Memoir vs biography: Comparison, characteristics, examples

In exploring the distinctions in memoir vs biography, it is crucial to understand the unique characteristics each genre possesses. A memoir is a personal account or narrative that focuses on specific experiences, memories and reflections from the author’s life. It is a subjective and often emotional portrayal of the author’s own story. On the other hand, a biography is a detailed and objective account of someone’s life, typically written by another person. It provides a comprehensive overview of the individual’s life, achievements, challenges and significant events, drawing from various sources and perspectives.

Memoir

Memoirs reflect the author’s experiences and emotions. Here are some key characteristics of memoirs:

  • Subjectivity: Memoirs are inherently subjective, as they are based on the author’s own memories, perceptions, and interpretations of events.
  • Personal voice: They are written in the first person, allowing the author’s voice and perspective to shine through. This creates an intimate connection between the author and the reader.
  • Focus on specific events or themes: Memoirs typically revolve around specific experiences, themes or periods in the author’s life rather than providing a comprehensive overview of their entire life.
  • Emotional depth: Memoirs often delve into the author’s emotions, providing insights into their thoughts, feelings, and personal growth throughout the narrative.
  • Reflective nature: Authors of memoirs often reflect on the significance of their experiences and how they have shaped them as individuals. This introspective quality adds depth to the narrative.
  • Selective memory: Authors may choose to highlight certain memories while omitting others, shaping the narrative according to their own storytelling purposes.
  • Literary style: Memoirs can vary widely in writing style, ranging from straightforward and factual to lyrical and poetic, depending on the author’s preferences and intentions.
  • Themes of identity and self-discovery: Many memoirs explore themes of identity, self-discovery and personal transformation as the author grapples with their past experiences and seeks to make sense of their own journey.

Biography

Biographies, while also recounting the lives of individuals, have distinct characteristics that set them apart in the memoir vs biography comparison. Here are some key characteristics of biographies:

  • Objectivity: Biographies strive for objectivity and are typically written by someone other than the subject. The author aims to present a balanced and impartial account of the person’s life.
  • Third-person perspective: Unlike memoirs, biographies are usually written in the third person, maintaining a certain distance between the author and the subject.
  • Comprehensive coverage: Biographies aim to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject’s entire life, from birth to death, covering various aspects such as personal life, career, achievements and challenges.
  • Research and documentation: Biographers rely on extensive research, often consulting various sources, including interviews, letters, diaries and other historical records, to gather accurate and detailed information.
  • Historical and cultural context: Biographies place the subject within the broader historical and cultural context, providing a nuanced understanding of the influences that shaped their life.
  • Impersonal tone: The tone in biographies tends to be more formal and impersonal compared to the subjective and intimate tone found in memoirs.
  • Chronological structure: Biographies typically follow a chronological structure, presenting events in the order in which they occurred, offering readers a systematic view of the subject’s life.
  • Balanced portrayal: Biographers aim to present a balanced and unbiased portrayal of the subject, including positive and negative aspects, without being overly influenced by personal emotions or opinions.
  • In-depth analysis: Biographies often include in-depth analysis and interpretation of the subject’s actions, decisions and impact, providing readers with a broader understanding of the person’s significance.

Memoir vs biography: Similarities

Both memoirs and biographies share the commonality of being non-fiction genres that explore the lives of real individuals. Here are some similarities:

  • Non-fictional: Both are based on real events and people, providing factual information about the subject’s life.
  • Focus on a person’s life: Both genres center around an individual’s life, showcasing their experiences, achievements and challenges.
  • Personal perspectives: While biographies aim for objectivity, they may include personal perspectives, and memoirs, by nature, are subjective and often reflective of the author’s experiences.
  • Historical context: Both can provide insight into the historical and cultural context of the times in which the person lived.
  • Character development: Both genres involve character development, portraying the growth, changes and key moments in the subject’s life.
  • Human connection: Both seek to establish a connection between the reader and the person being written about, making the subject relatable or intriguing.

While they share these similarities, the main distinction lies in the author’s intent and the degree of subjectivity involved. Memoirs are more personal and subjective, often focusing on specific memories or themes. Biographies aim for a more comprehensive and objective portrayal of an individual’s entire life.

Memoir vs biography: Differences

Memoir vs biography comparison shows several differences, reflecting variations in purpose, scope and perspective:

Author’s perspective

  • Memoir: Authored by the person who experienced the events, providing a subjective and personal viewpoint.
  • Biography: Typically written by someone else, offering a more objective and external perspective.

Scope

  • Memoir: Focuses on specific aspects of the author’s life, particular experiences or themes rather than providing a comprehensive life story.
  • Biography: Offers a comprehensive account of the subject’s entire life, covering various aspects like personal, professional and public life.

Subject matter

  • Memoir: Centres around the author’s own experiences, emotions and memories.
  • Biography: Encompasses a broader range, including the subject’s relationships, historical context and interactions with others.

Narrative style

  • Memoir: Often more literary and creative, emphasising the author’s voice and style.
  • Biography: Typically follows a more formal and structured narrative, presenting information in a chronological or thematic order.

Objective vs subjective

  • Memoir: Subjective, reflecting the author’s interpretation of events, emotions, and memories.
  • Biography: Strives for objectivity, presenting facts and events without the author’s personal bias.

Purpose

  • Memoir: Aims to share personal insights, lessons, or a unique perspective on life events.
  • Biography: Aims to provide an accurate and detailed account of a person’s life, contributing to a historical or informative understanding of the subject.

