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Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir

The three primary formats of a memory book , used to tell a life story, are a biography, an autobiography, and a memoir. Distinguishing between the three can feel a bit confusing since they all share several similarities. But there are some distinct differences.

Simply put, a biography is the life history of an individual, written by someone else. An autobiography is the story of a person’s life, written by that person. And a  memoir  is a collection of memories written by the person themselves.

Tell a life story

What is a Biography?

A biography, also called a bio, is a non-fiction piece of work giving an objective account of a person’s life. The main difference between a biography vs. an autobiography is that the author of a biography is not the subject. A biography could be someone still living today, or it could be the subject of a person who lived years ago.

Biographies include details of key events that shaped the subject’s life, and information about their birthplace, education, work, and relationships. Biographers use a number of research sources, including interviews, letters, diaries, photographs, essays, reference books, and newspapers. While a biography is usually in the written form, it can be produced in other formats such as music composition or film.

If the target person of the biography is not alive, then the storytelling requires an immense amount of research. Interviews might be required to collect information from historical experts, people who knew the person (e.g., friends and family), or reading other older accounts from other people who wrote about the person in previous years. In biographies where the person is still alive, the writer can conduct several interviews with the target person to gain insight on their life.

The goal of a biography is to take the reader through the life story of the person, including their childhood into adolescence and teenage years, and then their early adult life into the rest of their years. The biography tells a story of how the person learned life’s lessons and the ways the person navigated the world. It should give the reader a clear picture of the person’s personality, traits, and their interaction in the world.

Biographies can also be focused on groups of people and not just one person. For example, a biography can be a historical account of a group of people from hundreds of years ago. This group could have the main person who was a part of the group, and the author writes about the group to tell a story of how they shaped the world.

Fictional biographies mix some true historical accounts with events to help improve the story. Think of fictional biographies as movies that display a warning that the story is made of real characters, but some events are fictional to add to the storyline and entertainment value. A lot of research still goes into a fictional biography, but the author has more room to create a storyline instead of sticking to factual events.

Examples of famous biographies include:

  • His Excellency: George Washington  by Joseph J. Ellis
  • Einstein: The Life and Times  by Ronald William Clark
  • Princess Diana – A Biography of The Princess of Wales  by Drew L. Crichton

Include photos in your autobiography

What is an Autobiography?

An autobiography is the story of a person’s life written by that person. Because the author is also the main character of the story, autobiographies are written in the first person. Usually, an autobiography is written by the person who is the subject of the book, but sometimes the autobiography is written by another person. Because an autobiography is usually a life story for the author, the theme can be anything from religious to a personal account to pass on to children.

The purpose of an autobiography is to portray the life experiences and achievements of the author. Therefore, most autobiographies are typically written later in the subject’s life. It’s written from the point of view of the author, so it typically uses first person accounts to describe the story.

An autobiography often begins during early childhood and chronologically details key events throughout the author’s life. Autobiographies usually include information about where a person was born and brought up, their education, career, life experiences, the challenges they faced, and their key achievements.

On rare occasions, an autobiography is created from a person’s diary or memoirs. When diaries are used, the author must organize them to create a chronological and cohesive story. The story might have flashbacks or flashforwards to describe a specific event, but the main storyline should follow chronological order from the author’s early life to their current events.

One of the main differences between an autobiography vs. a biography is that autobiographies tend to be more subjective. That’s because they are written by the subject, and present the facts based on their own memories of a specific situation, which can be biased. The story covers the author’s opinions on specific subjects and provides an account of their feelings as they navigate certain situations. These stories are also very personal because it’s a personal account of the author’s life rather than a biography where a third party writes about a specific person.

Examples of famous autobiographies include:

  • The Story of My Life  by Helen Keller
  • The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank
  • Losing My Virginity  by Richard Branson

A collection of letters and postcards

What is a Memoir?

Memoir comes from the French word  mémoire , meaning memory or reminiscence. Similar to an autobiography, a memoir is the story of a person’s life written by that person. These life stories are often from diary entries either from a first-person account or from a close family member or friend with access to personal diaries.

The difference between a memoir vs. an autobiography is that a memoir focuses on reflection and establishing an emotional connection, rather than simply presenting the facts about their life. The author uses their personal knowledge to tell an intimate and emotional story about the private or public happenings in their life. The author could be the person in the story, or it can be written by a close family member or friend who knew the subject person intimately. The topic is intentionally focused and does not include biographical or chronological aspects of the author’s life unless they are meaningful and relevant to the story.

Memoirs come in several types, all of which are written as an emotional account of the target person. They usually tell a story of a person who went through great struggles or faced challenges in a unique way. They can also cover confessionals where the memoir tells the story of the author’s account that contradicts another’s account.

This genre of writing is often stories covering famous people’s lives, such as celebrities. In many memoir projects, the celebrity or person of interest needs help with organization, writing the story, and fleshing out ideas from the person’s diaries. It might take several interviews before the story can be fully outlined and written, so it’s not uncommon for a memoir project to last several months.

Memoirs do not usually require as much research as biographies and autobiographies, because you have the personal accounts in diary entries and documents with the person’s thoughts. It might require several interviews, however, before the diary entries can be organized to give an accurate account on the person’s thoughts and emotions. The story does not necessarily need to be in chronological order compared to an autobiography, but it might be to tell a better story.

Examples of famous memoirs include:

  • Angela’s Ashes  by Frank McCourt
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  by Maya Angelou
  • Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S.  Grant by Ulysses S. Grant

Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir Comparison Chart

Check out some of our blogs to learn more about memoirs:

  • What is a memoir?
  • 5 tips for writing a memoir
  • Your memoir is your legacy

Ready to get started on your own memoir, autobiography, or biography? Download our free desktop book-making software, BookWright .

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The 20 Best Memoirs Everyone Should Read

These autobiographies deliver poignant self-reflection, humor, and even some recipes.

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As a genre, memoir can be hard to define. It’s meant to be intensely personal and offer some kind of perspective on, or lessons learned from, the past. But by picking up a memoir, you’re guaranteed to learn about someone’s story in their own words.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

An American classic, Maya Angelou ’s debut memoir recounts the acclaimed author ’s childhood and adolescence from Arkansas to Missouri to California. She touches on themes of identity and self-acceptance and recounts the abhorrent racism she and her family experienced, as well as the sexual violence she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. But there’s great joy here, too, especially when young Angelou learns to come out of her shell through her love of literature.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Kitchen Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Kitchen Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

You’ve probably seen this book on several similar lists, but that’s because it’s endlessly interesting. Bourdain dishes on such a niche culture—that of high-octane kitchens in some of the world’s best restaurants—and doesn’t shy away from some of its ugliest qualities. He gets personal, too, with anecdotes both amusing and somber.

Read More about Anthony Bourdain

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

Sri Lankan writer and economist Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. In this relentless memoir, she explores the seemingly bottomless depths of grief and how our power to remember the past can be healing. Readers who love a resolution might look elsewhere, but they’d be missing out on some unflinching, courageous writing.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

From acclaimed writer Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking recounts the sudden death of her husband and the hospitalization of their daughter within days of each other. (Her daughter eventually died at 39, which Didion writes about in Blue Nights .) It’s an engrossing and vulnerable look into a year of experiencing and coping with tragedy—filled, of course, with the writer’s famously incisive prose.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (2016)

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (2016)

In her final book, actress and writer Carrie Fisher gives fans a peek behind the curtain of her time on set of the first Star Wars movie . She hilariously commentates on excerpts from her diary during that time, recalls her crush on Harrison Ford , and delves into how complicated it can be to navigate the world of celebrity—especially as the face of such an iconic character.

Read More about Carrie Fisher

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (2017)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (2017)

Widely recommended as one of the best books of 2017, Hunger is Roxane Gay’s raw and powerful memoir about her own self-image and our society’s obsession with appearance. There’s a reason Gay is such a prolific writer today, whether you follow her musings on Twitter or her New York Times column; she is incredibly inquisitive and can make any reader question the status quo. Hunger is no exception.

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes (2016)

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes (2016)

We all have songs that can conjure specific memories. Writer, comedian, and TV personality Dave Holmes takes that notion to heart in his memoir, where he writes about growing up Catholic and closeted in Missouri and how he “accidentally” became an MTV VJ. There’s a plethora of references to ʼ80s and ʼ90s music and self-deprecating humor that strikes the perfect balance.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (2020)

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (2020)

There’s no shortage of powerful writing in this book by writer and poet Cathy Park Hong. Throughout the work—about America’s racialized consciousness—she expertly weaves many personal details of her life as the daughter of Korean immigrants with topics like intersectionality and artistic expression. There’s plenty of enlightening history, too, including on activist Yuri Kochiyama . Her writing demonstrates her self-awareness; she even challenges many of her own thoughts. It’s a fascinating, essential read.

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones (2019)

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones (2019)

Saeed Jones, an award-winning poet, writes with such a distinct style in this searing memoir about coming of age as a young, black, gay man from the South. He writes about grief, about identity in a world that makes it hard to find one, and about acceptance. It’s a short read in length (at 192 pages) but leaves a memorable impression.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (1997)

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (1997)

Writer Jon Krakauer’s infamous retelling of the 1996 Mount Everest expedition that left eight climbers in his party dead is a harrowing read. For those with zero mountaineering experience (like this writer), he makes it easy to visualize what conquering this mountain looks like. There’s also some fascinating insights on the commercialization of Everest. If you’re reading a recently printed version, there’s an interesting postscript that responds to the fairness of his account of events (which was questioned in fellow survivor Anatoli Boukreev’s book The Climb ).

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018)

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018)

With the deeply moving Heavy , Kiese Laymon shares the trials of his upbringing in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s written in the second person, addressing his mother, and it touches on his relationship to his body and how racism permeated his views of himself and the world around him. This modern memoir should be on every reading list.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)

If you want to read a book that turns the concept of a memoir on its head, pick up Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House . While playing with traditional form, Machado delves into the abuse she suffered in a same-sex relationship. She references horror tropes and fairy tales and gives readers a completely vulnerable (and often terrifying) look into a dark and traumatizing experience. We’ve heard the audio version is just as engrossing.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (2022)

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (2022)

In what was arguably the most talked-about memoir of the past year, actor and writer/director Jennette McCurdy details what went on behind the scenes in her life before, during, and after making the hit Nickelodeon show iCarly . She bears it all—discussing her eating disorder and the toxic relationship she had with her mother—while using pitch perfect humor, in a memoir that’s hard to stomach at times. But it’s worth it to see how she ultimately takes back control of her life.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)

Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)

You might remember Chanel Miller as Emily Doe. After being sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on the Stanford University campus in 2015, she wrote a victim impact statement under this name that reverberated around the world. In this profound memoir, she reclaims her real name and reveals the frustrating truths surrounding victimhood and the criminal justice system. But her writing also divulges her incredible strength—it’s a powerful read that this writer finished in one sitting.

