Memoir vs autobiography: Key similarities and differences

Memoir vs autobiography — while both genres share similarities, memoirs and autobiographies, as non-fiction works, have some key differences in focus, scope and intent. Memoirs often focus on specific themes or periods of an individual’s life, providing a personal and intimate perspective, while autobiographies aim to present a comprehensive and objective account of an individual’s entire life.
This article will explore the similarities and differences between memoirs and autobiographies, with examples of best-selling works from each genre. Moreover, it will discuss how to prepare a memoir or autobiography manuscript for publication.

What is a memoir?

A memoir is a literary genre that involves an author’s reminiscences, experiences and reflections on specific aspects of their own life. Unlike an autobiography, which typically covers an entire life, a memoir often focuses on a particular period, theme or series of events. Memoirs are subjective and are written in the first person, providing readers with a personal and intimate perspective on the author’s thoughts, emotions and experiences. The goal of a memoir is to share the author’s unique insights and reflections. This way, memoirs create a narrative that resonates with readers on a personal and emotional level.

5 examples of bestselling memoirs

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama is the former First Lady’s introspective reflection on her values and experiences, offering an inspiring narrative.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah humorously explores Noah’s upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa, navigating racial complexities with insight.
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles Gilbert’s year-long journey across Italy, India and Indonesia, exploring self-discovery, spirituality and love.
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai details Yousafzai’s courageous advocacy for girls’ education in Pakistan and surviving a Taliban attack.
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a touching and philosophical memoir by a neurosurgeon facing a terminal illness, exploring the meaning of life, death and purpose.
In the comparison of memoir vs autobiography, "I Am Malala" by Malala Yousafzai illustrates the essence of a memoir.
In the comparison of memoir vs autobiography, "Becoming" by Michelle Obama illustrates the essence of a memoir.

What is an autobiography?

An autobiography is a literary work that provides a comprehensive and chronological account of a person’s entire life, written by the individual themselves. Autobiographies typically cover aspects such as childhood, education, career, relationships and significant life events. Unlike memoirs, which often focus on specific themes or periods, autobiographies aim to present a complete and exhaustive overview of the author’s life. Autobiographies are written in the first person and offer a detailed narrative of the author’s experiences and personal growth throughout their life. They provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of the author’s life journey, achievements and challenges.

5 examples of bestselling autobiographies

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou explores the poet’s early life, struggles and triumphs.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony exposes the wild tales of the culinary industry: from his lowly position as a dishwasher to cooking at some of the finest restaurants in the world, Bourdain tells it all.
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela is an inspiring journey from anti-apartheid activist to South Africa’s first black president.
  • My Life So Far by Jane Fonda chronicles the actor’s life in Hollywood, activism and personal growth.
  • Spare by Prince Harry exposes the experiences of the royal life in the public eye, including trauma and mental health struggles.
In the comparison of memoir vs autobiography, "My Life So Far" by Jane Fonda illustrates the essence of an autobiography.

Memoir vs autobiography: Similarities

Memoirs and autobiographies share several similarities, as they are both forms of non-fiction writing that focus on an individual’s life experiences. Here are some commonalities between memoirs and autobiographies:

  • First-person perspective: Both memoirs and autobiographies are typically written in the first person, allowing the author to directly share their thoughts, feelings and experiences.
  • Personal reflection: Both genres involve introspection and reflection on the author’s life, providing insights into their emotions and personal growth.
  • True events: Both memoirs and autobiographies are based on real-life events and experiences, aiming to convey an account of the author’s life.
  • Subjective nature: Both genres can be subjective, as they are influenced by the author’s interpretation of events and memories.
  • Structure: While autobiographies traditionally follow a chronological structure covering the entirety of a person’s life, memoirs can also adopt a chronological approach or focus on specific themes, periods or events within the author’s life.
  • Intimate tone: Both genres often use an intimate and personal tone to connect with the reader emotionally, creating a sense of shared experience.

Despite these similarities, there are some key differences between memoirs vs autobiographies. Autobiographies aim to provide a comprehensive overview of an individual’s entire life. In contrast, memoirs often focus on specific aspects or periods, offering a more selective and thematic exploration of the author’s experiences.

Memoir vs autobiography: Differences

While memoirs and autobiographies share similarities, key differences exist in focus, scope and intent. Here are some distinctions between memoirs and autobiographies:


  • Autobiography: Autobiographies cover an individual’s entire life, from childhood to the present, providing a comprehensive and chronological account.
  • Memoir: Memoirs are more selective, focusing on specific themes, periods or experiences within the author’s life rather than providing a complete life story.


  • Autobiography: The primary goal of an autobiography is to present a detailed and objective account of the author’s life, often aiming for a broader audience.
  • Memoir: Memoirs are often more subjective, with a focus on the author’s personal interpretation of events, emotions and reflections. They may also be written with a specific audience or purpose in mind.


