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5. Starting to Write

Your quick and easy-to-read guide to life-story writing, by Anna Foster

Writing is a very individual process. To some it comes easily, to others it can be a torturous process.

Here are some suggestions that are particularly relevant to life-story writing.

Writing Style

Readers want to ‘hear’ your voice when they read your book. How you tell the story is as important as the story itself.

The closest you come to unselfconscious writing is in letters, blogs and emails. So, why not start to write as if you were recounting an event to someone in a letter or an email?

Always write about yourself in the first person.

Here's an example of how a real letter to a relative can be tweaked for a book.

Dear Susie,

I had to write and let you know that young Jamie rode so well in the gymkhana. I was as nervous as ever - I couldn't watch at some points! - but your niece kept her cool, even over the biggest jumps, and had a clear round.

We'd been up since 5.30am, getting Starlight ready, and drove through pouring rain for two hours. At the ground, horses and riders were everywhere, and we had to wait until midday for Jamie's class.

Both horse and rider kept calm, which was remarkable, as Jamie knew that if she did well we had promised her a new pony for Christmas. It's just so expensive, keeping up this hobby of hers.... I blame you...

And in the book:

From an early age our daughter Jamie had shown considerable promise at riding, which I think she must have inherited from my sister Susie, because I was always very nervous around horses.

This must date back to my childhood when both I and my sister rode, but after I fell and broke my collarbone I never fully regained my confidence. However, I didn't want to let that hinder Jamie and, although we could ill-afford it, we encouraged Jamie to ride, so much so that she became 'pony-mad'.

I remember one gymkhana when she still had her first pony Starlight; we drove through the pouring rain for what seemed like hours. The showground was muddy and overrun with riders and horses, but my daughter showed her customary cool and performed well, no doubt motivated by the thought of a new pony for Christmas.

Looking back, I can see how riding gave Jamie a lot of self-confidence.

Both pieces of writing convey the facts, the emotions of the mother and the contrasting behaviour of the daughter. But the second piece of writing fills in the necessary background information and gives a retrospective viewpoint.

In both pieces of writing, the 'voice' is the same, but in the book the mother has learned, over time, to express her emotions more objectively than when she wrote to her sister immediately after the event.

Rereading letters and emails has further uses.

Are your sentences long or short? Do you describe places imaginatively or do you content yourself with 'the view was beautiful'? (If that’s really all you’ve got to go on, try to conjure up the scene in your mind’s eye and recall what so impressed you or even trace a picture of the place and look at it afresh.)

Analyse your writing. Do you hold back on your emotions? Or do you spend pages revealing how you feel about someone or an event?

There are no rights and wrongs as to how you should be writing; just get to know your own style better.

Look at your diaries in the same way. Are there similar patterns?

Writing Tools

If you don’t write regularly then prepare yourself properly for the task. First of all, what are you going to write with? You could choose:

Pen and paper You can sit in an armchair, at the dining room table, even in bed, and write by hand. You may find the words flow more easily and it will remind you of writing a letter.

At some point your writing will probably have to be transcribed onto a computer. Alternatively, you could write your story straight into a permanent notebook and leave this as your legacy.

Typewriter Use A4 sheets of paper, and leave a double space between the lines, to make editing easier afterwards. Your words may still have to be transcribed onto a computer at some point, but it may be possible to scan them in using optical character recognition (OCR) software.

Computer This is by far the most time-efficient way of working. You can either buy a word-processing programme like Microsoft Word, or use the word processing programme which comes with your computer, which should do the job comfortably.

A computer will give you the flexibility in writing, editing and emailing your manuscript. You can also show draft copies to family and friends to read as you go along.

Tape recorder If you are writing-phobic or unable to write for a physical reason, you can use a tape recorder. Micro-cassette recorders are small and light and well suited to the job.

You'll cover a lot of ground quickly – you can even walk the dog while you record. Transcribing a tape, however, is time-consuming and you - or the transcriber - will take 2-3 times as long to type the words as it took to speak them.

Computer software is available which can convert speech into computer text.

Case study — Susie’s Secret Past

Susie was born in Ireland. She would admit that she received hardly any education until she left school at 14 when she went into service in Dublin.

Tiring of this menial job, Susie moved to London and began to work as a model and became part of the Swinging Sixties scene. She soon acquired a gangster boyfriend and embarked on a life of crime.

Being a gangster’s moll gave her status. Her modelling work continued and all was well until her boyfriend – and now the father of her child – went down for an armed burglary. Susie was only 19.

Susie’s precarious existence continued for a further five years, with her boyfriend in and out of jail. She was still part of the underworld.

Finally, aged 24, while her boyfriend was doing time, Susie met a man who fell in love with her and asked her to lead an honest life. It was the first time that anyone had offered her such a choice.

She dumped the gangster boyfriend, set up home with her new partner and her child, and has lived a straight life ever since.

Then, 40 years later, she came to write her story. Susie had never written before in her life – but she could talk for ever. She bought a micro-cassette recorder and went for long, country walks, recording her stories as she went.

She wanted to get to grips with computers. So she bought a laptop, taught herself to type and slowly transcribed the tapes. As her confidence grew she began to write directly onto the computer.

Her natural story-telling technique shone through. Some of her stories beggared belief, but she could remember conversations and visual details with great accuracy, and the stories came alive in her hands.

