Memoir vs. Autobiography: What’s the Difference?

Doug Landsborough
February 12, 2024

They say everyone has a story to tell, and I absolutely believe that. But some folks have a story to tell about their own lives. They’ve experienced things and learned lessons that are worth sharing with other people.

That’s pretty freaking cool.

When you want to tell a personal narrative, you have a few options: a blog, a YouTube channel, even a diary. But if you want to turn it into a book, you have two options to consider:

A memoir or an autobiography.

While these two genres might seem similar, there are quite a number of meaningful differences you must know if you want to be successful in either—or if you just want to figure out what you’re going to write.

We’ll cover all that and more in this article. “And more” includes a history of these genres, tips for each, how to choose between memoir and autobiography writing, and pulling everything together.

You have that story to tell, so let’s figure out how to do it.

Defining Your Life Story: Memoirs and Autobiographies

Understanding the distinction between a memoir and an autobiography is a must for any writer venturing into personal narrative writing. 

While both genres share the common element of being based on the author's life experiences, the scope and focus of each are quite different.

Memoirs are a form of creative nonfiction where the writer shares specific experiences or periods from their life. These works are less about the chronology of the author's life and more about personal reflections, emotions, and insights. 

Memoirs often include a focus on specific themes or events, allowing the author to delve deeply into their experiences with a reflective and often emotional lens, and are written more like a fictional story than nonfiction.

Autobiographies, on the other hand, provide a more comprehensive view of the author's life. They typically follow a chronological format, documenting the author's life from early childhood to the present. 

Autobiographies are characterized by their detailed recounting of life events to encompass personal, professional, and sometimes public aspects of the author’s journey. The autobiography format emphasizes factual storytelling.

Memoir readers aren’t looking for a play-by-play of your life. They’re after the deeper meaning and themes behind your experiences and are more okay with stylistic choices and some interpretation of events.

Folks reading autobiographies are all about knowing what you did and why.

The History of Writing About A Person’s Life

While they’re both staples in modern literature, these genres have roots deeply embedded in history.

Which means as people, we like talking about ourselves.

That’s not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong; we all lead extraordinary, unique lives and have important things to share. And share we have.

Understanding how memoirs and autobiographies have been used historically can help us understand their current forms, too.

Memoirs have transformed quite a bit over time. Originating from the ancient practice of documenting noteworthy events (with that grandiose, fictional spin), they evolved during the Renaissance as a way for individuals to share their experiences and perspectives, often focusing on public life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, memoirs became more personal, reflecting individual experiences and internal landscapes. This evolution paved the way for the modern memoir, which often blurs the lines between factual recounting and creative storytelling. Honestly, this works best for readers seeking emotional truth and personal growth.

Autobiographies have a lineage that can be traced back to religious and political leaders documenting their lives as a record of moral and ethical standards. You know, bragging about how good they are.

In the 18th century, with the rise of literacy and individualism, autobiographies became a tool for self-expression and identity exploration. This genre gained momentum in the 20th century, with notable figures from various fields chronicling their journeys, making it a popular way for exploring the complexities of human experience.

Both styles of work have been instrumental in our understanding of the past, too. Even memoirs, with their emphasis on storytelling, give us a glimpse into the lives of individuals and societies as a whole.

Writing a Memoir: Tips and Techniques

Diving into memoir writing can be equal parts thrilling and terrifying. It's not just about recounting events; it's about turning your experiences into a story that vibes with readers. 

Here are some tips and techniques to guide you:

  • Find your focus - Unlike autobiographies, memoirs don't require you to detail your entire life. Pinpoint a specific theme, event, or period that holds significant meaning. This focus will be the heart of your memoir.
  • Embrace emotional honesty - Memoirs thrive on emotional depth. Be honest about your feelings and experiences. This authenticity is what will connect with your readers.
  • Show, don't just tell - Universally solid writing advice. Use descriptive language and sensory details to bring your story to life. Paint pictures with your words to immerse the reader in your world. Need some practice? Check out these worksheets.
  • Incorporate reflective elements - A memoir is more than a series of events. It's an introspective journey. Reflect on your experiences, what you learned, and how they shaped you. This is what your readers are here for.
  • Consider a non-linear structure - While some memoirs follow a chronological order, feel free to experiment with the structure. A non-linear approach can add intrigue and highlight how past events influence the present. Make sure to get lots of beta reader feedback to make sure your story still makes sense.
  • Get personal, but stay relatable - While your memoir is deeply personal, aim to connect your experiences to universal themes. This relatability makes your story more impactful. Here’s a complete guide for writing themes.
  • Revise with care - Memoirs often blend fact and narrative flair. In your revisions, balance creativity with accuracy. Remember, the essence of your truth is what matters most, so don’t let it get lost in your fictionalization.