  • Autobiography: Autobiographies typically follow a chronological structure, organising events in the order they occurred in the author’s life.
  • Memoir: Memoirs may adopt a chronological approach, but they often have a more flexible structure, allowing for thematic organisation or a focus on specific events.


  • Autobiography: Autobiographies often maintain a more formal and objective writing style, aiming to present a factual account of the author’s life.
  • Memoir: Memoirs may have a more personal and conversational tone, allowing for a deeper exploration of the author’s emotions and reflections.

In summary, while both memoirs and autobiographies involve personal storytelling, autobiographies provide a comprehensive life story. In contrast, memoirs offer a more focused and subjective exploration of specific aspects of an individual’s experiences.

Memoir vs autobiography: How to choose which one to write?

Choosing between writing a memoir or an autobiography depends on various factors, including your goals, the scope of your story and your intended audience. Here are some considerations to help you decide which is best for your personal narrative:

  • Scope: If you want to cover your entire life and provide a comprehensive overview, an autobiography might be more suitable. If you have specific themes, events or periods in your life that you want to explore in-depth, a memoir allows for a more focused approach.
  • Audience: Consider your target audience. Autobiographies are often written for a broader readership interested in the author’s life as a whole. If you have a specific niche audience in mind, such as those interested in a particular theme, profession or life experience, a memoir may better cater to their interests.
  • Purpose: Consider the purpose of your writing. If you want to share your life story for posterity or to offer a comprehensive account of your experiences, an autobiography may be the right choice. On the other hand, if your goal is to explore and communicate specific themes, life lessons or personal growth, a memoir allows for a more targeted approach.
  • Timeline: Autobiographies follow a chronological structure, presenting events in the order in which they occurred in your life. Memoirs allow for more flexibility in organising events thematically, which can be beneficial if you want to emphasise specific aspects or periods of your life.
  • Length and detail: Autobiographies may be longer and more detailed due to the comprehensive nature of covering an entire life. In turn, memoirs can be more concise and focused, allowing for a deeper exploration of specific aspects.

Memoir vs autobiography: How to prepare the manuscript for publishing?

Preparing a memoir or autobiography manuscript for publishing involves several key steps, including writing, revising and editing. Here is a guide that includes considerations for book publishing services:


Review and revise your manuscript on your own first. Look for consistency in tone, style and pacing. Check for grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. Make sure your narrative flows smoothly.

Beta reading

Share your manuscript with beta readers — trusted individuals who can provide constructive feedback. They can offer insights into how your story resonates with readers and identify areas that may need improvement.

Professional editing services

Consider hiring professional editing services to ensure the highest quality of your manuscript. There are different types of editing, and you may benefit from a combination:

  • Developmental editing: Focuses on the overall structure, pacing and narrative flow.
  • Copyediting: Addresses grammar, spelling and consistency in style.
  • Line editing: Examines sentence-level issues, including clarity and conciseness.
  • Proofreading: A final check for typos and minor errors.

Title and cover design

Choose a compelling and relevant title for your memoir or autobiography. Moreover, consider hiring a professional designer to create an eye-catching cover reflecting your story.

Query letter or book proposal

If you plan to traditionally publish, prepare a query letter or book proposal. This document introduces your work to literary agents or publishers. In addition, it includes a synopsis, author bio and information about your target audience.

Research publishing options

Decide whether you want to pursue traditional publishing through literary agents and publishing houses or opt for self-publishing. Research potential literary agents or publishers that align with your book.

Self-publishing considerations

If self-publishing, research self-publishing platforms, such as Amazon KDP, Lulu or other reputable services.

ISBN and copyright

Obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) for your book. To protect your intellectual property, consider securing copyright for your work.

Remember that the publishing process can be complex, and seeking guidance from professionals can significantly enhance your chances of success. Each author’s journey is unique, so tailor these steps to your specific goals and preferences.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, memoirs and autobiographies are both non-fiction genres that offer readers unique insights into an individual’s life experiences. While memoirs tend to focus on specific themes or periods, offering a personal and intimate perspective, autobiographies aim to provide a comprehensive and objective account of an individual’s entire life.

Despite these differences, both genres share similarities in their use of a first-person perspective, personal reflection, true events, subjective nature, structure and intimate tone.

By exploring the similarities and differences between memoirs and autobiographies, you can gain a better understanding of the power of personal storytelling and the ways in which it can connect you with the readers on a deep and emotional level. Contact me for a free sample edit of your manuscript (and remember to use my early bird discount). I am an experienced editor working with non-fiction, academic and business texts. I can help prepare your text for publication, from a big-picture analysis through bringing to the fore your authorial voice to ensuring the correctness and consistency of the language.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).