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert (2016)

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert (2016)

Two memoirs on this list from acclaimed chefs? We couldn’t resist. For those who might’ve already enjoyed Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential , might we suggest Eric Ripert’s 32 Yolks . Ripert is, as some will know, the famed French chef behind renowned New York City restaurant Le Bernardin. In this memoir, he chronicles his upbringing in a fractured family in the south of France and how food was always a great comfort. Equal parts fun, infuriating, and awe-inspiring, Ripert includes high-stakes stories from his days in culinary school and working the line at fine dining establishments in Paris.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci (2021)

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci (2021)

Actor Stanley Tucci’s memoir about, well, his life through food is a light read filled with succinct writing, his dry humor, and (of course) hunger-inducing recipes that button each chapter. It’s also very touching and essentially a love letter to his Italian-American parents and how those early meals together around the table shaped the course of his life. Don’t read on an empty stomach.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)

For anyone who loves Jesmyn Ward’s renowned novels like Sing, Unburied, Sing or Salvage the Bones , her memoir should be next on your TBR list. Here, she chronicles her upbringing in rural Mississippi and remembers the five men in her life that she lost in the space of four years to suicide, drugs, and sheer bad luck. The most deeply felt is her brother, who was hit by a drunk driver. With beautiful, introspective prose, Ward delves into masculinity, poverty, survivor’s guilt, and loneliness.

Educated by Tara Westover (2018)

Educated by Tara Westover (2018)

It can be hard at times to read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated . Along with her incredible journey to becoming a scholar at Harvard and Cambridge without receiving any kind of formal education, she recounts the psychological and physical abuse she suffered while growing up with her survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. But it’s an unforgettable story about her will to change the course of her life.

The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson (2021)

The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson (2021)

Reading actress and comedian Casey Wilson’s memoir is like sinking into a comfy couch with your favorite beverage, ready to hear all of your best friend’s exploits. You’ll be laughing out loud during some chapters—whether they’re about her affinity for the Real Housewives franchise or behind-the-scenes moments from the (cut much too short) ABC comedy Happy Endings —then shedding tears the next, as she mourns the death of her mother. This is a quippy, heartwarming addition to any bookshelf.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021)

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021)

Maybe you know Michelle Zauner best as the lead singer of renowned alt-pop group Japanese Breakfast. But here, in this recently penned memoir, she recounts taking care of—and ultimately losing—her mother, who was given a terminal cancer diagnosis when Zauner was 25. It’s a complicated, very moving account of the experience that poetically touches on identity and grief. Interspersed within these memories are mouth-watering descriptions of Korean foods that only make readers more greatly feel both the love and the loss.

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Do you ever get confused when trying to differentiate between an autobiography, biography, and memoir? If so, you’re not alone—these three genres are often used interchangeably, but each one actually requires its own unique approach. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the differences of each type and provide some handy tips on how best to write them all!

Introducing the different genres of writing—autobiography, biography, and memoir 

Three genres that often get jumbled together are autobiography, biography, and memoir. While they may seem similar at first glance, each genre has its own unique characteristics. An autobiography, for example, is a first-person account of someone’s life, typically written by the subject themselves. A biography, by contrast, is a third-person account of someone’s life, written by someone else. And a memoir is a focused, often thematic account of a particular period or experience in someone’s life. Knowing the distinctions between these genres can help you decide which approach is best for telling your own story or for crafting a compelling biography or memoir.

Understanding the differences between autobiography, biography and memoir

Autobiography, biography, and memoir are often confused with each other. An autobiography is a book written by the author about their own life experiences. In contrast, a biography is a book written by someone else about another person’s life experiences. Finally, a memoir is a book written about a specific time or event in the author’s life. These three genres require different approaches to writing and reading. Autobiographies are generally more personal, while biographies generally intend to provide a more objective view of a person’s life. Memoirs allow for a deeper exploration of a specific period of time or event.

Exploring the benefits of writing an autobiography

Writing an autobiography can serve as a time capsule for one’s life experiences and also act as a vehicle for personal growth and self-reflection. Through the process of writing, individuals have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of themselves. Additionally, an autobiography can be an invaluable resource for future generations by providing them with a window into the past and the inner workings of their ancestors. If you’re looking for a way to capture your life story and leave a meaningful legacy, writing an autobiography might be a good idea.

Discovering the advantages of writing a biography

A biography records the life and accomplishments of a person. A biography can provide insight into the individual’s beliefs, accomplishments, and experiences that shaped their life. Writing a biography requires research , attention to detail, and a thorough understanding of the individual’s life. It takes time and effort. By capturing a person’s story in writing, we can learn from their life experiences and be inspired to pursue our own passions and dreams. Writing a biography can be challenging, but the end result is a rewarding tribute to a person.

Examining the unique aspects of writing a memoir

Writing a memoir is an incredible way to tell your story and leave a lasting legacy. What makes a memoir unique is that it is not just about recounting facts or events. It is more so about exploring the deeper meaning and emotions behind those experiences. It requires a delicate balance of vulnerability and objectivity, as you must be willing to share personal details while also maintaining a sense of clarity and purpose. To truly connect with your audience, it is important to infuse your writing with your own voice and personality, making the story feel authentic and relatable.

Making efficient use of resources when writing your story

Making an efficient use of resources will help create a compelling story that resonates with readers. Whether it’s time management, research, or even word choice, every decision plays an integral role in crafting a well-structured narrative. One useful tool for maximizing your efficiency is outlining your story beforehand, allowing you to flesh out characters and plot points in a clear and concise manner. Additionally, don’t be afraid to take advantage of resources such as writing groups, online tutorials, and feedback from industry professionals who can provide valuable perspective and insight into your work.

As you now know, autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs each have their own unique focus, purpose, and advantages. Writing your life story can be rewarding and fulfilling. Having a writing partner experienced with these genres to guide you on your journey can be invaluable in producing the story you want to tell. If it is time to tell your story―whether fact or fiction―contact Elite Authors today! We will help you choose the genre that best fits your project goals while helping you craft a stunning personal account that is sure to capture the imagination of readers everywhere.

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Memoir vs Biography: Spotting the Genre Differences

POSTED ON Jan 16, 2024

Sarah Rexford

Written by Sarah Rexford

Identifying the differences in memoir vs biography can feel nuanced. To be clear, it is. Both genres are about an individual’s life, but the focus you take depends on which you choose to write: biography vs memoir. 

Neither is better or worse than the other. What matters is determining what you want to accomplish with your manuscript. Memoir focuses on the individual from a specific angle, while biography spends time recounting the individual’s life in a different way. 

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Your writing perspective plays a crucial role in:

  • The stories you include
  • Tone you write in
  • Audience you connect with

In this article, I discuss memoir vs biography, the key differences, and how to determine which one you should write. Let’s start with a definition of biography vs memoir. 

Memoir vs biography…what's covered:

How is a memoir different from a biography.

A memoir is different from a biography in that memoirs focus on specific life events that teach a specific theme. Writers draft and publish biographies as a way to document an individual’s life, start to finish. For this reason, anyone who experienced specific life events that could be of benefit to others can write their memoir. 

Many celebrities and public figures share their memoirs, but everyday people can as well. As long as you have a lesson to teach or a theme that will resonate with a specific audience, you can write your memoir. 

Assessing the major difference in memoir vs biography 

The key difference between memoir vs biography is that biographies document an individual’s life from start to finish, or start to present day. Memoirs focuses on a specific theme that threads throughout key events in an individual’s life.  

Readers are not usually interested in reading the everyday occurrences of the average person. However, most people are curious about how celebrities and influential people live on a day to day basis.

For instance, Caroline Fraser’s, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder , recounts the life of a little girl growing up on the prairie. Today, Laura Ingalls Wilder is a major name associated with this specific time period. Learning about the daily life of this iconic individual is inspiring. 

The same is true for Steve Jobs, Christopher Knight, Louis Zamperini, and Henrietta Lacks. Each of these individuals have helped shape history. Because of this, the details of their lives are of interest. 

Consider the key themes of memoir 

Memoir, on the other hand, can highlight the themes of unknown individuals’ lives and in turn, bring them into the spotlight. Whether you desire to share you experience as a Mennonite, working with a speech impediment, or dealing with racism, your story matters.

See if you can identify the themes in the following memoirs: 

  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home , Rhoda Janzen
  • Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice , Katherine Preston
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption , Bryan Stevenson 

There are various themes in the above: a mennonite, Preston’s struggle with stuttering, Stevenson’s role in bringing justice to people of color in the Deep South. 

These differences bring up the valid question: if biographies recount a person’s life and memoir’s share specific parts of their life, is memoir always a biography?

Is a memoir always a biography?

No, memoir is not always a biography but rather pulls key features from your life. The key difference between memoir vs biography is its deep dive into specifics. 

The specific focus of a memoir can center around:

  • A personal recounting of a thought-process through events
  • Events that shaped your life, outlook, and worldview 
  • A certain season in life and lessons learned 
  • An inside look at your hobby
  • Challenges you faced

When it comes time to learn how to write a memoir outline , think of a memoir as the key ingredients in the recipe: the themes and stories an author includes are necessary to hold the story together.

A biography adds in other seasonings that bring flavor and nuance to an individual’s life: stories and events that do not necessarily add to the theme but provide a more detailed look at their life.

Memoir vs biography: key traits of each

Now that you firmly grasp the differences in memoir vs biography (find more on autobiography vs memoir and biography vs autobiography here), it’s important to discuss the traits that set each apart. Choosing between writing a biography vs memoir can feel difficult. After all, your life matters and the different aspects of your story all feel important. 

A vital question to keep top of mind is, “How will each event I share aid my readers?” To help answer this question, below is a list of traits common in both memoir vs biography. You can read through both, then take note of which traits most resonate with you. The genre with the most traits you connect with is likely the one you should choose to write. 

