There’s a weird paradox in the autobiography world — we love to read stories about other people, but hate to write our own.
Case in point: The Memoir Boom. A 1996 editorial in the Women’s Review of Books coined the term that describes a particularly American obsession with reading about the lives of other people, popularized especially by many Oprah’s Book Club selections. The Glass Castle. A Million Little Pieces. Girl, Interrupted. Wild. Angela’s Ashes. Eat, Pray, Love. Tuesdays with Morrie. And on and on and on. Memoir and autobiography continues to thrive as a popular literary genre because we learn how to live through the example of others. We love these books because we want to find ourselves in the story, looking for hope or redemption or to feel like we’re not so alone in a bad situation.
We love consuming the stories of other people’s lives. We scroll through social media whether or not we post on our own. We share stories told by others — did you hear about…? We read blogs and news articles that feature “real life” stories of transformation and triumph. We look to other people’s stories of success when we want to feel inspired to make a change in our own lives. We base nearly every purchasing decision we make on other’s people’s experiences with a product or service. We made TED Talks a thing.
And yet, when it comes to writing about our own lives in a persuasive way through resumes and cover letters, bios, About pages, and social media profiles, our love for real life story fades away. Or, worse, it becomes twisted into something monstrous and distasteful: bragging.
“I hate writing bios because it always sounds like I’m bragging.”
“I don’t know how much to write about what I’ve done because I don’t want it to sound braggy.”
“Cover letters are the worst — they always sound so braggy — ‘hire me because I’m so great…blah blah blah’”
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we continue to believe that it’s only other people who have stories worth telling?
Most of the personal persuasive writing I read is a dull, watered down, milquetoast version of the powerful and dynamic experiences people actually bring to their professional table. Here’s how some popular memoir authors would write about their work if they wanted to avoid “bragging.”
I’ve been through some hard times, but each one taught me a lesson of humility and helped me find my inner strength. When I’m not writing, I love to travel! — Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of Eat, Pray, Love
Frank McCourt is an author who grew up in Ireland and had a series of jobs and eventually became a writer.
As a woman, hiking the Pacific Coast Trail taught me to always follow my dreams and learn how to trust myself on all of life’s most difficult paths. — Cheryl Strayed, advice columnist
If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, Angela’s Ashes, or Wild, you might be thinking, “Oh, their story is so much more than that! I can’t believe how awful it sounds that way!”
That’s exactly how I feel when someone tells me a story of why they do what they do, the impact they want to have on the world, or what they’ve learned from an experience but then tell me they don’t want to brag about it.
I’ve reviewed hundreds of pieces of persuasive personal writing, and I can assure you that the confidence you have in your own story shows in your writing. And if you’re a professional or a business owner, your capacity to connect with opportunities you want depends on the strength of your story.
The good news is that most of the time, improving your personal persuasive writing comes down to having a good handle on a few key writing skills: genre, structure, and word choice. You need to know what you’re writing, how to structure a story, and choose words that pack a punch.
That’s not bragging, that’s good storytelling.
And here’s what I mean when I say that writing about yourself in a clear, compelling way matters: you matter. Your experience, knowledge, and presence in this world is important. To say that you’re bragging about that implies that you don’t deserve to have what’s great about you acknowledged. And I vehemently disagree — you have a story worth telling, and you deserve to be celebrated.
I’ve been studying autobiography as a scholar and as a writing consultant for almost a decade. I know how personal persuasive writing works, and my mission in life is to use that knowledge for good — to help people feel proud of their life stories and tell them confidently.
How to Build a Better Bio
Here’s an example of how I worked with someone to revise their existing business bio:There’s nothing about this person, this experience, or this service that’s changed from one version to another–it’s all about working with the nuts and bolts of persuasive writing.
This month, I’m running an online workshop for people who write about themselves in a professional context — career-builders and business-builders.
I’ll teach you the practical writing skills and storytelling techniques that make writing about yourself easy (and, dare I say, kinda fun!) without feeling like you’re bragging or fishing for compliments.
The workshop will be limited to 10 people so that each participant will get direct feedback from me about their writing. At the end of the workshop, you’ll have a piece of writing that you’ll feel good about sharing that represents you in an authentic way that will make other people want to get to know you.