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The differences between Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Example of Memoir

Bet ya don’t know the difference between a memoir and an autobiography!

Memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies are all forms of non-fiction that explore an individual’s life.

But what’s the difference? Let’s explore.

The quick answer is that biographies are written by someone other than the subject of the story. Autobiographies and memoirs are written by the subject. Memoirs tend to follow one time-period or theme, and explore emotion and reflection – whereas autobiographies are more comprehensive. Read on to learn more!



So, what is a memoir? A memoir is a piece of writing about a particular period or theme of a person’s own life, focused on feelings personal experiences, reflection, and threading meaning. It’s usually written in first person, and usually covers moments or themes that have been impactful or meaningful. You’re less likely to find chronological, factual information and more likely to find exploration of meaning and cohesion between events. Memoir writers focus on their own experiences and perspectives, and can express themselves with introspection, analysis, or story-driven narrative.

Sometimes, memoirs read more like a fiction novel and can include dialogue, character descriptions, engaging narrative. There’s often some artistic license afforded to memoirists.

They’re often written to express oneself and introspect, which allows the writer to delve into their own thoughts and feelings about the events they experienced in life. They can explore personal growth, healing, and self-discovery.

Mary Karr said that “Memoirs allow us to look back at our lives and make sense of the events that have shaped us,” and “Memoir is the best tool we have for understanding our own lives."

Some well-known memoirs include:

  • "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed
  • "Educated" by Tara Westover
  • "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls
  • "The Color of Water" by James McBride
  • "Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs.



Okay, so memoirs are written about one’s own life. So what’s an autobiography? In contrast to memoir, an autobio is more comprehensive, covering the author’s entire life. These are more likely to provide a complete and honest account of the writer’s life, including the events and experiences that shaped them. Autobiographical writing would generally be less likely to be centred around one particular theme or time, and instead would explore the entire life story of the writer and cross into different themes. Autobiographies tend to be more formal than memoirs.

Anaïs Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” We love that quote!

Here are some autobiography examples:

  • "Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela
  • "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  • "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
  • "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" by Benjamin Franklin
  • "An Autobiography" by Mahatma Gandhi.


Great, so what is a biography?

A biography is a non-fiction written account of someone else’s life. It’s typically written by a third person, in third-person tense. It covers the subject’s life events, accomplishments, and personal traits. They’re typically comprehensive, but could focus on a particular period or aspect of the person’s life. They’re usually written about public figures or famous people from history. Author’s don’t necessarily need permission or endorsement to write a biography about someone.

Biographies are meant to be accurate and objective, and are based on research and interviews with people who knew the subject. Unlike memoir and autobiography, the author obviously did not experience the events firsthand – at least not all of them!

As biographer Walter Isaacson said, "A good biography should be like a detective story that tells you not only what people did, but also what they thought and why they did it." Walter Isaacson is one of the world’s most successful biographers, having written extensive biographies on many of the world’s most well-known people.

Here are five of the best-known biographies:

  • "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson
  • "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow
  • "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future" by Ashlee Vance
  • "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris
  • "Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff.


Wrapping up

So, there you have it. All three forms of non-fiction life story writing tell us the story of someone’s life. The differences lie in focus, point of view, and comprehensiveness or scope.

Biographies are the most objective, whereas memoirs are usually the most subjective, as room is usually permitted for hyperbole, selection, and opinion.

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So what does No Story Lost do?

Interestingly, we produce a product that has elements of all three!

Like memoir, we capture feelings of our storytellers and reflect on their emotions.

Like autobiography, the books are usually comprehensive and accurate, and told by the person in the book – our storyteller! Our books are usually written in the first person.

Like a biography, there’s some writing done by a third party.

One thing to note, though, is our product is not a ghost-written memoir. We don’t re-write, interpret, or add narrative. The words in the book are the words of our storyteller – though we'll tidy up errors, pauses, and repetition so that the book reads beautifully.

Click here to learn more about our life story projects.



Definition of biography: an account of someone's life written by someone else.

Definition of autobiography: an account of a person's life written by that person.

Definition of memoir: an autobiography or a written account of one's memory of certain events or people.


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Photo of typewriter - credit to Suzy Hazelwood

Autobiography vs biography

Memoir picture Courtesy of Suzy Hazelwood

Memoir vs Autobiography

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