Memoir vs biography:

Which column did you most resonate with? Does your life hold important moments that could resonate with a large audience? You may want to write your memoir. 

On the other hand, if you are relatively well-known, experience a certain level of influence, and find people regularly interested in the everyday details of your life, you may want to hire someone to help you write your biography.

If you want to write your story yourself, you can write an autobiography. However, even if you chose to share your story via a biography, you can work closely with the writer to ensure the final product is exactly as you want it. 

Two key traits of memoirs 

First, if you choose memoir as your final choice in your decision in memoir vs biography, rest assured that you do not need to recount your entire life story. 

This can feel empowering for some writers who may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of condensing decades of experiences into one manuscript. 

Instead, as you draft your memoir (and articulate the memoir sub-genres right for your story), focus on one main theme or story and the life experiences that build on this theme. Memoirs focus on teaching the reader through the experience of the writer, so don’t forget to be vulnerable and establish that connection at an emotional level.

Memoirs allow readers an inside look at defining moments in your life and what you learned in those seasons. 

Second, remember to use fiction writing techniques when drafting your memoir. Begin in medias res , or in the middle of the action. While biographies often begin at the start of the subject’s life, with memoir, begin in the middle. 

Grab your readers early on. Helpful questions to consider are below:

  • At what point did I encounter a profound awareness that this specific situation was teaching me a lesson?
  • What part of my experience will be most engaging for readers?
  • How can I immerse them in my world as quickly as possible?

But now what? What’s a concrete step you can take now that you understand the key differences between memoir vs biography? Here are some examples of writing goals to inspire you. And don't forget to check out the free resource below! 

a biography or memoir book


The proven path from blank page to 10,000 copies sold

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Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir: What’s the Difference?

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Autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. These are the three main formats that tell a real person’s life story.

But unless you’re in the know, it can be a little confusing to tell the difference between each one. While they all serve a similar purpose, they each have distinctions that set them apart from one another.

In this post, I’ll explain the differences between autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. And to clear up any confusion, I’ll provide some famous examples of each one.

Table of Contents

Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir


An autobiography is an account of a person’s life, written by that person. The word originates from the Greek’ auto’, ‘bios’ and ‘graphein’, meaning ‘self,’ ‘life,’ and ‘to write.’

Since the narrator is also the subject of the story, autobiographies tend to be written in the first person.

The majority of autobiographies begin by documenting childhood experiences, working their way chronologically upwards through the decades. The author will include major and minor events that have shaped their lives and stood out to them on their journey.

A detailed autobiography will cover things like a person’s earliest memories, early family life, and upbringing. They might share stories from their education, their careers, and their relationships, as well as triumphs and challenges they’ve faced along the way.

Since an autobiography is a life story, most people wait until their later years before they pen their own, but this isn’t always true. There are plenty of autobiographies written by younger people too. Anyone that has led an interesting life can write an autobiography.  

Here’s a few examples of autobiographies written by famous people:

  • Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography from 1771 to 1790. It tells the fascinating tale of his rise to power, from a boy born into a lower-middle-class family in Boston, Massachusetts, to becoming one of America’s founding fathers.

  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf, meaning ‘my struggle,’ gives us a raw and eye-opening look into the unseen life of this mass-murdering dictator. It’s not an easy or lighthearted read by any means. Still, it gives the reader a fascinating insight into his early life, his rise to power, and his own justifications behind his monstrous genocidal policies.

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

This is a more unusual example of an autobiography, but it’s an autobiography non the less. Ann Frank’s real-life diary documents her experience as a Jewish teenager who was  forced into hiding  during World War II.


Just like an autobiography, a  biography  tells a person’s life story. But in this case, it is written by another author, rather than the person themselves.

Biographies are most often written about famous, notable people who have led interesting lives. They usually include factual details, such as their birthplace, their education, their partners and relationships, and facts about their career.

But a good biography will also cover how key events have shaped a person’s life. Biography authors will compile information from a wide range of sources, including interviews with the person in question or their friends, colleagues, and family members. They may also source information from letters, diaries, past interviews, and periodicals.

Here are a few examples of famous biographies:

  • Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert

Many authors over the year have written biographies about his iconic British prime minister. Still, it’s Martin Gilbert’s work which has been by far the most successful and celebrated. 

Through years of in-depth research, Gilbert gives readers a comprehensive and honest insight into the life of the man who led Britain through the Second World War.

  • Frida: Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

Hayden Herrera wrote this eye-opening biography of celebrated painter Frida Kahlo back in 1983, and it has since become the most authoritative account of her life in print.

The book documents Kahlo’s struggles and pain, but it also tells of her artistic prowess and her determination to leave a positive influence on the world.  

  • Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson 

Rather than focusing on Sylvia Plath’s painful struggles with mental health and her turbulent marriage to English poet Ted Hughs, this biography tells of Plath’s earlier life, before the pair ever met. Taking information directly from her detailed diary entries, Wilson has complied an insightful picture of the American writer’s early experiences before she found fame.

Taken from the French word for ‘memory,’ a  memoir  is a non-fiction, self-written account of a person’s life. But unlike an autobiography, a memoir focuses much more on the emotional journey rather than chronologically recounting facts and events.

Memoirs are essentially a collection of memories that are important to the author, and they paint an intimate portrait of what it was like to be in their shoes.

Due to the similar nature of memoirs and autobiographies, it’s sometimes hard to denote the difference between the two, especially in the modern era when genres are often blended, and new ways of writing become commonplace.

One key thing to remember is that a memoir is usually less of a timeline of events and more an informal, emotional picture of a person’s life. Memoirs will often focus on things like past regrets and life lessons learned along the way, whereas autobiographies concentrate on facts and things that happened.

Here are a few examples of famous memoirs:

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou wrote a total of seven autobiographies and memoirs during her lifetime, but this is the most notable one of them all.

This famous memoir documents the first seventeen years of her life as a young African American woman, and all of the struggles and turmoils she faced and overcame during that time.

  • Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

This travel memoir written by the New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert was subsequently turned into a blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts.

It documents Gilbert’s personal journey of rebirth following a painful divorce and invites the reader to share the valuable and life changing lessons she learns along the way.

  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt’s moving memoir takes us on an in-depth journey through his childhood years when he lived a profoundly impoverished life in Ireland during the midst of the Great Depression.

It won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize and has also been adapted to the silver screen.

Autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs all do one job: they tell a person’s non-fictional life story. But as you can see, each one is unique in its own way.

Do you have a favorite autobiography, biography, or memoir?

Let us know in the comments below.

Check out these other great articles!

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Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir: Understanding the Differences

Autobiography, biography, and memoir are three genres of literature that share similarities but are also distinct from one another. While they tell stories about people’s lives, they differ in scope, perspective, and purpose. Understanding the differences between these genres is vital for readers, writers, and researchers alike.

So, what exactly makes them different from each other?

In this article, we’ll compare autobiography vs. biography vs. memoir, discover the definitions of each, and see the best examples of each genre.

But before we dive deep into the topic and learn about these three book genres, let’s see a quick overview of what an autobiography, a biography, and a memoir are for those in a hurry!

An autobiography is a book written by the person whose life is being described. It is a first-person narrative that covers the author’s entire life, from birth to the present day. On the other hand, a biography is a book written about a person’s life by someone else. It is a third-person narrative that covers the subject’s life in a factual and objective manner.

Meanwhile, a memoir is similar to an autobiography, but instead of describing the person’s entire life, it focuses on a particular event or a specific period and delves deeper into the author’s state of mind at the time.

Now that you have a rough idea of what an autobiography, a biography, and a memoir mean, let’s move ahead and explore all these book genres in much more detail.

What is an Autobiography?

An autobiography is a book written by an individual about their own life. It covers the author’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings throughout their life.

Autobiographies are typically written in the first person and are subjective in nature. They can cover many topics, including personal experiences, family history, career achievements, and more.

An autobiography aims to provide readers with an in-depth look into the author’s life. It can be a way for the author to share their story, inspire others, or leave a legacy. Autobiographies can also be used as a form of therapy, allowing the author to reflect on their life experiences and gain a deeper understanding of themselves.

what is an autobiography

Autobiographies can be both subjective and objective. While they are written from the author’s point of view, they can still provide an accurate account of events. However, it is essential to note that autobiographies are not always completely accurate, as memories can be flawed and biased.

Autobiographies can cover a wide range of events and information. Some may focus on a specific period or event in the author’s life, while others may cover their entire life from birth to the present day.

Autobiographies are often written by famous people, such as politicians, athletes, and celebrities, who want to tell their life stories in their own words. They can be insightful and revealing, but they can also be self-serving and biased.

Here are a few famous autobiographies:

  • “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank
  • “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah
  • “Becoming” by Michelle Obama
  • “An Autobiography” by Agatha Christie
  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X
  • “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela

What is a Biography?

A biography is a non-fictional account of someone’s life written by another person. It provides an objective understanding of the person’s life, covering various aspects such as their upbringing, education, career, achievements, and personal life.

The author of a biography is not the subject, and their interpretation of the subject’s life is not expected to be included in the text.

what is a biography

Biographies can be written about anyone, from historical figures to ordinary people who have made a significant impact on society. They are often researched and written by scholars, journalists, and other experts who want to provide a comprehensive and accurate account of a person’s life. And so, they are generally considered to be objective, as the author is expected to present a factual account of the subject’s life without any personal bias.

Biographies cover various events and information about the subject’s life. They may include details about the subject’s childhood, education, family life, career, and personal relationships. Biographies may also provide insights into the subject’s personality, beliefs, and values.

Here are some popular biographies and their authors:

  • “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson
  • “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar
  • “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand
  • “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang
  • “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
  • “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

What is a Memoir?

A memoir is a form of autobiographical writing that focuses on a specific period, theme, or series of events in the author’s life. It is much similar to an autobiography; the only difference is that an autobiography covers the author’s entire life while the memoir is focused on a particular period or event.

what is a memoir

Memoirs are personal narratives that typically include the author’s reflections, emotions, and thoughts about their experiences. They are often considered to be subjective, as they are based on the author’s memories and perceptions of events, rather than objective facts.