Memoir writing is not just about telling your story; it's about sharing your perspective on life, with all its complexities and nuances. Each memoir is a unique window into a life, offering insights and reflections that no other story can.

My pal Abi has a great guide to writing memoirs you should bookmark if this is something you’re serious about.

Crafting an Autobiography: Structure and Elements

Writing an autobiography involves a different set of considerations compared to memoirs. It's about presenting the entirety of your life's journey with clarity and structure. 

Here are key elements and structural ideas to consider:

  • Outline the chronology - Autobiographies typically follow a chronological order, leading your reader through your life's journey. Map out the key events from your early years to the present, creating a timeline that serves as your narrative backbone.
  • Detail significant events - Highlight the pivotal moments in your life, both personal and professional. These events should not only tell what happened but also detail their impact and the lessons you learned from them.
  • Develop a consistent theme - While covering all the cool stuff you’ve done (or things you’ve endured), maintain a consistent theme or message throughout your autobiography. This theme makes the whole story worth reading.
  • Incorporate character development - Show how you evolved over time. This character arc is crucial in autobiographies because it shows how experiences shaped your personality, beliefs, and decisions.
  • Be factual, yet engaging - Autobiographies require factual accuracy, but that doesn't mean they should be dry. Use engaging storytelling techniques to bring your experiences to life, making your narrative both informative and captivating. Here’s an article to help you focus on your prose.
  • Include supporting characters - Your life's story is also about the people who influenced you. Include these characters, describing their roles and the dynamics in your relationships with them. An autobiography is still a story, and supporting characters make stories great.
  • Reflect on your journey - Offer reflections on your experiences, providing insights into how they influenced your current perspective. This reflective angle adds depth to the factual recounting of events and should be directly tied to your themes.
  • Edit for coherence and clarity - Ensure that your autobiography is not just a collection of events but a cohesive tale. In editing, focus on clarity, coherence, and the overall flow of your story.

Crafting an autobiography is an opportunity to not only share your life story but also to reflect on the journey and its broader implications. It's a chance to offer a detailed, introspective look at the milestones that have defined you.

Which, admittedly, sounds intimidating, but putting in the effort can result in a book that changes both your life and a reader’s.

Choosing Your Approach to Creative Nonfiction

When it comes to sharing your life story, deciding between a memoir and an autobiography isn’t always an easy decision. This choice influences not only the structure and focus of your work but also how your readers will connect with your story. 

Here are some considerations to help you decide:

Understand your objective - Consider what you wish to achieve with your book. Are you looking to explore a particular aspect of your life with emotional depth (memoir) or do you intend to provide a comprehensive account of your life’s journey (autobiography)?

Assess your content - Reflect on the events and experiences you want to share. A memoir suits a more focused, thematic exploration, while an autobiography is ideal for a broader, chronological recounting.

Consider your audience - Think about who you're writing for. Memoir readers choose their books because they’re interested in the theme, topic, or story rather than the person. Autobiography readers tend to make purchases based on who they’re reading about. If you don’t have some fame or following, an autobiography might be a hard sell.

Reflect on your writing style - Your natural writing style can also guide your choice. If you lean towards reflective, emotive storytelling, a memoir might be your forté. If you're more comfortable with factual, chronological narratives, consider an autobiography.

Flexibility vs. structure - Memoirs offer more creative flexibility in structure and storytelling, allowing for a more literary approach. Autobiographies, being more factual and chronological, require a structured approach to storytelling.