At this point, Susie is still writing her book… Few of her friends know about her secret past. Will she decide to keep the manuscript private or will she decide to publish it one day? Susie isn’t ready to make that decision yet – but she has become a writer.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Find a suitable place to write. A good firm chair and desk may suit a fit person, but there's nothing wrong with sitting in an armchair.

Make sure you allow enough space for notes and photographs. Your family (and pets!) need to understand this is your space for the time being.

How to Start

As the chapter on Structure pointed out, you don't have to start with your birth. In fact that's rather a boring way to start. Even the Obituaries columns in the newspapers rarely start with a person's birth, but with their achievements.

However, if you do wish to start with your birth, think of a more imaginative first sentence to announce your arrival in the world than, "I was born on 3rd July 1946..."

How about:

"My mother liked to claim I was born within the sound of Bow Bells, although I'm not sure that you could describe me as a true Cockney.

It's true I was born at the Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road in the East End of London on 5th December 1939, but by the time I was five days old I had been taken home to Stoke Newington, well out of earshot of the Bow Bells."


"My birth was hardly an easy one, as my mother weighed more before she became pregnant than when she gave birth to me. However, we both survived my arrival on 24th November 1937, and I'm still here to tell the following tale."

If you know the details, don't underestimate the readability of the story of your birth. It will be endlessly fascinating to immediate members of the family.

If you don't intend to start with your birth, then think of an event that will grab the reader's attention. These are your first words (apart from the Introduction, about which more later) and you want to draw your audience in.

Once you have chosen the subject matter, write it down as if you were telling a friend or writing a letter. Try to suit the language to the subject.

If you are describing a piece of action, like a race or an accident, keep the language spare. Describe what happened clearly. After you have recounted the event, give your reaction to it.

If you start with an event which makes you feel emotional just write your thoughts as they tumble out. Don't stop to consider whether you sound over-emotional.

After a period of time - an hour or a couple of days - go back and see if you achieved the right tone.

Perhaps you will start with the description of a place - a house, a village or a favourite haunt. Describe it in minute detail so that it comes alive. But be careful not to overwrite, using too many flowery, emotive, evocative adjectives.

Case study — Betty and the Navy Knickers

The following extract is reproduced from Betty’s Book by Betty Ogilvie (YouByYou Books, 2009). Betty was born in 1919 and describes washing day in the Ogilvie household at this time.

“We always had a 'daily help' and it was only in later life I realised what a fantastic job she did. Washing day was always on a Monday — rain or shine. An Irish woman came to tackle the huge washing which was generated by eight people. She was a stocky little person with very few teeth, but she was always cheerful and uncomplaining.

First of all, the boiler in the wash-house had to be lit, as the sheets and all the white stuff had to be boiled with a ‘blue-bag’, which acted as a whitening agent. Besides the bed-linen there were tablecloths and serviettes, handkerchiefs, towels and nappies which had to be boiled as there were no paper handkerchiefs, sanitary towels or destructible nappies in those days. The clothes had to be rinsed twice and go through the mangle to get rid of the surplus water. Stubborn stains were tackled with sunlight soap and a scrubbing board. Woollens, of course, could not be boiled, so there was lots of hand-washing to be done.

If the weather was dry, everything was hung out on two washing-greens, but if it was wet everything had to be dried indoors on an overhead pulley in the scullery and clothes horses around the kitchen fire. On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion a pair of my navy blue knickers was accidentally included in the boiling of the sheets, and the result was catastrophic. My job was to iron handkerchiefs, which I did before I went to the Brownies. The little Irish woman got 2/6 and her dinner.”

© Betty Ogilvie

This is a good example of clear, descriptive writing. The recollection of the accident with Betty’s navy blue knickers adds a touch of humour.

A Few Do's and Don'ts


  • Type your manuscript double-spaced between the lines and leave wide margins for easy editing.
  • Keep your sentences reasonably short. Long, rambling sentences can be tiring for the reader.
  • Keep the punctuation simple. Use commas and full stops, but don't introduce too many colons or semi-colons unless you are familiar with using them.
  • Keep paragraphs short. Each paragraph break gives the reader a breather.
  • Think about your vocabulary and keep a dictionary by your side. Try not to repeat words, but find an alternative. You can also use Roget's Thesaurus.
  • Ensure your style is consistent throughout the text.


  • Use too many exclamation marks. A story which is exciting doesn't need them. You rarely see an exclamation mark in a newspaper (although some stories beggar belief…).
  • Assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. Remember to introduce new people with their full names and their relationship to you. Not everyone will know who Uncle Jimmy is.
  • Don’t use jargon when you are describing something technical. Simple everyday language will do.

Ghost Writers

Has reading this chapter left you unwilling to write the story yourself? A ghostwriter may be the answer. Celebrities use ghostwriters and there is no shame in hiring one – if you can afford it.

It might seem strange to suggest using a ghostwriter, but if you have a story that’s worth telling, get all the help you need.

Be aware that ghostwriters can be expensive and you are not guaranteed results. It is important to strike up a good relationship with the writer as you will be entrusting them with personal information.

Ask to see an early sample of 'your' words to make sure you like the style.

Do you have any questions from this section? Please email me and I will try to help you.