To be considered a memoir, a book must be a factual account of the author’s life, but it does not have to be a comprehensive chronicle of their entire life. Instead, it should provide insight into a particular aspect of their life, such as their childhood, career, or personal relationships.

Here are some popular memoirs that have resonated with readers:

  • “Educated” by Tara Westover
  • “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls
  • “Heavy: An American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon
  • “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed
  • “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs
  • “Night” by Elie Wiesel

These memoirs are just a few examples of the wide range of experiences and themes that can be explored through this genre of writing.

Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir – Key Differences:

When it comes to writing about someone’s life, there are three main options: autobiography, biography, and memoir. While they all share similarities, there are some key differences between them.


An autobiography is a factual and historical account of one’s entire life written by the person themselves. It is usually written in the first person and covers the author’s life from beginning to end. Although autobiographies are often written by famous people, they can be written by anyone.

A biography is the story of someone’s life written by someone else. It is usually written in the third person and covers the subject’s life from birth to death.

A memoir is a nonfiction narrative in which the author shares their memories from a specific time period or reflects upon a string of themed occurrences throughout their life. Memoirs tend to focus on a particular aspect of the author’s life rather than their entire life story.

Comparison Chart

Here is a comparison chart highlighting the key differences between autobiography, biography, and memoir:

After examining the similarities and differences between autobiography, biography, and memoir, it is clear that each genre has its unique characteristics. While all three genres involve storytelling, they differ in their scope, focus, and style.

One notable difference between these genres is the level of objectivity. Biographies are often the most objective, as they are written by a third-party author who is not emotionally invested in the subject. In contrast, memoirs and autobiographies can be highly subjective, as they are written from the author’s perspective and often include their emotions and opinions.

Another difference is the audience. Autobiographies and biographies are usually intended for a broader audience, while memoirs are often more personal and may only appeal to a specific group of readers.

Overall, each genre has its strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the reader to decide which genre best suits their interests and preferences.

Also Read: What is the Fantasy Genre?

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Home / Book Writing / Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir

Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir

Telling the difference between an autobiography, a biography, and a memoir is easier said than done. They're generally about a person's life (often a famous person or public figure), but they each go about telling the story in different ways. They have different expectations and often cover different facets of the subject's life. But once you know what differentiates these three types of books, you'll be able to tell them apart with ease.

  • The difference between autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs
  • What defines each type of nonfiction book
  • Famous examples of each type

Table of contents

  • The Difference Between Autobiographies, Biographies, and Memoirs
  • What is an Autobiography?
  • What is a Memoir?
  • What is a Biography?

An autobiography is a book written by the subject him or herself, detailing the important events of their life. Similarly, a memoir is also written by the subject, but focuses more on the emotional aspects of their life story, rather than the events themselves. Lastly, a biography is an account of a person's life written by someone other than the subject, usually relying on many different sources for factual accuracy.

That’s the broad view. Now let's get a little more in depth to make these differences a little clearer.

Reading an autobiography is reading a first-person account of a person's life. You get to walk a mile in the subject's shoes, seeing the world through their eyes as they share their experiences.

Since most autobiographies detail an interesting life lived, they're often written by the subjects in their later years. However, there are always exceptions to this. Some people have written autobiographies while they were still young because their younger years were interesting or extraordinary. The three most famous examples of autobiographies written by young people include:

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Since autobiographies are about the author's life as told by them, they can be biased, since everyone sees the world a little differently and human memory isn't always the most accurate thing.

Most autobiographies work chronologically through the subject's life, including stories from their childhood and early years, their career, and any other milestones throughout their life.

Although autobiographies are ostensibly written by the subjects, it's not uncommon for a professional ghostwriter to be involved in the project. A ghostwriter can bring a flow and cohesive narrative to the subject's life story.

Some other famous autobiographies, written later in the subject's life, include:

  • Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
  • Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

An “event” autobiography is less common, but there are some famous examples. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is a first-person account of a Mount Everest climb that went terribly wrong, costing the lives of eight people.

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Since a memoir is considered a type of autobiography, it's best to cover it now before we dive into biographies. Like an autobiography, a memoir is written by the subject — usually in the first person. It's a personal narrative that focuses more on the feelings, emotions, and memories that are important or impactful to the author.

While key events may be present in the memoir, they're generally there in relation to the emotional journey the author experienced. They focus more on the life lessons learned, regrets, and those things the subject was grateful for over their life.

While both autobiographies and memoirs are nonfiction, you're more likely to get a chronological sequence of life events and professional achievements in an autobiography . In a memoir, you're more likely to get a collection of personal details and life experiences in terms of how they affected the subject emotionally and influenced their personality and decisions.

(Interested in publishing a memoir? Check out our step-by-step article on publishing a memoir !)

Some famous memoirs include:

  • The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Another good example is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. It's half memoir and half writing tips from one of the masters of fiction. The memories King shares give you an insight into his upbringing, his family, and his first successes as an author. But it's all in service of talking about writing fiction.

A biography is a nonfiction account of a person's life similar to an autobiography, with the major difference that it's not written by the subject. For this reason, biographies can be written any time. In fact, new biographies about famous historical figures are often released when new information comes to light.

Biographers use a number of different sources to piece together the information they need to give the reader a look into the subject's life. They may use interviews with those who were close to the subject (such as a family member or friend) and interviews with the subject him or herself. They'll use photos, news articles, diaries, and many other sources to present a cohesive, and usually chronological, biographical sketch of the person's life.

Sometimes, the author is someone who was close to the subject. Other times, it's a professional writer who didn't know the subject personally. A biography will usually cover childhood, professional experience, personal information, accomplishments, and key events in the person's life.

Some examples of famous biographies include:

  • Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson
  • Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark
  • His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis

A good example of a biography written by a relative is Virginia Woolf: A Biography , written by her nephew, Quentin Bell.

Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs are all different ways to write about a person's life. Memoirs and autobiographies differ in their presentation and focus, but both are written by the subject. A biography is written by someone aside from the subject, who relies on various sources to present a thorough and (usually) chronological book of the subject's life story.

Although memoirs and autobiographies are “straight from the horse's mouth,” so to speak, they do allow room for some unconscious (or conscious) bias. Biographies are generally more objective because of the extensive research required to write about another person's life and accomplishments.

Now you know the difference between these three types of nonfiction books (not to mention some great recommendations for new books to read). Enjoy!

Dave Chesson

When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.

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Biography vs autobiography vs memoir: Which Genre Best Tells Your Story?

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As a writer, it’s essential to choose the right genre to tell your story effectively. However, distinguishing between memoir, autobiography, and biography can be confusing. In this article, we’ll clarify the core differences between these genres and provide insights to help you choose the one that best fits your unique story. Whether you’re interested in exploring your own experiences or delving into the lives of others, understanding the difference between a memoir and a biography and autobiography is critical to crafting a compelling narrative. So let’s get started and discover which genre will best tell your story.

The Power of Biographies: Discovering Lives and Learning Lessons

A biography is a personal story narrated from real life. The biographies come in different sub-genres, but what they have in common is the factual loyalty. Biographies provide an in-depth look into the lives of individuals, whether they’re still alive or historical figures. For a collection of famous biographies, you might want to explore .

Professional bio writers usually conduct a great deal of research. They can describe the life events of someone still alive or a famous person who lived years ago. The author focuses his attention significantly on childhood, relationships, and ups and downs to create a complete picture of a person’s life.

The distinct feature of the story is the writer’s presence. That’s where you don’t align memoir vs biography: while people write memoirs alone, biographies require professional writers.

The main types of biographies include:

  • Contemporary biography: a story of a person who’s alive and usually at the peak of their success. It can be about well-known entrepreneurs, musicians, or politicians. It can also include the people who are especially valuable at the moment or have done something great that you have to commemorate.

The examples are: “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra” (written by Kitty Kelley) and “Robin” (Dave Itzkoff’s intimate look at the life and career of Robin Williams).

  • Historical biography: provides in-depth information on the life of historical figures or people who died without the recognition they deserved.

The examples are: “Alexander Hamilton” (an epic 800+ page biography created by Ron Chernow) and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (written by Rebecca Skloot).

  • Group biography: the authors apply this type of biography quite rarely. One of the first examples is “A General History of the Pirates,” narrated by Captain Charles Johnson in 1724. One of the latest group biographies includes an account of the life stories of famous British royals, “HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style,” written by Elizabeth Holmes.

Autobiographies: Understanding the Genre, Types, and Significance

An autobiography is someone else’s story that doesn’t involve a third party. A memoir writing service puts it differently because autobiography is the first person’s account of events.

Autobiographies have been vital throughout history. They provide invaluable stories and thoughts, giving the audience an accurate impression of historical leaders and the value they represent. Also, they allow individuals to tell their own stories in their own words. For examples of famous autobiographies that have captivated readers, check out this list on Goodreads .

The main difference between autobiography and biography is that the last one provides a person’s story written by someone else. The peculiar advantage that autobiographies provide is decreasing the number of discrepancies or mistakes. Hiring cheap ghostwriters for hire may be incorrect in describing significant events.

The types of autobiography include:

  • Traditional: a complete story narrated from the first person, discussing all significant events from birth, throughout childhood, and up to the present time. It’s a challenging genre since a life story should be captivating and exciting to engage the reader.
  • Overcoming adversity: on the contrary, many people don’t have as shiny lives. Some survived a series of challenging circumstances, such as assaults, murders, or other life-threatening situations. Sharing the story of the “survivor” might heal people undergoing a similar journey.
  • Intellectual: focus on critical events or experiences that have changed someone’s perspective on life. Prominent examples include the “Autobiography” of the philosopher John Stuart Mill and “The Education of Henry Adams.”
  • Fictionalized is a story that uses made-up characters to represent an author’s experience. This autobiography reflects on actual events vs. serving as an accurate retelling of what happened. Some of the interesting examples are “The Way of All Flesh” (by Samuel Butler) and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (by James Joice).

Memoir vs autobiography: what’s the catch?

If you’re wondering what does a ghostwriter do when writing a memoir, let’s explore its main features.

Memoir highlights the essential part of someone’s life. It can describe the critical historical period or a breakdown, focusing on the events that led to the collapse. That’s where memoirs vs autobiography differ: the first ones only focus on particular excerpts instead of telling the whole story.

  • A memoir is a factual story in which the author reflects on a series of related events from their life or recounts memories from a particular period.
  • An autobiography is a chronological description of a person’s life.

