Memoir versus Autobiography: What’s the difference?

Some people use the term "memoir" when they mean "autobiography," and vice versa.

Some people use the term “memoir” when they mean “autobiography,” and vice versa.


The Association of Ghostwriters (AOG) receives many requests each month from authors looking for help with their memoirs – only some really mean autobiography. So what’s the difference?

A memoir is an exploration of a particular point in time in a person’s life – a moment, or a life-changing single experience. A Marine might write about their deployment in Iraq or a teacher might write about the year they spent teaching first graders in inner city Detroit, for example. The time frame is condensed and focused.

A memoir is typically highly emotionally charged and leaves the reader with a moral or lesson learned that they may be able to apply to their own life.

In contrast, an autobiography is an author’s life story, from birth to present-day. It is broad where a memoir is deep – more of a history than focused essay.

So when is one better than the other? It all comes down to the point of the book.

Celebrities often write autobiographies to share their life experiences with their fans; many tell behind-the-scenes stories that have not previously been public. Some may feel they need to set the record straight about their reputation or to reveal an early influence that deserves credit for their success.

Other, often younger celebrities, write memoirs to explain particular periods in their life, such as the struggles they faced early on with their learning disability and had to triumph over, or their substance abuse and how they dealt with it. Some celebrities write multiple memoirs, each addressing different times in their lives. And as long as the story is interesting, their fans don’t seem to mind.

For the ghostwriter, the skills required and approach taken to create each type of manuscript differs, too.

A memoir requires insightful interviewing to dig deep and uncover underlying emotions or faint childhood recollections. The ghostwriter may have to become part psychologist as they piece together with the client why he or she behaved a certain way or assumed certain facts. Storytelling skills are essential here, to turn what might otherwise be an interesting anecdote into a full-blown narrative. Alan Alda has written two or three memoirs so far about various aspects of his life.

Autobiographies, however, are more matter-of-fact. There is more history, often more research, and perhaps interviews with outside observers. Pulling together disparate facts is more the central task with autobiographies, where the tale being told may have several arcs along the way. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is a good example.

Understanding the difference between the two genres is important for you, so that you are clear from the start about what the task will require, and also for your client, since many people use the terms memoir and autobiography interchangeably when they really mean the other. Try to determine early on which type of book they’re after.

What other differences have you seen between memoir and autobiography?

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Marcia Layton Turner

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