Memoir vs. Autobiography: How Will You Tell Your Life Story?

Abi Wurdeman
May 15, 2024

So you’ve got a personal story to tell. 

Maybe it’s a tale you’d like to share with the whole world. Maybe you want to record it for the sake of your children and grandchildren. Or maybe you have no idea what your ultimate writing goal is—you only know this story is going to keep burning within you until you find a way to express it.

Whatever your situation is, before you can write the story of your life, you have to clarify one very important question.

Is this a memoir or an autobiography?

Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they represent two distinct approaches to personal storytelling. They emphasize different aspects of your life experiences, attract different types of readers, and even manage facts in different ways.

You’re about to learn what separates a memoir from an autobiography, where they overlap, and how to choose the best approach for your story. You’ll even get a few tips on writing about your life, whichever genre you choose.

 Let’s start with some quick and easy definitions.

Defining Memoir and Autobiography

Both memoirs and autobiographies are personal accounts of the author’s life experiences. 

An autobiography is a first-person account that guides the reader through the author’s entire life story. Autobiographies tend to start in early childhood and cover key events over the course of the author’s existence on this Earth (so far).

A memoir focuses on a specific event, topic, or theme in the author’s life. It’s still a first-person story told in the writer’s voice and perspective. But the purpose of a memoir is to reflect on an idea, not provide an overview of someone’s life.

That’s the primary difference between the two storytelling approaches. Naturally, that one big distinction creates additional differences in the way these personal stories are typically written.

So let’s go ahead and dig a little deeper.

Key Differences

Overhead view of two feet standing in the grass, one wearing a blue shoe and the other wearing a yellow shoe.

Memoirs fall under the heading of “creative nonfiction.” That means they’re stories grounded in truth but with a heavy emphasis on the author’s feelings, opinions, and overall perspective.

These stories are not restricted by expectations of objectivity and indisputable accuracy. While you can’t lie about the major events of your life and call it a memoir, you can allow your bias to shape the way you describe scenes, actions, and conversations.

Honestly, autobiographies should come with a little bias built in, too. They’re also written in the author’s own voice and perspective, after all. 

Nevertheless, readers reach for an autobiography because they’re curious about the facts of a specific person’s life. What was their childhood like? How did they get started on their career path? What choices led to their inevitable success?

In short, memoirs are for thoughts and feelings, while autobiographies are for facts and (in many cases) a more intimate glimpse at a famous person’s life.

Here’s how that manifests in the writing of these two genres:

Narrative Scope

Whether you write a memoir or an autobiography, you’re going to have to tell a story. There’s a protagonist (you) who faces unexpected challenges in pursuit of a goal and changes because of it.

Now, in a memoir, your narrative scope will be pretty narrow, focusing on one aspect of your life.

If it’s a memoir about grief, you’ll only share personal experiences that relate to your journey through grief. Same deal if you’re writing about the year you worked as a volunteer firefighter or why you became vegan or what it was like being raised by professional mimes.

In an autobiography, the story is your life. Like, the whole entire thing. You’re sharing the journey of how you became you.

Handling the Facts

In a memoir, emotional truth reigns supreme. 

Now, that doesn’t mean facts don’t matter or that the author is free to alter significant details to manipulate an audience into seeing things their way. 

It simply means that when you write about getting a puppy for your tenth birthday, you can describe the rays of sunlight filtering through the olive curtains and how your mouth was numb from strawberry ice cream even if you can’t pin those childhood memories to that specific day.

You could give your mom a line of dialogue that’s a rough approximation of what you remember her saying.

As long as you don’t risk slandering someone, you don’t have to hold back on writing an emotionally resonant scene just because you’re not 100% certain about the facts.

This applies to an autobiography, too, but to a lesser extent. You can still write about the sunlight coming through the curtains, but you might want to be careful about actions and dialogue. 

Readers turn to autobiographies when they want to find out “what really happened.” They’re far more likely than memoir readers to assume that your autobiography would pass rigorous fact-checking.

Exploring Themes

A hand holds a photo of a vintage van up to an antique display box alongside three other travel-themed pictures.

Every story needs a theme. But while memoirs dive deep into their themes, swimming a hundred feet down and plucking treasures off the theme floor, autobiographies just sort of splash their feet in every now and then to remind the audience that this book is “about” something.

Also, because autobiographies tell the story of the author’s entire life, their themes tend to be a bit simpler. In this genre, you often see high-level themes like “hard work is the secret to success” or “what matters most are the friendships we make along the way.”

Meanwhile, a memoir about growing up in the foster care system will likely have a lot to say about family, belonging, identity, privilege, childhood, and the system as a whole. 

Literary Techniques

At this point, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that you’re more likely to see experimental and “literary” writing in memoirs. 

While plenty of memoirs lay out the story in chronological order, many others use flashbacks, foreshadowing, and alternating timelines.

In fact, memoirists use most of the same narrative tools fiction authors use. They think in terms of character arc, theme, and central conflict. And they use literary devices to craft emotionally compelling scenes.

Once again, you’ll see the same thing in autobiographies but to a lesser extent. A great autobiographer will still paint a vivid scene using literary devices and the principle of “show, don’t tell.”

But they’ll ultimately prioritize facts and clarity over artful prose. And they almost always lay out the narrative in chronological order.


A hand holds a magnet depicting a row of buildings up in front of the actual buildings the image is based on.

Hopefully, the difference between memoirs and autobiographies is becoming clearer. 

Even so, it’s important to note that while these two approaches vary from one another in many ways, they both focus on telling a true story. Authenticity is key, whether you’re walking readers through a chronological account of your entire life or reflecting on a profound and personal theme.