Although the memoir can be subjective, it must lean on facts. The authors choose a pivotal moment they’d like to shed light on and recreate the event using storytelling tools.

There’s not a specific number of memoirs in a professional book writing history. Nevertheless, we will explore the most prominent types of memoirs to let you dive into the industry:

  • Transformation memoirs: tell about the most significant challenges authors These stories lead with the topic of redemption, whether you achieved it or you’re trying to gain it.

The examples are “Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares” (by Aarti Namdev Shahani), “Educated” (by Tara Westover), and “Finding Freedom” (by Erin French).

  • Confessional memoirs: reveal the painful or dirty secrets about authors or their families and how the particular series of events has affected them.

The examples are: “Confessions” (by Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and “Running with Scissors” (by Augusten Burroughs).

  • Professional or celebrity memoirs: describe the road to fame and success. Famous people often think about how to find a ghost writer to talk about their lives and significant events in a more professional tone.

The examples are: “I Am Malala” (by Malala Yousafzai) and “Just Kids” (by Patti Smith).

  • Travel memoirs: focus on exciting adventures that happen while traveling. These memoirs are often the most pleasant, allowing readers to escape everyday reality.

The examples are “Wild” (by Cheryl Strayed) and “A Year in Provence” (by Peter Mayle).

Autobiography vs biography vs memoir: where’s your match?

You don’t need to be a writing professional to comprehend the difference between memoir and autobiography and biography. Let’s take a look at some of the key points to consider.

The Bottom Line

Writing a book about your life is a challenging process. It requires lots of patience and a great deal of memory to recall the most significant events. Meanwhile, it allows you to look at your life and experiences from a whole new perspective.

If you need any help with writing a biography vs autobiography vs memoir, Penfellow will gladly assist! Our professional writers have years of experience completing similar tasks and will do the job for you. We will ensure the final paper meets your requirements and writing standards. Get in touch with us today to get your biography done in no time!

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The Differences between Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography - article

Creative nonfiction: memoir vs. autobiography vs. biography.

Writing any type of nonfiction story can be a daunting task. As the author, you have the responsibility to tell a true story and share the facts as accurately as you can—while also making the experience enjoyable for the reader.

There are three primary formats to tell a creative nonfiction story: memoir, autobiography, and biography. Each has its own distinct characteristics, so it’s important to understand the differences between them to ensure you’re writing within the correct scope.

A memoir is a collection of personal memories related to specific moments or experiences in the author’s life. Told from the perspective of the author, memoirs are written in first person point of view.

The defining characteristic that sets memoirs apart from autobiographies and biographies is its scope. While the other genres focus on the entire timeline of a person’s life, memoirs structure themselves on one aspect, such as addiction, parenting, adolescence, disease, faith, etc.

They may tell stories from various moments in the author’s life, but they should read like a cohesive story—not just a re-telling of facts.

“You don’t want a voice that simply relates facts to the reader. You want a voice that shows the reader what’s going on and puts him or her in the room with the people you’re writing about.” – Kevan Lyon in Writing a Memoir

Unlike autobiographies and biographies, memoirs focus more on the author’s relationship to and feelings about his or her own memories. Memoirs tend to read more like a fiction novel than a factual account, and should include things like dialogue , setting, character descriptions, and more.

Authors looking to write a memoir can glean insight from both fiction and nonfiction genres. Although memoirs tell a true story, they focus on telling an engaging narrative, just like a novel. This gives memoir authors a little more flexibility to improve upon the story slightly for narrative effect.

However, you should represent dialogue and scenarios as accurately as you can, especially if you’re worried about libel and defamation lawsuits .

Examples of popular memoirs include Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Key traits of a memoir:

- Written in 1 st person POV from the perspective of the author - Less formal compared to autobiographies and biographies - Narrow in scope or timeline - Focused more on feelings and memories than facts - More flexibility to change the story for effect


Like a memoir, an autobiography is the author’s retelling of his or her life and told in first person point of view, making the author the main character of the story.

Autobiographies are also narrative nonfiction, so the stories are true but also include storytelling elements such as a protagonist (the author), a central conflict, and a cast of intriguing characters.

Unlike memoirs, autobiographies focus more on facts than emotions. Because of this, a collaborator often joins the project to help the author tell the most factual, objective story possible.

While a memoir is limited in scope, an autobiography details the author’s entire life up to the present. An autobiography often begins when the author is young and includes detailed chronology, events, places, reactions, movements and other relevant happenings throughout the author’s life.

“In many people’s memoir, they do start when they’re younger, but it isn’t an, ‘I got a dog, then we got a fish, and then I learned to tie my shoes’…it isn’t that kind of detail.” – Linda Joy Meyers in Memoir vs. Autobiography

The chronology of an autobiography is organized but not necessarily in date order. For instance, the author may start from current time and employ flashbacks or he/she may organize events thematically.

Autobiographers use many sources of information to develop the story such as letters, photographs, and other personal memorabilia. However, like a memoir, the author’s personal memory is the primary resource. Any other sources simply enrich the story and relay accurate and engaging experiences.

A good autobiography includes specific details that only the author knows and provides context by connecting those details to larger issues, themes, or events. This allows the reader to relate more personally to the author’s experience. 

Examples of popular autobiographies include The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

Key traits of an autobiography:

- Written in 1 st person POV from the perspective of the author, occasionally with the help of a collaborator - More formal and objective than memoirs, but more subjective than biographies - Broad in scope or timeline, often covering the author’s entire life up to the present - Focused more on facts than emotions - Requires more extensive fact-checking and research than memoirs, but less than biographies

A biography is the story of events and circumstances of a person’s life, written by someone other than that person. Usually, people write biographies about a  historical  or  public figure . They can be written with or without the subject’s authorization.

Since the author is telling the account of someone else, biographies are always in third person point of view and carry a more formal and objective tone than both memoirs and autobiographies.

Like an autobiography, biographies cover the entire scope of the subject’s life, so it should include details about his or her birthplace, educational background, work history, relationships, death and more.

Good biographers will research and study a person’s life to collect facts and present the most historically accurate, multi-faceted picture of an individual’s experiences as possible. A biography should include intricate details—so in-depth research is necessary to ensure accuracy.

“If you’re dealing principally with historical figures who are long dead, there are very few legal problems…if you’re dealing with a more sensitive issue…then the lawyers will be crawling all over the story.” – David Margolick in Legal Issues with Biographies

However, biographies are still considered creative nonfiction, so the author has the ability to analyze and interpret events in the subject’s life, looking for meaning in their actions, uncovering mistakes, solving mysteries, connecting details, and highlighting the significance of the person's accomplishments or life activities.

Authors often organize events in chronological order, but can sometimes organize by themes or specific accomplishments or topics, depending on their book’s key idea.

Examples of popular biographies include Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Key traits of a biography:

- Written about another person, often a celebrity or public figure, and told in 3 rd person point of view - More formal and objective than both memoirs and autobiographies - Broad in scope or timeline, often covering the subject’s entire life up to the present - Focused solely on facts - Requires meticulous research and fact-checking to ensure accuracy

  • Biographies and Memoirs
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Met you this morning briefly and just bought your book on Amazon. Congratulations. 

Very helpful. I think I am heading down the path of a memoir.

Thank you explaining the differences between the three writing styles!

Very useful article. Well done. Please can we have more. Doctor's Orders !!!

My first book, "Tales of a Meandering Medic" is definitely a Memoir.

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Last updated on Feb 17, 2023

What is a Memoir? An Inside Look at Life Stories

A memoir is a narrative written from the author's perspective about a particular facet of their own life. As a type of nonfiction , memoirs are generally understood to be factual accounts — though it is accepted that they needn't be objective, merely a version of events as the author remembers them.

What is a memoir | It's Not About the Bike

The term comes from the French word “mémoire,” which means “memory,” or “reminiscence.” To give you a touchstone before we go any further, here are a couple of famous memoir examples , some of which you might recognize:

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau;
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt;
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama;
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; and
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking any of these popular memoirs for a novel — since, just like novels, they have a plot, characters, themes, imagery, and dialogue . We like to think of memoirs as nonfiction by name and fiction by nature.  

A quick biography of the memoir

To trace the memoir back to its origins, we’ll need to don our best togas and hitch a chariot ride back to ancient Rome. That’s right, memoirs have been around since at least the first century BC when Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars offered not only a play-by-play of each battle but a peek into the mind of one of Rome’s most dynamic leaders. 

What is a memoir | Early memoirs

“I came, I saw, I conquered, my dudes!”

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, memoirs continued to be written by the ruling classes, who interpreted historical events they played a role in or closely observed. The gentry — who had the luxuries of free time, literacy, and spare funds — would document the events and machinations of court, as well as the many military crusades. It was the French who particularly excelled, with diplomats, knights, and historians, such as Philippe de Comminnes and Blaise de Montluc, seizing the opportunity to cement their legacy. 

From the 17th century, memoirs began to revolve around people rather than events, though typically, the focus was not on the author’s own life but on the people around him. Once again, the French took the lead — namely, Duc de Saint-Simon, who has received literary fame for his penetrating character sketches of the court of Louis XIV. (Think diary entries packed with petty intrigue and rumor-mongering.)



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From Julius Caesar to Julia Roberts

As time wore on, this elite posse of memoirists came to include noted professionals, such as politicians and businessmen (it was still always men), who wanted to publish accounts of their own public exploits. The exception to this model was Henry David Thoreau's 1854 memoir Walden — an account of his two years in a Massachusetts cabin, finding fulfillment in the wilderness. 

In his book Memoir: A History , Ben Yagoda sketches a family tree pinning Walden as a precursor to the modern success of spiritual and “schtick lit” memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love and Gretchen Ruben’s The Happiness Project , as well as the long literary tradition of “My year of…” memoirs that gave us Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking . Yagoda also traces the roots of these spiritual memoirs back even further to The Confessions of St Augustine written in A.D. 397, in which Augustine admits to a sinful youth spent munching stolen pears ( gasp)  before finding the path to Christianity.

What is a memoir | Eat, Pray, Love

“I ate, I prayed, I loved, my dudes!” (image: Sony Pictures)

Yagoda’s point? Once a memoir type emerges, it’ll keep spawning subgenres. For example, traces of the professional memoir and the fragmentary diary can be found in Adam Kay’s medical bestseller This is Going to Hurt. One thing that all memoirs have in common, however, is that they allow us to get to know a stranger on an intimate level — a prospect that appeals to our nosy side and will likely never get old.



