Writing Your Life Story

1. First create an outline of your story, so you know where you’re heading. In a notebook plan about twelve chapter headings, representing the various periods of your life, and make brief notes of what you want to include in each one. Then, if your book is going to be around 60,000 words (which is a good average length for a book) you can average around 5000 words in each chapter.

2. Decide what you want the “take-away” of the book to be. In other words, what’s the single most important message you want to convey? What life lesson have you learned that you’d like readers to take from this book?  This “take-away” might not be written down anywhere in the book, but it needs to be written down somewhere for your benefit. Reduce the take-away to one sentence and tape it to your computer. It will keep you focused as you write.

3. Decide on your target readership. Are you writing for Christians or for a general audience? This decision will affect your style and vocabulary. It’s your choice, but we suggest you write it for a general audience. Christians will read it anyway, but you want it to be the sort of book that could be appreciated by non-churched people as well. So steer clear of “Christianese” jargon. (“That night in my quiet time I felt the Spirit’s manifest anointing as I laid my burden before the throne of grace.”) Former missionary Dr John Sturt told us he wrote his autobiography in such a way that anyone could pick it up at an airport bookshop for a good read while flying.

4. Following on from the above, keep one person in mind as you write – perhaps a work colleague or neighbor or unchurched relative. Then tell your story just for them. Tell what happened to you just as if you were chatting to them over coffee. Hundreds of people (including Christians) might eventually read your story over their shoulder but writing conversationally to a particular person – perhaps someone on the fringe of the faith — will deter you from using abstract or abstruse theological words. Remember, you cannot write too simply or too clearly.

5. Avoid stating the obvious. “Show, don’t tell.” When someone makes an outrageous or cruel statement resist the urge to tell us you found it outrageous or cruel. Just write it down verbatim and let the readers draw their own conclusions about the speaker. Usually the story itself is the message, and doesn’t need extra commentary

6. Use dialogue. Even if you can’t recall exact conversations, you can reconstruct the gist of what would have been said at the time. Direct speech keeps your story lively.

7. Include humour. You may have a serious message (or “take-away”) but remember: readers not only want to be inspired and encouraged – they also want to be entertained. Describe some of the funny incidents and anecdotes that happened along the way and your book will be hard to put down. But avoid using exclamation marks when you record something funny that you or someone else did or said. Deadpan humour is best. If it’s really funny the reader will smile without needing to be prompted. So rather than writing “That day I was busier than a flea at a dogshow!”  just write, “That day I was busier than a flea at a dogshow.”

8. Never preach! Just tell your story, and the Holy Spirit will use it as he wants, perhaps in ways you could never have imagined.

9. Resist the temptation to edit as you go. You will get bogged down if you agonise over every sentence and comma. The main thing is to get it all down. Spill your heart out, no matter how rough your writing looks.  There will be plenty of time to edit and polish it later.

10. Begin with an arresting opening chapter, perhaps the account of some extraordinary experience you once had. Or maybe a time when you were at your lowest point. Describe it in detail.  This will hook your reader’s attention. Then, in chapter two you can flash back to your childhood and tell the rest of your story in chronological order.

11. Writing is hard work, and most of us are procrastinators. So try to write a little every day, and set a realistic goal for completion, knowing your other commitments. Even if you only manage 500 words a day (and give yourself a day off each week) you could finish the first draft of your book within six months.

12. Don’t ever quit. This could be one of the most important things you ever do. You are creating something that will outlive you. Enjoy the process and the satisfaction it will bring.