Memoir vs. Autobiography: What’s the Difference?

28 Feb 2023 Nonfiction

You may have heard the terms memoir and autobiography used interchangeably. They often live on the same shelf in bookstores.

Both are nonfiction and contain facts from someone’s life, so what’s the difference?

Let me walk you through the differences so you can be confident which you should be writing.

What Memoir and Autobiography Have in Common

Both genres fall under the category called Creative Nonfiction,  a term that can be also applied to biography, travel writing, personal essays, interviews, blogs, and more.

Unlike pure academic, technical, and straight journalistic writing, creative nonfiction uses fiction writing techniques to tell a compelling true story.

The goal is the same as in fiction: a story well told.

It’s important you identify your specific genre so you know its conventions and expectations.

You should read dozens of books in your genre so you can pitch and market yours effectively.

Knowing the differences between memoir and autobiography can improve your chances of getting agents and publishers to pursue your manuscript.

The Major Difference Between  Memoir and Autobiography

While an autobiography would cover your entire life from birth to the present, a memoir would be theme-oriented, using carefully selected stories from your life, designed with the reader in mind.

In that sense, while it still contains your experiences, in the end, it’s really about the readers. They should be able to see themselves in your transferable principles and universal truths.

You’re saying, in essence, this is who I was, this is who I am now, and here’s how that happened.

Their life experiences, whatever they’re going through, should appear manageable because of how you came through yours.

Too many authors write a memoir because they believe their lives are so interesting that even strangers would enjoy a detailed account.

But unless you’re a celebrity, most people beyond your family and close friends aren’t likely to care.

They care about themselves and how your personal story might somehow benefit them.

Memoir Examples:

  1. All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (my favorite book ever)
  2. Will the Circle Be Unbroken? by Sean Dietrich
  3. Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey

Write a Memoir If…

Your theme-oriented story educates, entertains, and emotionally moves readers.

Select anecdotes from your life that show how you progressed from where you were to where you are today.

That way, as I said, while it’s about you, it’s primarily for the benefit of the reader.

Maybe you’re:

  • From the other side of the tracks
  • From a broken home
  • A victim of abuse
  • A recovered addict
  • An orphan
  • Suffered a major loss
  • Survived a debilitating injury or illness

Yet you have found:

  • Financial security
  • Acceptance
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Faith

Start with how bad things once were for you and how unlikely it was that you would escape your situation.

Then recount pivotal experiences and encounters with people important to your transformation, what you learned, and how your life changed.

Naturally, the better your stories and the more significant that change (in fiction, we call this a character arc), the more effective your memoir will be.

However, remember that you, your life specifically, is not really the point. It’s about you, of course, but…

The point is reader takeaway.

While readers are likely enduring something entirely different from what you did, your story gives them hope.

For example, I can read the memoir of someone of my opposite gender, for whom English is not her first language, of a different race and religion, who lives halfway around the world from me — but if she writes of her love for her spouse, sibling, child, or grandchild, it reaches me.

Relating to nothing else about her, I understand the love of family. That’s reader takeaway.

How to Write a Memoir 

1. Settle On Your Theme

A reader of your memoir wonders, What’s in this for me? 

The implied theme must be, “You’re not alone. If I can overcome this, you can overcome anything.”

But avoid being preachy and applying your point to readers. Give them credit by using what I call the Come Alongside Method.

Show what happened to you and what you learned. If the shoe fits, they’ll wear it.

Trust your narrative, your stories well told, to convey your message and make your point.

2. Select Anecdotes

If the best memoirs let readers see themselves in your story so they can identify and apply to their own lives the lessons you learned, feature anecdotes from your life that support your theme, regardless how painful it is to resurrect the memories.

The more introspective and vulnerable you are, the more effective your memoir will be.

3. Outline Your Book

While perhaps half of all novelists write by the seat of their pants, without an outline, you can’t get away with that in nonfiction.

Potential agents or publishers require a synopsis in your proposal of where you’re going — and they also need to know that you know.

4. Structure It Like a Novel

It’s as important in a memoir as it is in a novel to show and not just tell.

Use every tool in the novelist’s arsenal to make each anecdote come to life: dialogue, description, conflict, tension, pacing, everything.

These will make sure you grab your readers’ attention and keep it — because these tools ensure that they’ll become engrossed in your story.

A suggestion that changed the course of my writing career came from mega bestselling novelist Dean Koontz, in his classic How to Write Bestselling Fiction, spelled out what he calls the Classic Story Structure.

Fortunately for you and me, Koontz’s suggested structure beautifully serves a memoir too.

Here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible
  2. Everything he does to try to get out of it makes it only progressively worse until…
  3. His situation appears hopeless
  4. But in the end, because of what he’s learned and how he’s grown through all those setbacks, he rises to the challenge and wins the day.

For your memoir, naturally, you’re the main character. The backstory can emerge as you progress, but you’ll find his structure and sequencing will make for the most compelling read.

Take the reader with you to your lowest point, and show what you did to try to remedy things.

5. Avoid Throwing People Under the Bus

If you’re brave enough to expose your own weaknesses, foibles, embarrassments, and yes, even your failures to the world, what about your friends, enemies, loved ones, teachers, bosses, and coworkers?

Changing names to protect identities is not enough. Too many people in your family and social orbit will know the person, making your writing legally actionable.

Change the location. Change the year. Change their gender. You could even change the offense.

Need more guidance? Click here to read my How to Write a Memoir blog post.

What is an Autobiography?

The word itself can be broken into its three Greek root words: “auto,” meaning self; “bio,” meaning life; and “graph,” meaning write.

So, an autobiography is a biography written by the subject from the author’s perspective.

Autobiographies are often written by famous people, but not always. Sometimes an autobiography will result in someone becoming famous.

Two common structures for autobiographies:

Chronological, like this:

  • Foundation: childhood experiences, family members, community, home life, school, friendships, family traditions
  • Adversity: pivotal moments that lead to life achievements
  • Conclusion: lessons learned after overcoming adversity

A “hero’s journey”:

  • Adversity: a pivotal moment that served as a catalyst for the life one leads today
  • Foundation: childhood experiences, family traditions, community, school, friendship, and home life
  • Conclusion: how one overcame adversity and the lessons they learned

Autobiography Examples

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca

When to Write Your Autobiography 

First, you don’t need to be famous.

As with a memoir, if your story carries a message with transferable principles or universal truth that will benefit readers, it’s worth writing.

You should write an autobiography if…

  • Significant life experiences shaped your worldview and your approach to life, resulting in major changes in your character
  • You encountered setbacks and obstacles along your journey that made you who you are today

How to Write an Autobiography

1. Set a hook

Right from the title, grab your reader by the throat, and don’t let go.

2. Conduct your research

Don’t rely on only your memory. Verify your facts.

3. Outline

Publishers require this for nonfiction book proposals.

4. Use the “Come alongside method”

Envision  your reader as a friend, not a target, and approach them as a fellow struggler looking for answers

Memoir vs. Autobiography? Which is Best for You?

Basic questions can help you decide.

Will your message best be delivered through a theme-oriented telling of selected stories from your life? Lean toward a memoir.

If your life story would better communicate, lean toward an autobiography.

Want more writer training?  Click here to take a brief, free writing assessment.