What’s the difference between a Memoir vs. Autobiography vs. Biography?

memoir vs autobiography vs biography

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Memoir, biography, autobiography, oh my! All these book genres have a focus on someone’s life and are written in completely factual ways. The adage that truth is stranger than fiction rings true when we delve into the lives of significant people or people who have endured something significant.

It’s easy to confuse the style and tone of these three different nonfiction books. Each has different requirements to qualify as a memoir vs. biography vs. autobiography.

What is a biography?

A biography is a novel written about someone’s entire life, typically in chronological order, written by someone other than the subject.

The topic of a biography will often be someone who is an important historical figure, a celebrity, or a person who has had significant cultural or societal impact.

One excellent example of a biography is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. This biography describes how a black woman’s body was used to advance modern medicine. Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were taken — without her knowledge — for medical testing and has served as the blueprint for cancer treatment.

This real-life tale reveals a hidden narrative in modern medicine and points to a history of racism in the field. The story was written and recounted by Rebecca Skloot, an American writer who has contributed to many scientific publications.

What is an autobiography?

While a biography is a written account of someone else’s life, an autobiography is written by the person who is the subject of the book.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley details the life of civil rights activist Malcolm X. Written by Malcolm, this autobiography features a collaboration with author and journalist Alex Haley and was released nine months after Malcolm X’s assassination.

Reading an autobiography can be more powerful and intriguing than a biography, partly because the words and perspectives are unique to the subject. There are details and insights that only the person who is the subject can convey — unfiltered by the lens of someone else. As they recount the important events of their lives from start to finish, we get to experience it in their own words.

What is a memoir?

While a biography or autobiography usually focuses on impactful historical figures or someone who had significant cultural impact, it’s not only famous people who can write about their lives. While some lesser-known figures will be the subjects of those books, memoirs allow someone who has led a less “public” life to write about their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned.

A memoir covers a specific period of the subject’s life, often detailing a unique personal experience and how the subject was transformed by it. Unlike autobiographies and biography, a memoir does not present someone’s life from the beginning to the present (or the end). It gives us a unique look into a specific period that was transformational to the person writing it.

More than the other real-life accounts, memoir proves over and over how ordinary people can have great impact and insight writing about the trials they overcome.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is a compelling example of a memoir vs. autobiography. This is a story about a young woman who, after losing her mother to cancer and getting divorced (among other travails), embarks on a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest trail — alone.

Having no previous professional hiking experience, her expedition mirrors the inner trials and tribulations she overcame before surviving in the wild on this extraordinary hike.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir, by Jesmyn Ward, is another notable memoir. The story focuses on the death of five black men in Ward’s life between the years 2000–2004. Ward details the lives of these young black men who die early in her life and speaks to how young black men’s lives are cut short far too often. She traces the impact of these losses through her own family history and writes of the complexities of love and grief.

Differences between a memoir vs. autobiography vs. biography

Key features of a memoir

As a rule, a memoir is pulled from the writer’s real-life experience. When a person picks up a memoir, they are expecting a story that truly happened to the author. That said, a memoir isn’t just recalling events and re-told to the reader. A satisfying memoir touches on universal themes about the life story uncovered by the events that happened to the writer.

Of course, memoirs aren’t here to preach a specific message or serve as a “how-to” guide to overcoming a particular experience — in the best memoirs, the author shows their emotional truth as opposed to the truth.

Memoirs do not have to be recounted in chronological order, and there is room for creative freedom. You can’t make up important events, but there is some wiggle room around specific details in dialogue and other specifics.

Notably, a memoir also doesn’t recount the author’s whole life, but details a pivotal part of it that holds significance based on the author’s transformation. It is the author’s recollection of memories and their perspective on it.

Key features of an autobiography

An autobiography is a life account written by the subject themself. An autobiography is a recounting of the writer’s entire life from childhood up until the age they are at the time of the writing, accurately detailing significant accomplishments and telling the story of the making of who the writer is and the events that shaped their life. All of the contents of an autobiography must be 100 percent true.

Key features of biography

A biography is an account of a person’s life story written by someone other than the subject. It is the author’s rendition of what the author knows about the person’s life, sometimes personally and certainly by collecting and researching information about their life. It is typically focused on someone of cultural or historical significance.

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BookBaby can help you self-publish

Whether you’re embarking on an autobiography, a biography, or a memoir, drawing universal truths from the lives of real people is a rewarding task. Of course, as a writer, once you have completed the first draft of your manuscript, it’s important to have an editor work on your manuscript to ensure it reads clearly to your reader.

BookBaby offers three types of book editing services that will be good to use at different stages of your editing process.

Line editing is our most popular editing service for first-time authors. Our line editors will review your manuscript and check for style, structure, word choice and syntax. You will also receive feedback regarding pacing, advice for writing flow, and an audit on tone and style.

Copy editing might be the best option for nonfiction authors writing a biography, autobiography, or memoir. Copy editing is a “word-by-word” edit, focusing on spelling and punctuation, along with an intensive grammar audit.

Proofreading is the last and final stage. It includes a basic check for grammar, spelling, and any lingering typos before publishing.

When your manuscript is proofed and ready, BookBaby offers print-on-demand services and distribution of your book, so you can get your work in the hands of readers. Call one of our publishing specialists to get started at 1-877-961-6878 or visit us at www.bookbaby.com.

Your path to self-publishing

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