Here are a couple other qualities these genres share:

Personal Voice and Perspective

Whether you choose to write a memoir or an autobiography, the one thing you don’t want is to sound disconnected from your own life story.

Readers of both genres pick up these books because they want to hear from the person the book is about. You’ve got to give them your distinct voice, point of view, and style.

You can learn how to find your voice here and how to develop your style here.

The Reader-Author Connection

Memoirs tend to be more intimate than autobiographies. Once again, because the author goes deep on one specific topic, their audience gets a close look at the writer’s thoughts, fears, desires, insecurities… all that fun stuff.

That kind of vulnerability helps the reader feel an emotional connection to the author, even if their own lives look very different.

Autobiographies are rarely as intimate as memoirs, but they still invite readers to get to know the author on a more personal level. A well-written autobiography follows a somewhat emotional journey marked by hopes and disappointments, wins and losses.

In other words, it offers plenty of opportunities for readers to empathize with the author. 

Choosing Between Memoir and Autobiography

A person rests their head in one hand and writes in an notebook with the other. An open laptop sits in front of them on a desk.

So now we’re back to the question we started with:

Should you tell the story of your life through a memoir or an autobiography?

We’ll explore a few reasons you might choose each of these options, but first, I want to make sure I’m totally forthright on one important point.

Readers rarely buy autobiographies written by authors they’ve never heard of. No matter how the publisher phrases it in the blurb on the back of the book, an autobiography’s sales pitch really only boils down to one sentence:

“It’s about [Famous Person]’s life.”

Someone will only buy a book about your whole entire life if they were already interested in you. If you don’t have fans yet, you’ll have a really hard time selling a self-published autobiography and a darn-near-impossible time getting a traditional publisher to pick it up.

If you’re not a famous person and your goal is to sell your book, write a memoir.

If those things don’t apply to you, keep reading.

Why You Might Choose Memoir

Let’s start with your Why. Why do you want to write about your life?

If your answer is something like…

  • You want to share your personal experience with a subject that affects others
  • One particular aspect of your life is fascinating or entertaining
  • This could be a good way to reflect on and process a difficult experience
  • You’ve had an epiphany you think could change someone else’s life, too
  • You want to leave behind a story that communicates your inner life to your descendants 
  • You’re not sure; you just really have some stuff you need to express

…you’re probably writing a memoir.

You might also choose the memoir route if you enjoy creative expression over chronicling a tidy series of factual events.

Why You Might Choose Autobiography

Now, if you answered that “Why?” question with something like…

  • You’ve made a name for yourself in a certain industry and think others would be curious to know how you came to be the person you are
  • You want your descendants to know about all the interesting things you’ve done and challenges you’ve overcome
  • You just want to get your life’s journey down on the page so you can reflect on it

…then an autobiography might be more your speed.

This is also a good option for you if you take more joy in preserving the facts than in ruminating on themes.

Memoir Writing Tips

A blank, open journal with an orange flower resting on the right-hand page.

Think you want to write a memoir? You can find a comprehensive guide to memoir writing right here

For now, I’ll offer you a few quick tips.

Choose a clear theme - No matter how fascinating the topic of your memoir is, you need to know what you want to say about that particular subject. You can learn more about what theme is and how to create one in this article.

Approach it like a fiction writer - Remember, you’re not just trying to dump a pile of facts in your readers’ laps. You’re shaping an emotionally resonant story. Apply fiction strategies like character arcs, internal conflict, and literary devices as you craft your memoir. 

Focus on your own growth - It can be tempting to use a memoir as a platform for calling out someone else’s failings, defending your own choices, or explaining why you were right all along. 

But just as with fiction, readers want to see the protagonist grow as they’re forced to confront their own fears and weaknesses. You’re the protagonist in a memoir. That means you gotta keep the focus on your own evolution.

Autobiography Writing Tips

Black and white photographs including a wedding photo and family photo sit on a tabletop beside straw hats.

Opting for an autobiography instead? Here are some quick tips in case you decide to go that route.

Choose your theme - Even though you’re not going to go hardcore on hashing out a theme the way you would if you were writing a memoir, a satisfying autobiography still has something to say.

Take time to look at the journey of your life and see if you see any overarching lessons. Have you learned anything that would make a great theme?

Stick to pivotal moments - Sure, an autobiography is typically a chronological account of your life, but you don’t have to include everything that’s ever happened to you. Select the most formative moments and experiences that relate directly to your theme.

Make it personal - An autobiography might not offer the same intimacy as a memoir, but the entire point of a first-person account is that your audience gets to hear your version of events.

So don’t just stick to the facts. Share your emotions, expectations, reflections, and opinions.  

Final Tip…

The beauty of memoirs and autobiographies is that they allow us to communicate our personal experiences through the medium that’s most likely to elicit empathy and connection: storytelling.

The challenge is that we’ve got way too much material to work with. A literal lifetime of material. We have to pick through all those memories to find the moments, relationships, and revelations that form a coherent story.

It’s a big job.

That’s why I encourage writers to write their memoirs with Dabble. If you’re not familiar, Dabble is a comprehensive writing tool with features to support every step of the process, from brainstorming to revising.

And its famous plotting tool, the Plot Grid, provides a clear visual as you build your memories into a coherent story.

Screenshot of a Plot Grid for a memoir, with columns for scenes, arc, timeline, and backstory.
You can add as many columns as you need and customize the Plot Grid to fit the way you work.

Not a Dabbler already? Click here for a 14-day free trial! That gets you full access to all Dabble’s features so you can decide if it’s right for you. You don’t even have to enter a credit card to get started.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.