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Is a memoir the same as an autobiography?

Memoirs and autobiographies are usually found on the same shelves of the bookstore, and so are often conflated in the minds of authors. But we’re here to tell you they’re not the same thing. While both are accounts of the writer's experiences, autobiographies span their entire life, providing the who-what-where-when-why of each stage, in chronological order. 

Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is an example of an autobiography: it details his childhood, his years as a freedom fighter, as well as those spent in prison, and finally, the complex negotiations that led to his release and the beginning of the end of apartheid. 

The difference between a memoir and an autobiography

A memoir, on the other hand, is more selective with its timeline. The constraints of the autobiography are loosened, and authors can intimately explore a pivotal moment or a particular facet of their life, allowing their thoughts and feelings to take control of the narrative. For example, journalist Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill chronicles his investigation leading up to the #MeToo movement, while William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is a soaring ode to his one great love and obsession — surfing. 

Memoir’s emphasis on storytelling is sometimes said to differentiate it from autobiography, but there are much more important differences to be aware of. After all, a good autobiography ought to weave a narrative, too. 



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They’re not just for celebrities

These days, most bestselling memoirs tend to be written by celebrities (or their ghostwriters ). Naturally, publishers are keen to capitalize on a well-known person's platform and existing fanbase to sell books — but that doesn't mean you need to be a reality star or a newsmaking criminal to tell your story. 

"You have to give people a reason to care about you," says Paul Carr, the author of three published traditionally published memoirs . "They need a reason to relate to your story — for your story to resonate with them."

While most people reading this article are probably not household names, there may be some aspects of your life that can be told in a way that touches on universal human experiences. Or perhaps your story is something that can help people improve their lives in big and small ways.

Even if your memoir doesn't have broad commercial potential, there can be other reasons for writing one:

  • To recall and cement the memory of a certain time in your life;
  • To leave behind an important story or lesson for your family;
  • To document your travels or a once-in-a-lifetime trip;
  • To open up about something painful or difficult; or simply,
  • To tell a powerful story that will resonate with readers.

If there's someone out there who will benefit from reading your story — whether it's millions of fans or your immediate family — you may find that to be enough of a reason to pick up your pen and start to write.

In the next article in our series about memoirs, we offer up 21 examples of memoirs that might inspire you to write your own. 

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Genre Clarification: Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

a biography or memoir book

The three primary formats used to tell a life story are a biography, an autobiography, and a memoir. Distinguishing between the three can feel a bit confusing since they all share several similarities, however there are some distinct differences.

Simply put, a biography is the life history of an individual, written by someone else.  An autobiography is the story of a person’s life, written by that person.  And a memoir is a collection of memories written by the person themselves.

A biography, also called a bio, is a non-fiction piece of work giving an objective account of a person’s life. The main difference between a biography and an autobiography is that the author of a biography is not the subject.

Biographies include details of key events that shaped the subject’s life, and information about their birthplace, education, work, and relationships. Biographers use a number of research sources, including interviews, letters, diaries, photographs, essays, reference books, and newspapers. While a biography is usually in the written form, it can be produced in other formats such as music composition or film.

Examples of famous biographies include:

  • His Excellency: George Washington  by Joseph J. Ellis
  • Einstein: The Life and Times  by Ronald William Clark
  • Princess Diana – A Biography of The Princess of Wales  by Drew L. Crichton


An autobiography is the story of a person’s life written by that person. Because the author is also the main character of the story, autobiographies are written in the first person.

The purpose of an autobiography is to portray the life experiences and achievements of the author. Therefore, most autobiographies are written later in the subject’s life.

They often begin during early childhood and chronologically detail key events throughout their life. Autobiographies usually include information about where a person was born and brought up, their education, career, life experiences, the challenges they faced, and their key achievements.

One of the main differences between an autobiography and a biography is that autobiographies tend to be more subjective. That’s because they are written by the subject, and present the facts based on their own memories of a specific situation, which can be biased.

Examples of famous autobiographies include:

  • The Story of My Life  by Helen Keller
  • The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank
  • Losing My Virginity  by Richard Branson

Memoir comes from the French word  mémoire , meaning memory or reminiscence. Similar to an autobiography, a memoir is the story of a person’s life written by that person.

The difference between a memoir and autobiography is that a memoir focuses on reflection and establishing an emotional connection, rather than simply presenting the facts around their life. The author uses their personal knowledge to tell an intimate and emotional story about the private or public happenings in their life. The topic is intentionally focused and does not include biographical or chronological aspects of the author’s life unless they are meaningful and relevant to the story.

Examples of famous memoirs include:

  • Angela’s Ashes  by Frank McCourt
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  by Maya Angelou
  • Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S.  Grant by Ulysses S. Grant

The line between memoir and autobiography is a fuzzy one, especially in this modern literary era where writers are constantly blurring the boundaries between genres to create a new, exciting one. Like an autobiography, a memoir is a narrative that reveals experiences within the author’s lifetime. But there are obvious and practical differences between the two similar genres.

In essence, an autobiography is a chronological telling of one’s experience, which should include phases such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc., while a memoir provides a much more specific timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings and emotions.

Memoirs are typically

  • less formal
  • less encompassing
  • more concerned with emotional truth toward a particular section of one’s life and how it makes you feel now
  • less obsessed with factual events
  • written by the subject

Autobiography is essentially

  • written by the main character or at least drafted with a collaborative writer
  • made up of detailed chronology, events, places, reactions, movements and any other relevant information that inhabited the life of the subject
  • focused on facts –  fact, above all, is its foundation

In his own memoir,  Palimpsest , Gore Vidal gave his own definitions of the two genres stating, “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”

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The ‘Sad, Happy Life’ of Carson McCullers

A new biography chronicles this essential American writer’s complicated love life, celebrated career and singular talents.

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A black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged woman with short dark hair. She is wearing a crisp gray top and dress, and holding a cigarette.

By Dwight Garner

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CARSON MCCULLERS: A LIFE , by Mary V. Dearborn

Mary V. Dearborn’s new book, “Carson McCullers: A Life,” is the first major biography of this essential American writer in more than 20 years. It is competent and professional, as if built from solid pine and good plaster. It is dispassionate and well researched. Reading it is brutal because McCullers’s life was brutal to endure.

It is Dearborn’s poor luck that the best-known biography, Virginia Spencer Carr’s “ The Lonely Hunter ” (1975), is a masterpiece of the form, as formidable in its way as Leon Edel’s life of Henry James . Carr’s book is a dense work of literature as well as a biography, and it contains vastly more detail, nuance, savvy, twisted humanity and practical magic.

Contrast, to take the easiest example at hand, these books’ openings. Here are Dearborn’s first two sentences:

Carson McCullers titled one of her first, more directly autobiographical stories “Wunderkind.” She was just such a child — which was, as with so many talented children, both a blessing and a curse.

And here’s Carr, flicking the lights on right away:

“Tell you what, Helen,” said the lanky Georgia girl, “let’s skip the cotton candy and hot dogs and save our dimes for the Rubber Man and all the freak shows this year. The Pin Head, the Cigarette Man, the Lady with the Lizard Skin … I don’t want to miss a single one.”

Multiply these styles across hundreds of pages. Dearborn’s style is clean; we’re in a doctor’s office or a museum, and McCullers’s life is in a lighted display box. Carr’s style was often low-lit and ground level; we’re in a nightclub, or the back seat of a rumbling car. You felt you were with McCullers in real time. Carr allowed you to see more things out of the corner of your eye.

“Carson McCullers: A Life” is a necessary book, though. It builds on Carr’s work and considers newly released material, including letters and journals and, most tantalizingly, transcripts of McCullers’s late-life psychiatric sessions with the female doctor who would become her lover and gatekeeper.

It has been seven years since McCullers (1917-67) had her centennial , when the Library of America released her complete works in two volumes. That was an occasion, which many critics took, to revisit her work, which includes the novels “ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter ” (1940) and “The Member of the Wedding” (1946), and the story collection “The Ballad of the Sad Café” (1951).

Special notice was paid, and justly so, to McCullers’s gifts for portraying loners and misfits, for addressing taboo topics such as mental illness and alcoholism and same-sex relationships. As Joyce Carol Oates put it in The New York Review of Books , “McCullers seemed to have identified with whatever is trans- in the human psyche, seeing it as the very fuel of desire.” Dearborn elaborates on these themes but essentially tells a straightforward story, vastly more in touch with the life than with the work.

Lula Carson Smith was born in Columbus, Ga. Her father was a jeweler, and her lively and well-educated mother took pride in her precocious daughter, whom the family called “Sister.” Carson — she began using her sexually ambiguous middle name in high school — thought she might become a concert pianist. She skipped college and headed for New York City, where she took writing classes at Columbia University. At 19, she married Reeves McCullers, a charming Alabama-born high school football star and future war hero — and future alcoholic.

The publishing world loves a Cinderella story and will invent one if necessary. McCullers was the real thing. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” was published when she was just 23, and literary Manhattan fell at her feet. She was photographed for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Truman Capote called her “a tall, slender wand of a girl” whose voice had a “gentle heat, like a blissful summer afternoon that is slow but not sleepy.” She was gawky and tall and androgynous; she wore crisp men’s clothing, with a special fondness for white dress shirts and spotless white sneakers. Alfred Kazin, whom she got to know at Yaddo, saw her most clearly:

Carson was pure sensibility, pure nerve along which all the suffering of the South and the Smith family passed. She was all feeling , an anvil on which life rained down blows. … Tremulous elfin, self-pitying charm. Always problems of identity . Internality of the American Dostoevskian sort without the slightest political sense of the word. … The southern isolato .

McCullers was an eccentric. She was needy and smothering and given to extravagant language and gestures. In the short run, these things can be enormously attractive. In the long run, they can make everyone hate you. By the end of this biography, when she has fallen apart from drinking and illness, a lot of contumely is dumped on McCullers by enemies and friends alike. Her Southern accent was adorable until people began to mock it behind her back.