Personal comfort - Consider your comfort level with vulnerability and personal disclosure. Memoirs require a deeper dive into personal experiences and emotions. Autobiographies, while personal, can let you use a more observational tone.

Remember, the choice between a memoir and an autobiography is not just about the story you want to tell but about how you want to tell that story. Your decision will shape both the way you write your story and how your readers interpret it.

Best Practices for Personal Narrative Writing

Whether you choose to write a memoir or an autobiography, certain best practices can enhance your storytelling and connect more deeply with your readers. 

First, stay authentic. Authenticity is the cornerstone of personal narrative writing. Your readers are seeking truth in your story, even if it's presented through a subjective lens. Be genuine in your recounting, and don't shy away from your unique voice.

You also want to engage your readers emotionally. Whether it's through humor, sorrow, inspiration, or reflection, emotional resonance makes your story memorable and impactful. One of the best ways to suck them in is to use descriptive language to create vivid scenes and characters. This immerses the reader in your world, making your experiences and memories come alive.

Remember, these are both still stories and thus have a cohesive plot. Ensure your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Even if you choose a non-linear structure, maintaining a coherent narrative flow is essential for keeping your readers engaged. If you need some help with story structure, you know we have your back with this guide.

Dialogue can be a powerful tool in personal narratives. It brings dynamism to the story and offers insights into characters and relationships. Don’t neglect good dialogue just because you aren’t writing fiction.

Personal narratives aren’t just about what happened; they’re about what those events mean. Include your reflections and analysis to provide depth and context to your experiences, but do it in a way that flows and feels natural. This is obviously more important in memoirs, but your autobiography needs to have reflection, too.

Finally, when writing about real people and events, consider the implications of sharing private information. Respect the privacy of others and navigate sensitive topics with care.

Personal narrative writing is a journey of exploration, both for you as a writer and for your readers. By incorporating these best practices, you can create a story that’s not only engaging and informative but also profoundly moving.

And that’s the whole point.

Reflective Writing and Authorial Perspective in Personal Narratives

The heart of a compelling personal story, be it a memoir or an autobiography, lies in its reflective writing and your authorial perspective. These are the elements that make memoirs and autobiographies unique from other genres. And it’s what our readers are looking for. 

Here are five final tips to make best use of these elements:

Embrace reflective writing - Reflective writing involves looking back at your experiences and analyzing their impact. It's about understanding the why behind the what. This critical thinking transforms your writing from a simple plot into a journey of personal growth and understanding.

Cultivate a strong authorial voice - While an author’s voice is always important, it does extra work with these genres. It conveys your unique perspective and personality. A strong, consistent voice helps readers connect with your story on a deeper level. And, if you need help refining or developing your voice and tone, click here.

Integrate insights and learnings - Your story should offer insights and learnings, not just for yourself but also for your readers. Share the wisdom gained from your trials and adventures. Turn your personal journey into a relatable, universal tale of human experience.

Use reflection to drive the narrative - Let your reflections and insights drive the plot forward. Your personal growth is just as important in these stories as a fictional character’s arc is in a fantasy epic or hockey romcom. What you learn and realize should push the plot.

Engage the reader with thoughtful questions - Sometimes, posing questions can be more powerful than providing answers. Use reflective questions to engage your readers and prompt them to think about their own experiences and perspectives.

Memoirs and Autobiographies are Still Stories

I know I’ve said this a bunch of times already, but this is something you need to permanently imprint in your writing brain: both memoirs and autobiographies rely on the same core elements as any other story.

It doesn’t matter that they’re based on real life. You still need to understand plot, character development, themes, settings, conflicts, metaphors, point of view, writing habits, and so much more. Then you need to layer everything we’ve discussed here on top of that.

I mentioned equal parts thrilling and terrifying before, right?

Don’t worry, though, because we’ve got you covered. I’ve already given you a bunch of links to relevant guides in this article, but you’ll find hundreds—yes, I’m talking triple digits!—for free over at DabbleU.

And speaking of free, you can click here to get a 100+ page e-book to help you go from idea to finished draft, also for zero dollars and zero cents. Now the only thing left to do is tell your life’s story.

Thrilling. Terrifying. Pretty dang cool.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.