memoir vs autobiography

You’ve decided to write about your life. You’ve probably already picked your reasons and main areas of interest, but one question still remains…

Are you going to write an autobiography or a memoir? And what’s the difference between them?

Well, get ready to learn the ins and outs of the memoir vs. autobiography mystery once and for all.

In this article, we’ll discuss all the various aspects that help distinguish between the two genres. The main goal here is to help you find your answer to the primary question: which one is right for you?

Memoir vs. Autobiography: How to Tell Them Apart

The terms memoir and autobiography are sometimes used interchangeably, however, there are actually some vital differences between them.

While both genres revolve around the life of the author (this is where autobiographies differ from biographies, for instance), the style, tone, focus, and purpose can be very distinct from one another.

Difference #1: Focus

An autobiography typically spans the entirety of the author’s lifetime up until the point of writing.

This is why autobiographies are often written by celebrities, politicians, or experts in their field – an autobiography is an excellent way to let the readers in on everything that’s led the person of interest to be where they are now.

A memoir, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily encompass an author’s whole life. In fact, many memoirs focus on a specific time period, theme, or event.

For example, American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood by Marie Arana is a memoir whose main focus is on bilingualism and multiculturalism while Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is about his writing journey and success.

RELATED READ: Creative Non-fiction: What is it?

Difference #2: Perspective

Since an autobiography typically serves to inform the readership about one’s life and establish a closer connection with them, most autobiographies use first-person narration (“I went, I said”). In other words, the author speaks directly to the reader.

Memoirs enjoy a bit more artistic freedom – they can be written from both first-person and third-person point of view, and what’s more, it’s also possible to shift between perspectives of different characters.

This may seem strange – a memoir is supposed to be non-fiction, after all – but some memoirs actually toe the line between non-fiction and fiction because they primarily focus on subjective perception and emotions while autobiographies strive to be objective.

Difference #3: Tone and Style

Another great way to solve the memoir vs. autobiography riddle is to have a look at tone and style.

The ground rules are thus:

  • Autobiographies lean towards formal and chronological style with factual language (this is why they can be used as credible sources of information by academics)
  • Memoirs tend to be more creative and flexible because they recount a true event or time period from a subjective point of view, which means an author may look at their life through an emotionally-colored lens (this is why they aren’t fact-checked and aren’t necessarily viewed as 100% objectively correct)

Difference #4: Purpose

Finally, the last important difference between a memoir and an autobiography is the reason why you’re writing your book.

Since an autobiography provides a comprehensive picture of one’s life and achievements, its primary purpose is to share and cement an author’s legacy.

A memoir, on the other hand, is more about a deeper theme or lesson that was learned through personal experience. In other words, a memoir is less about the author’s credentials or status and more about a specific experience they went through.

RELATED READ: 4 Writing Strategies That Will Make You a Better Writer

Memoir vs. Autobiography: Finding Your Voice

Now that we’ve gone over the four primary differences between a memoir and an autobiography, it’s time to ask yourself these questions:

  • Would you like to write about your whole life or are you looking to explore a specific theme (your career, friendships, family, a specific event from your past, etc.)?
  • Do you want to focus on emotion, subjective perspective, and artistic expression, or would you rather be as objective as possible?
  • Are you writing your book in order to leave behind information about your life and establish a legacy, or is it to explore a specific theme or experience?

Your answers to these questions should help you determine which genre is right for you.


Before you go, here’s one last piece of advice: take everything we’ve just covered with a grain of salt. After all, writing is an artistic craft, and genre-bending is more than welcome.

While the guidelines above can help you distinguish between the two genres and find the right voice for your book, don’t forget that the way you tell your story is ultimately up to you.

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