The young McCullers moved into a large, Tudoresque apartment building in Brooklyn Heights with a gaggle of other artists, including the poet W.H. Auden, the composer Benjamin Britten and the statuesque burlesque star and writer Gypsy Rose Lee. This largely gay and lesbian commune became famous ; other artists lined up to try gain admission if not residence. There are great scenes, such as the time McCullers and Lee chased a fire truck down the street because they both loved a good conflagration. The pair may have had, briefly, a physical relationship.

Dearborn, who has also written biographies of Ernest Hemingway , Peggy Guggenheim and Henry Miller , among others, pauses to ask: Where was Reeves, McCullers’s husband, during this time? He slides in and out of this book. He was a frustrated man who never settled into a career. He sometimes forged her checks. They divorced and remarried. Both had same-sex affairs. There are hints of impulsive polycules. Their need for each other was a near constant, until Reeves died by suicide in a Paris hotel room in 1953.

McCullers’s romantic life outside her marriage was tangled and filled with unrequited feelings. She had a type, in terms of the women she fell for: older, elegant, distant and mostly unavailable, a predilection further examined in Jenn Shapland’s 2020 memoir “ My Autobiography of Carson McCullers .” She had many gay male friends, and she relished their attention. Though there is a canned quality to many of this book’s set pieces, it functions as a rich history of queer culture during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

McCullers had two major strokes by the time she was 30, brought on in part by strep infections in her youth. The second left her partially paralyzed on her left side. Some would accuse her of faking her paralysis because it seemed to come and go. But there can be no doubt that McCullers was deeply unlucky as regards her health. The second half of this book is a litany of ills, including a radical mastectomy and blood clot in her lung, that are hard to even read about. The lists of pills fill entire paragraphs. She must have rattled when she walked.

Her drinking did not help. She came from a family of alcoholics and she lived with enabler after enabler. On a typical day, she would have four and a half ounces of liquor (about two large drinks) three times a day: before lunch, dinner and bedtime, in addition to wine with meals. Each drink, taken to brace her lapsing morale, was a single act in the day’s drama. She would become stupefied, her mind velveted. Her friend Tennessee Williams commented, “A fish couldn’t drink so much without sinking.”

By the end, McCullers was no longer the viewer but the thing viewed. In addition to her health problems, her drinking and her romantic distress, McCullers was increasingly viewed as an irritant — a diva in the form of a waif. Her approach would arouse the fugitive instincts in others. She was a slice of cake that eventually attracted flies.

Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter bonded over their dislike of her. Welty called her “that little wretch.” To Jean Stafford, she was “most irritating.” The actress Julie Harris, who starred in a 1950 Broadway version of “The Member of the Wedding,” remarked that “everyone was her slave.” The New Yorker writer Janet Flanner called her a “pitiful spectacle.” An editor at her publishing house said that being with her was like “being impaled in the second act of a Tennessee Williams play.”

These drive-by shootings are vivid material, but none of us are reducible to what others say about us. It’s to Dearborn’s credit that she also suggests McCullers’s deep humanity, her subversive talents as a writer and lonely observer, and a strong sense of what McCullers herself called “her sad, happy life.”

CARSON McCULLERS : A Life | By Mary V. Dearborn | Knopf | 484 pp. | $40

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008, and before that was an editor at the Book Review for a decade. More about Dwight Garner

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Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir: The Important Differences You Need to Know!

A biography, autobiography, and memoir are all methods of telling a life story, but they are not the same thing.

All three fall under the non-fiction genre. All three tell personal stories, usually about a single person. And all three can appear similar in tone and style.

The main differences between a biography, autobiography, and memoir are who is writing the book and what is its purpose. Thus, it’s important to know why you are writing the book as soon as possible, and not to wait until you’ve reached the important step of editing your non-fiction work ! Here are some of the crucial ways to tell a biography, autobiography, and memoir apart, and how to determine which label belongs to your particular writing project.

What’s a biography?

Biography: an account of someone’s life, written by someone else

The main difference between a biography, autobiography, and memoir is that a biography is written by someone else other than the subject of the book. So, if you are writing a book about your own life, it would not be considered a biography, strictly speaking. Instead, someone else would need to write about you. 

Because a biography is written by an outside source, the style should be objective-and evidence-based. As you are detailing someone else’s story, you should write in the third-person, so there is a clear line between narrator and subject.  

It’s the biographer’s duty to do extensive research on the subject of their book, and create the most factual work possible. Research can include interviews with the subject and the people who surround them, reading letters, diaries, and newspapers, or watching and listening to old recordings (especially, if the subject is no longer alive). As the biographer, you should be an expert in your subject, and present a complete perspective and sound reasoning.

Examples of famous biographies include:

  • A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
  • Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert

What’s an autobiography?

Autobiography: an account of a person’s life, written by that person

An autobiography differs from a biography in that the subject of the book is also its author. Alternatively, it is someone who is writing on behalf of the subject but using their voice (i.e., a ghostwriter).

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Because autobiographies are about the author themselves, the writing perspective is usually first-person, instead of third. The book should read as if you, the writer, are the subject of the book and you are telling your life story to the reader.

Despite the more familiar tone, an autobiography still requires a fair amount of research because it should still be factual. This is especially true if you are ghostwriting for someone else and you cannot rely on your recall. 

Memoirist Gore Vidal once wrote, “an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked”. When you are writing an autobiography, you can’t just write things down as you remember them because human memory can be faulty. More so than with a memoir, you must double-check the facts of your own (or your subject’s) life to make sure they are accurate.

Examples of famous autobiographies include: 

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela 
  • This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

What’s a memoir? 

Memoir: an historical account, written from personal knowledge

We derive the word “memoir” from the French mémoire, which translates as memory or to reminisce. 

Similar to an autobiography, a memoir is written by the person the book is about. Even so, there are still quite a few ways a biography, autobiography, and memoir vary. 

One distinct characteristic which separates a biography, autobiography, and memoir is that a memoir is largely emotion-driven. Biographies and autobiographies tend to lay out the facts of a person’s life, while a memoir will detail a more intimate and personal story. Rather than focusing on recalling facts and events, a memoir relies on specific and relevant anecdotes to deliver a more universal message or lesson to the reader. 

However, the biggest difference of all between a biography, autobiography, and memoir is the style in which we write memoirs. Memoirs can take on a more anecdotal prose style, which is sometimes comparable to writing fiction. With a memoir, you are spinning a story. This gives you more freedom to be creative with your language and storytelling when writing about your life!

Examples of famous memoirs include: 

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama

Memoir, biography, and autobiography: which is right for your book?

open book editor biography autobiography memoir manuscript editing service

Now that you know the differences between a biography, autobiography, and memoir, which one is right for your project? 

A good way to figure this out is to outline what you’d like to include in your book and what you want your readers to take from it. Are you writing about someone else or yourself? Do you want your book to be fact-driven or emotion-driven? Do you want to regale your readers with interesting stories or impart a message they can apply to their lives? These are all important questions to ask yourself before you begin to write your manuscript.

If you still have questions about the differences between a biography, autobiography, and memoir, The Open Book Editor’s personalised author coaching might be just what you need. Through one-on-one video consultations, we can provide you with a greater understanding of these non-fiction categories. And we will help you identify the true purpose of your book, so you can tackle your writing project with more confidence!

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Your exploration of the differences between biography, autobiography, and memoir is a concise and enlightening guide. Well done on clarifying these distinctions with clarity, making it easy for readers to understand and appreciate the unique qualities of each genre. A valuable resource for anyone navigating the world of life narratives!

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What Is a Biography?

What is a biography?

Learning from the experiences of others is what makes us human.

At the core of every biography is the story of someone’s humanity. While biographies come in many sub-genres, the one thing they all have in common is loyalty to the facts, as they’re available at the time. Here’s how we define biography, a look at its origins, and some popular types.

“Biography” Definition

A biography is simply the story of a real person’s life. It could be about a person who is still alive, someone who lived centuries ago, someone who is globally famous, an unsung hero forgotten by history, or even a unique group of people. The facts of their life, from birth to death (or the present day of the author), are included with life-changing moments often taking center stage. The author usually points to the subject’s childhood, coming-of-age events, relationships, failures, and successes in order to create a well-rounded description of her subject.

Biographies require a great deal of research. Sources of information could be as direct as an interview with the subject providing their own interpretation of their life’s events. When writing about people who are no longer with us, biographers look for primary sources left behind by the subject and, if possible, interviews with friends or family. Historical biographers may also include accounts from other experts who have studied their subject.

The biographer’s ultimate goal is to recreate the world their subject lived in and describe how they functioned within it. Did they change their world? Did their world change them? Did they transcend the time in which they lived? Why or why not? And how? These universal life lessons are what make biographies such a meaningful read.

Origins of the Biography

Greco-Roman literature honored the gods as well as notable mortals. Whether winning or losing, their behaviors were to be copied or seen as cautionary tales. One of the earliest examples written exclusively about humans is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (probably early 2 nd century AD). It’s a collection of biographies in which a pair of men, one Greek and one Roman, are compared and held up as either a good or bad example to follow.

In the Middle Ages, Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne (around 817 AD) stands out as one of the most famous biographies of its day. Einhard clearly fawns over Charlemagne’s accomplishments throughout, yet it doesn’t diminish the value this biography has brought to centuries of historians since its writing.

Considered the earliest modern biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell looks like the biographies we know today. Boswell conducted interviews, performed years of research, and created a compelling narrative of his subject.

The genre evolves as the 20th century arrives, and with it the first World War. The 1920s saw a boom in autobiographies in response. Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That (1929) is a coming-of age story set amid the absurdity of war and its aftermath. That same year, Mahatma Gandhi wrote The Story of My Experiments with Truth , recalling how the events of his life led him to develop his theories of nonviolent rebellion. In this time, celebrity tell-alls also emerged as a popular form of entertainment. With the horrors of World War II and the explosion of the civil rights movement, American biographers of the late 20 th century had much to archive. Instantly hailed as some of the best writing about the war, John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) tells the stories of six people who lived through those world-altering days. Alex Haley wrote the as-told-to The Autobiography of Malcom X (1965). Yet with biographies, the more things change, the more they stay the same. One theme that persists is a biographer’s desire to cast its subject in an updated light, as in Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (2016).

Types of Biographies

Contemporary Biography: Authorized or Unauthorized

The typical modern biography tells the life of someone still alive, or who has recently passed. Sometimes these are authorized — written with permission or input from the subject or their family — like Dave Itzkoff’s intimate look at the life and career of Robin Williams, Robin . Unauthorized biographies of living people run the risk of being controversial. Kitty Kelley’s infamous His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra so angered Sinatra, he tried to prevent its publication.

