "ffft, ffft, ffft," shaded by arching palm trees and sheltering shrubbery, was the wonder of this desert place, an immense new house built in the Spanish style.
     As we walked up the drive, a large black pickup came toward us. "All right!" cried Peter. "Help is at hand. We'll get a tow out of this--or at least a phone call to a garage."
     The pickup rolled to a silent stop, and the occupant stared at us for a moment from behind tinted windows. Then slowly a window descended, and we looked into the driver's small, marble-colored, depthless eyes.
     "I wonder if we could ask you for a little favor," said Peter in his best insinuating voice.
     As the driver of the pickup shifted his hand on the steering wheel, a gold Rolex glinted on his wrist. A two-way radio hung by his knees; on the seat lay a cell phone and a revolver. Peter quickly told him of our plight. "We just need a little help--a tow, or a phone to arrange a tow."
     He studied us for a moment, blinked twice, and then as the tinted window rose between us and his air conditioned cab, we heard him say, "No. No help around here that I know of. Maybe up the road a few miles." Through the small remaining crack in the window, we could see him jerk a thumb toward the road."
     Around us the sprinklers sounded "ffft, ffft, ffft."

--Thom Sandersall

As this writer does, you'll use dialogue to bring your narratives to life, to create personalities, and to reveal secrets. Introductory signal statements will identify the speaker and tone of voice, give background information, or evaluate the speaker's remarks. (For more on quoting dialogue, see The Ready Reference Handbook, 38a and b.)

The fourth kind of paragraph you'll write is the transitional paragraph, illustrated by Thom Sandersall's third paragraph above. In these often brief paragraphs writers summarize unimportant events, provide background information, or mark the passage of time and heighten suspense. Transitional paragraphs build bridges to carry a story from one episode to the next.

A revision checklist

As you revise and edit your autobiography, follow these tips and guidelines:

  • Sometimes you won't know the point of your story--its secret meaning or significance, your main idea, or dominant impression--until you've nearly finished a first draft. If, near your conclusion, you find yourself thinking, "Aha!", you may have discovered your point, and you should rewrite in light of your discovery. Often writers plunge to a new depth of understanding just as they are about to finish. Rewrite to lead your story to this new depth.
  • No matter how good a sentence or how vivid a memory--if it doesn't develop your main idea or dominant impression, you should cut it.
  • Beware of beginning too soon, with irrelevant introductory materials, or too late, without the background information readers need to understand you.
  • Reread to see that you've provided connecting links to carry readers from one episode to the next.
  • Examine your words to see that each is faithful to the truth of your experience. In autobiographical writing, there's no such thing as an almost-right word.
  • Reread looking for clichés, old metaphors and similes that everyone has heard and that have lost their power. Look, too, for mixed metaphors, two or more figures of speech that clash with one another. (See The Ready Reference Handbook, 26d.)
Questions for peer reviewers of autobiography

Writers: If you're passing out copies of your writing for peer reviewers to read, number your paragraphs to make your story easy to discuss. Make a brief introduction:

  1. Identify your audience (name yourself or your intended readers).
  2. Identify the kind of autobiography you've written: a personal experience essay, a reflective essay, an epiphany, or a memoir
  3. Describe your intentions. "In my story I'm trying to tell/show. . . ."
  4. Tell your peer reviewers about the feedback you want from them. Ask questions, describe problems, or pose alternative solutions for which you want opinions. Take notes as you listen to their feedback. Use your reviewers' suggestions where they're helpful. But remember, this is your autobiography; it should say what you want.
Peer reviewers: Answer the following questions to help this writer see his/her autobiographical essay clearly and begin planning revisions.
  1. What is this story about--its subject? Does it change from one page to the next? If so, what subject is most interesting or important?
  2. Is the purpose of the writing autobiographical, informative, persuasive, or critical? Does it change? Role: Does the writer sound like a story-teller (autobiographer), reporter, teacher, critic, or persuader? What purpose and role are appropriate?
  3. Is the audience for this project supposed to respond with sympathy, understanding, evaluation, agreement, or enjoyment? Will this writing achieve its purpose? What changes might help it achieve its purpose?
  4. Does this project have a unifier, a secret or discovery to share, a main idea, or an overall mood? Point it out or summarize it.
  5. Development. Does the writing provide enough detail for you to re-live the story with the writer and get its "secret" message? Tell the writer what description, dialogue, metaphors or similes you most remember. Are some parts of the story vague, needing more detail to bring them to life?
  6. Organization. Can you follow this story from start to finish? Where is it hard to follow? Point to specific sentences or paragraphs.
  7. What message or picture is expressed by the essay's title? Does the story suggest a more vivid or revealing title? What does the introduction do to interest you or help you see where the story is going? Propose alternative openings the writer could use to begin his/her story.
  8. Does the writer's "voice" seem right for the topic, too formal, or too informal? Point out words that don't seem to fit. 

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