Skabichevsky was born in Saint Petersburg into the family of a minor state official, the descendent of an old noble Ruthenian family. He studied first at the Larin gymnasium, then (in 1856-1861) at the Saint Petersburg University. After graduation, Skabichevsky went to work for a short while at the office of Saint Petersburg governor Prince Suvorov. 1864 saw him editing the stock market bulletin in Yaroslavl. For several years he worked as a teacher in different schools, including the Larin gymnasium.
Skabichevsky debuted as a published author in 1859 with an article called "The Hunter's Notes", in Rassvet (The Dawn), a magazine for young ladies. In 1862 Otechestvennye zapiski published his drama Kruglitskye. In 1866 Nikolai Nekrasov invited Skabichevsky to Sovremennik, but the magazine was closed later that year following the attempt on Alexander II's life. Skabichevsky moved to Otechestvennye zapiski where he became one of the major proponent of the Narodnik doctrine; many saw him as its co-creator, alongside Nikolai Mikhailovsky. Unlike the latter, though, Skabichevsky was more of a literary critic and scholar than a publicist and sociologist. His major sociology study, "Notes on Progressive Ideas in Our Society" (1870–1872) was, in effect, a philological treatise.
Skabichevsky wrote several major literary biographies, notably those of Alexander Pushkin (1891), Mikhail Lermontov (1891), Alexander Griboyedov (1893), Nikolai Dobrolyubov (1894) and Aleksey Pisemsky (1894), all of which became part of the Florenty Pavlenkov-founded Lives of Distinguished People series. His History of Modern Russian Literature (1848-1890) was published in 1890 and reissued six times during its author's lifetime. The book has been credited with making the history of Russian literature the case for academic study for the first time, even if some of its ideological aspects caused controversy and evoke criticism, notably by Georgi Plekhanov, in 1897.
Highly regarded by specialists was Skabichevsky's work Notes on the Censorship in Russia: 1700-1763. His article "Sick Heroes of the Sick Literature", in which characters of old such as Onegin, Chatsky, and Pechorin were compared favorably to the "nonentities" of Fyodor Sologub, Alexander Kuprin and Anton Chekhov, also made a stir. Skabichevsky's numerous memoirs (invariably ending with 1884, a year he considered fatal for himself due to the closing of Otechestvennye zapiski, after which his career started to decline) were of much interest to literary historians, as they featured vivid portraits of Nikolai Nekrasov, Grigory Eliseev, Vasily Sleptsov, Fyodor Reshetnikov, the brothers Vasily, Vladimir and Nikolai Kurochkins, among many others. Despite having left behind him a great collection of high quality works, Skabichevsky died in poverty and oblivion, a bitterly disillusioned man.
Literature was seen as a moral force by Skabichevsky and his fellow Narodniks. Skabichevsky, however, rejected radical realism, claiming that the purpose of art isn't the reproduction of external reality, but rather to reflect the world as it appears to us subjectively. He also criticized the idea of "types" in literature; he thought that the logic of types led to abstract generalizations that obscured the true color and variety of life.