Summarizing an autobiography can seem like an unmanageable task. Even a short life is full of innumerable details, frustrating any easy attempt at quick synopsis. The most important guiding principle in writing a synopsis of an autobiography is clear organization; begin by making careful notes as you read the book and formulate a brief outline of your synopsis before you begin to write.
Introduce the Author
Writing an autobiography is a powerful statement of self-importance. Either the author thinks that he or she has a life sufficiently remarkable to relate or that their life embodies lessons worth learning. Begin your synopsis by introducing the author, commenting on why he or she is an important or influential figure. Why should this author’s life be of interest to others? You may even decide that the author's life is not as remarkable as he might think. Give an account of that if it is your conclusion.
Construct a Timeline
By definition, a summary will leave out many details, even some important ones. The principal task of a summary is to highlight those events that are absolutely central to the narrative. Draw up a brief timeline detailing the author’s most notable experiences in chronological order. Exercise editorial discipline and only list what you think counts as indispensable to understanding the author’s life.
Point Out What's Missing
Even a full autobiography is a summary; it’s impossible for anyone to comprehensively discuss everything that he or she has ever experienced. Every memoir writer is guided by principles of selection. Authors must leave out something, and there are reasons for these omissions. It could be because the author deemed an event insignificant or because he or she was embarrassed by it. Comment on what you think an author discussed too briefly or might have left out completely and explain why it is important.
The Ultimate Point
Memoirs are like non-fiction parables; each autobiography is intended to communicate a lesson of some kind, embedded in the life of the author. Try to explain what you think is the lesson of the autobiography you’re summarizing. Is this adequately clear? Once you have described it, feel free to assess its value. Is this a reasonable teaching to infer from the author’s life? Has the writer misunderstood the content of his own experiences?
- Good Prose, Chapter 3: Richard Todd and Tracy Kidder
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