Audience connection

  • Memoir: Often creates a strong emotional connection between the author and the reader as it delves into personal experiences.
  • Biography: Focuses on presenting a more detached and comprehensive view, aiming to inform rather than evoke a personal connection.

In summary, while both memoirs and biographies explore the lives of real individuals, the key distinctions lie in the author’s perspective, the scope of the narrative and the level of subjectivity involved. Memoirs are more personal and focused, while biographies provide a broader and more objective overview of a person’s life.

15 bestselling memoirs worth reading

  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt depicts McCourt’s impoverished childhood in Ireland, marked by familial struggles and loss.
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama is the former First Lady’s introspective reflection on her values and experiences, offering an inspiring narrative.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the African American experience, grappling with the realities of systemic racism in America.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah humorously explores Noah’s upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa, navigating racial complexities with insight.
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey humorously blends the comedian’s anecdotes with insights into the entertainment industry.
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles Gilbert’s year-long journey across Italy, India and Indonesia, exploring self-discovery, spirituality and love.
  • Educated by Tara Westover recounts Westover’s journey from a strict, rural Idaho upbringing to earning a PhD through education.
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance explores Vance’s Appalachian upbringing, providing insight into the struggles and complexities of working-class America.
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai details Yousafzai’s courageous advocacy for girls’ education in Pakistan and surviving a Taliban attack.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic memoir depicting life against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution.
  • Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel explores Wurtzel’s battle with depression and addiction, providing a raw look at mental health struggles in the 1990s.
  • Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs shares a darkly humorous and deeply unsettling memoir of Burroughs’s unconventional upbringing.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls is a powerful memoir of resilience, detailing Walls’s tumultuous childhood.
  • 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.
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed describes Strayed’s transformative journey on the Pacific Crest Trail as a metaphor for overcoming personal challenges, loss and finding inner strength.
"I Am Malala" by Malala Yousafzai is a great example of a memoir in the comparison memoir vs biography.

15 bestselling biographies worth reading

  • A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar delves into the mathematical genius of Nobel laureate John Nash and his challenges with schizophrenia.
  • Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges explores Turing’s contributions to computer science and his tragic life.
  • Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance offers insights into the entrepreneur’s ambitious ventures.
  • Frida by Hayden Herrera unravels the tumultuous life of the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
  • Hamilton by Ron Chernow delves into the life of America’s Founding Father.
  • John Adams by David McCullough explores the life of the second president of the United States.
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson delves into the art and science of the Renaissance polymath.
  • Malcolm X by Manning Marable offers a new perspective on the influential civil rights leader.
  • Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson reveals the tragic life of the lesser-known Kennedy sister.
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is a comprehensive biography of Apple co-founder, providing insights into his leadership and innovations.
  • The Lost City of Z by David Grann conveys explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest for a mythical ancient city in the Amazon.
  • The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is an epic biography of Robert Moses, the master builder who shaped the mid-twentieth century New York City infrastructure.
  • The Queen: A Life in Brief by Robert Lacey chronicles the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the changing dynamics of the British monarchy.
  • The Revenant by Michael Punke is the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass, who survived a grizzly bear attack in the American wilderness during the 1820s.
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is based on the incredible true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned World War II bombardier who survived Japanese prison camps.
"Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges is a great example of a biography in the comparison memoir vs biography.

Memoir vs biography: How can editing services prepare them for publication?

Professional editing services are crucial in preparing a memoir or biography for publication. Different editing services address various aspects of the writing process to enhance the manuscript’s overall quality, clarity and marketability. Here are several types of editing services and how they can contribute to the preparation of a memoir or biography:

Developmental editing

  • Purpose: Focus on the structure, content and overall narrative.
  • How it helpsDevelopmental editing helps shape the story, ensuring a compelling and coherent narrative. It addresses plot, character development, pacing and overall story arc issues. In addition, it ensures that the chronological flow is engaging and that key events are effectively presented.

Line editing

  • Purpose: Dealing with the language at the sentence and paragraph level.
  • How it helpsLine editing improves the flow, clarity and style. It pays attention to the author’s voice, tone, and the text’s overall readability. This service helps polish the prose and make it more engaging for readers.

Copyediting

  • Purpose: Focus on grammar, punctuation, spelling and consistency.
  • How it helpsCopyediting ensures that the manuscript adheres to language conventions. It catches errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation. Moreover, it ensures consistency in language use. This is important for creating a professional and polished final product.

Proofreading

  • Purpose: Catching final errors before publication.
  • How it helpsProofreading targets typos, formatting issues and any lingering errors that may have been missed during earlier stages. Proofreading provides a final check to ensure the manuscript is error-free and ready for publication.

Fact-checking

  • Purpose: Verifying the accuracy of details and information.
  • How it helps: Especially crucial for biographies, fact-checking ensures that historical events, dates and details are accurate. This service helps maintain the credibility and authenticity of the content.

Final thoughts

In summary, the distinction of memoir vs biography lies in the subjective, intimate nature of the former and the objective, comprehensive approach of the latter. While memoirs delve into personal experiences and emotions, biographies provide a detailed life overview.

Professional editing services, including developmental, line, copyediting, proofreading and fact-checking, play vital roles in preparing these genres for publication. The editing process ensures coherence, readability and accuracy, allowing both memoirs and biographies to effectively connect with readers and fulfil their unique storytelling objectives.

Contact me for a free sample edit of your memoir or biography 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 fore your authorial voice, to ensuring correctness and consistency of the language.

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Magda

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).