Historical Biography

The wild success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is proof that our interest in historical biography is as strong as ever. Miranda was inspired to write the musical after reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton , an epic 800+ page biography intended to cement Hamilton’s status as a great American. Paula Gunn Allen also sets the record straight on another misunderstood historical figure with Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat , revealing details about her tribe, her family, and her relationship with John Smith that are usually missing from other accounts. Historical biographies also give the spotlight to people who died without ever getting the recognition they deserved, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks .

Biography of a Group

When a group of people share unique characteristics, they can be the topic of a collective biography. The earliest example of this is Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pirates (1724), which catalogs the lives of notorious pirates and establishes the popular culture images we still associate with them. Smaller groups are also deserving of a biography, as seen in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street , a mesmerizing behind-the-scenes look at the early years of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña as they establish the folk scene in New York City. Likewise, British royal family fashion is a vehicle for telling the life stories of four iconic royals – Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Kate, and Meghan – in HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style by style journalist Elizabeth Holmes.


This type of biography is written about one’s self, spanning an entire life up to the point of its writing. One of the earliest autobiographies is Saint Augustine’s The Confessions (400), in which his own experiences from childhood through his religious conversion are told in order to create a sweeping guide to life. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of six autobiographies that share all the pain of her childhood and the long road that led to her work in the civil rights movement, and a beloved, prize-winning writer.

Memoirs are a type of autobiography, written about a specific but vital aspect of one’s life. In Toil & Trouble , Augusten Burroughs explains how he has lived his life as a witch. Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park recounts his early years spent in a cult, his family’s escape, and his rise to success with his band, The Airborne Toxic Event. Barack Obama’s first presidential memoir, A Promised Land , charts his path into politics and takes a deep dive into his first four years in office.

Fictional Biography

Fictional biographies are no substitute for a painstakingly researched scholarly biography, but they’re definitely meant to be more entertaining. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler constructs Zelda and F. Scott’s wild, Jazz-Age life, told from Zelda’s point of view. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict brings readers into the secret life of Hollywood actress and wartime scientist, Hedy Lamarr. These imagined biographies, while often whimsical, still respect the form in that they depend heavily on facts when creating setting, plot, and characters.

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Labour leader Keir Starmer on the beach at Worthing

Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin review – steady as he goes

A new biography of the Labour leader offers fly-on-the-wall access and intriguing clues as to his motivation

K eir Starmer can be a hard man to read. Even now, focus groups complain that they’re not quite sure what he stands for – though he has come off the fence on enough divisive issues now, from Gaza to imposing VAT on private school fees, to give them a pretty clear idea. Still, some quality about him seems oddly elusive. The backstory we will all hear endlessly in the run-up to the election – that his father was a rather emotionally distant toolmaker with whom he had a difficult relationship, his mother a nurse who suffered terribly with a painful form of arthritis, and that they raised four children on a tight budget in a pebble-dashed semi – explains him to some extent. But he tells it still with a slight stiffness that leaves many wondering if there isn’t something more. A genuinely revealing account of the rather private man currently on course to lead the country feels badly overdue.

The former journalist turned spin doctor Tom Baldwin is at pains to insist this isn’t an authorised biography, but it doesn’t seem entirely unauthorised either. Baldwin was originally recruited to help the Labour leader with a memoir he had been persuaded to write in 2022, when still struggling to break through against Boris Johnson. A year later, riding much higher in the polls, Starmer backed out of a publishing deal about which he had always been ambivalent – but agreed to cooperate with the more conventional biography Baldwin proposed writing instead.

This book is the result, benefiting not only from access to Starmer’s friends, family, ex-girlfriends and wife Vic, but also close aides including his highly influential strategist, Morgan McSweeney. The author has been a fly on the wall at everything from shadow cabinet meetings to family breakfasts in Starmer’s kitchen. It is, in short, as intimate an insight into Britain’s likely next prime minister as readers are probably going to get, and crucial to understanding what makes him tick. But as Baldwin himself admits, anyone “hoping to find these pages spattered with blood” will be disappointed by an account that very precisely mirrors its subject: careful, nuanced, unlikely to set the world on fire, but eminently capable of doing the job it set out to do.

If Starmer’s ideological outline seems blurrier than that of most politicians that is, his biographer argues, because he’s not really a politician in the conventional sense. He came to Westminster late in life after a long legal career, and if it all went wrong could probably leave it all behind tomorrow to go and work in a bookshop. (He has, Baldwin reveals, already seriously considered resigning at least twice, firstly over antisemitism in Labour during the Corbyn years, and secondly after leading the party to a catastrophic defeat in the Hartlepool byelection).

He ran for leader on an avowedly leftwing platform before dumping it for a more centrist one, a move Baldwin portrays as less machiavellian than pragmatic: his Starmer is both reluctant to be aligned with any one Labour faction and curiously un-political, which can make him slow to understand why things that seem obvious to him aren’t connecting emotionally with others. There is an unworldliness about him, Baldwin writes, oddly reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn – though in Starmer this comes tempered by a fiercely competitive desire to win, which means perhaps the better comparison is with Rishi Sunak.

What emerges from all this is a portrait of a leader willing to do whatever it takes, but still occasionally reliant on being told what that actually is by more acutely political advisers – with some of the most illuminating passages covering Starmer’s more recent political positioning and McSweeney’s role in the evolution of Labour strategy.

If there is some uncharacteristically juicy scandal lurking in Starmer’s past then this biographer hasn’t found it, unless you are shocked to learn that as a young lawyer sharing a cheap flat above what turned out to be a brothel he earnestly offered legal advice to some of the young women downstairs. Baldwin identifies no smoking gun in Starmer’s time as director of public prosecutions, either, concluding that far from failing to prosecute paedophiles, as some Tories have claimed, his record at the CPS was in fact one of diligently prosecuting sexual abuse cases previously treated as too difficult.

More surprising for some readers will be Baldwin’s take on tensions within the shadow cabinet. Rumours of a fractious relationship with deputy leader Angela Rayner, culminating in a botched attempt to reshuffle her? All better now, apparently. Widely reported frictions with shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband over green policies? Baldwin, who worked for Miliband when the latter was leader, describes a friendly, mutually supportive relationship. What about the time Starmer earned the adoration of Labour members, but the fury of his then boss Jeremy Corbyn’s office, by slipping an unauthorised line into his 2018 party conference speech as shadow Brexit secretary, saying nobody was ruling out campaigning for remain in a second Brexit referendum? Baldwin, who was working for the People’s Vote campaign at the time, reports Starmer insisting that he was innocently “trying to fix” a problem by sticking to the line agreed between the leader and pro-remain activists to avoid a public row over Brexit. If he genuinely thought that was going to calm everything down, he is at best guilty of being alarmingly naive.

Only rarely does the reader catch a glimpse of what feels like a more authentic frustration, as when Starmer describes himself listening intently to a parliamentary debate on Brexit only to glance over and see Corbyn engrossed in a week-old report of an obscure parliamentary debate “about cycleways or something”.

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Perhaps the most illuminating part of the book for anyone still struggling to get a sense of Starmer personally covers his relationship with his younger brother Nick, who has had lifelong learning difficulties. The fierce protectiveness he appears to feel for his siblings, none of whom move in the same rarefied circles as their knight-of-the-realm brother, and some of whom have struggled financially, seems key to his character and politics – but key also perhaps to that feeling that he is always holding something back. Unlike his parents, they are still alive, vulnerable to intrusion.

As children, Nick’s siblings got into fights at school, protecting him from bullies. As an adult he has had what his politician brother calls a “really tough life” – one that defies glib slogans about social mobility and shattering glass ceilings, and perhaps taught the Labour leader something about what it means to be marginalised. Though Keir was always the golden boy, getting into grammar school and then university, he recalls his father telling him that he shouldn’t consider himself any more successful than Nick, who had more barriers to overcome. All this is a reminder, Baldwin suggests, that the kind of overly simplistic working-boy-made-good stories politicians are coached to tell about themselves on the campaign trail invariably hide complicated subplots, in this case about those who will always be vulnerable or left behind in the most upwardly mobile families. If Keir Starmer still seems frustratingly hard to pigeonhole, maybe that’s ultimately our problem, not his.

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Das, Anupreeta. Billionaire, Nerd, Savior, King: Bill Gates and His Quest To Shape Our World. Avid Reader/ S.& S. Aug. 2024. 320p. ISBN 9781668006726. $32. BIOG

Das, the finance editor of the New York Times , considers Bill Gates both as a technology leader and as a billionaire in an age obsessed with the rich. Not just a maker of products, Gates presented himself as a national thought leader, shaping political and social agendas.

Jones, Amanda. That Librarian: The Fight Against Book Banning in America. Bloomsbury. Aug. 2024. 288p. ISBN 9781639733538. $29.99. MEMOIR

Jones, a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year, writes about her experiences fighting for the right to read. In the face of campaigns fueled by shadowy money and hard right politicians, she fought back, suing those who waged attacks against her and the United States’ readers.

Lee, Heath Hardage. The Mysterious Mrs. Nixon: The Life and Times of Washington’s Most Private First Lady. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2024. 416p. ISBN 9781250274342. $32.  BIOG

With a TV deal in hand for The League of Wives , Lee, an award-winning historian, focuses on Pat Nixon, exploring her role as first lady as she supported the Equal Rights Amendment, nominating a woman for the Supreme Court, reproductive rights, and her husband’s diplomatic efforts.

Peri, Camille. A Wilder Shore: The Romantic Odyssey of Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson. Viking. Aug. 2024. 464p. ISBN 9780670786190. $32. BIOG

Peri, founder of the website Mothers Who Think, turns her attention to the unlikely romance between Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson. They met in France when she was married, with children, 10 years older than he, and both living within Victorian society—and yet forged a creative, loving, and stormy partnership.

Rosenberg, Jane. Drawn Testimony: My Four Decades as a Courtroom Sketch Artist. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Aug. 2024. 320p. ISBN 9781335008046. $30. MEMOIR

Rosenberg, a courtroom artist who illustrated trials such as those of John Gotti, Woody Allen, the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, Martha Stewart, and Donald Trump, writes about and sketches her four-decade career.

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