Memoir vs Biography: Spotting the Genre Differences

Sarah Rexford
January 16, 2024 | 6 mins

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Identifying the differences in memoir vs biography can feel nuanced. To be clear, it is. Both genres are about an individual’s life, but the focus you take depends on which you choose to write: biography vs memoir. 

Neither is better or worse than the other. What matters is determining what you want to accomplish with your manuscript. Memoir focuses on the individual from a specific angle, while biography spends time recounting the individual’s life in a different way. 

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Your writing perspective plays a crucial role in:

  • The stories you include
  • Tone you write in
  • Audience you connect with

In this article, I discuss memoir vs biography, the key differences, and how to determine which one you should write. Let’s start with a definition of biography vs memoir. 

How is a memoir different from a biography?

A memoir is different from a biography in that memoirs focus on specific life events that teach a specific theme. Writers draft and publish biographies as a way to document an individual’s life, start to finish. For this reason, anyone who experienced specific life events that could be of benefit to others can write their memoir. 

Many celebrities and public figures share their memoirs, but everyday people can as well. As long as you have a lesson to teach or a theme that will resonate with a specific audience, you can write your memoir. 

Assessing the major difference in memoir vs biography 

The key difference between memoir vs biography is that biographies document an individual’s life from start to finish, or start to present day. Memoirs focuses on a specific theme that threads throughout key events in an individual’s life.  

Readers are not usually interested in reading the everyday occurrences of the average person. However, most people are curious about how celebrities and influential people live on a day to day basis.

For instance, Caroline Fraser’s, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, recounts the life of a little girl growing up on the prairie. Today, Laura Ingalls Wilder is a major name associated with this specific time period. Learning about the daily life of this iconic individual is inspiring. 

The same is true for Steve Jobs, Christopher Knight, Louis Zamperini, and Henrietta Lacks. Each of these individuals have helped shape history. Because of this, the details of their lives are of interest. 

Consider the key themes of memoir 

Memoir, on the other hand, can highlight the themes of unknown individuals’ lives and in turn, bring them into the spotlight. Whether you desire to share you experience as a Mennonite, working with a speech impediment, or dealing with racism, your story matters.

See if you can identify the themes in the following memoirs: 

  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, Rhoda Janzen
  • Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice, Katherine Preston
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson 

There are various themes in the above: a mennonite, Preston’s struggle with stuttering, Stevenson’s role in bringing justice to people of color in the Deep South. 

These differences bring up the valid question: if biographies recount a person’s life and memoir’s share specific parts of their life, is memoir always a biography?

Is a memoir always a biography?

No, memoir is not always a biography but rather pulls key features from your life. The key difference between memoir vs biography is its deep dive into specifics. 

The specific focus of a memoir can center around:

  • A personal recounting of a thought-process through events
  • Events that shaped your life, outlook, and worldview 
  • A certain season in life and lessons learned 
  • An inside look at your hobby
  • Challenges you faced

When it comes time to learn how to write a memoir outline, think of a memoir as the key ingredients in the recipe: the themes and stories an author includes are necessary to hold the story together.

A biography adds in other seasonings that bring flavor and nuance to an individual’s life: stories and events that do not necessarily add to the theme but provide a more detailed look at their life.

Memoir vs biography: key traits of each

Now that you firmly grasp the differences in memoir vs biography (find more on autobiography vs memoir and biography vs autobiography here), it’s important to discuss the traits that set each apart. Choosing between writing a biography vs memoir can feel difficult. After all, your life matters and the different aspects of your story all feel important. 

A vital question to keep top of mind is, “How will each event I share aid my readers?” To help answer this question, below is a list of traits common in both memoir vs biography. You can read through both, then take note of which traits most resonate with you. The genre with the most traits you connect with is likely the one you should choose to write. 

Memoir vs biography:

Told in first person point of viewTold in third person point of view 
Focused on specific eventsFocused on life as a whole 
Key life lessons drawn out to help the reader learnKey moments included because they matter to the individual 
Personal tone, voice, and informationObjective tone, with information only known from what is discovered by the writer
Primarily centered on on person’s lifePrimarily centered on one person’s life

Which column did you most resonate with? Does your life hold important moments that could resonate with a large audience? You may want to write your memoir. 

On the other hand, if you are relatively well-known, experience a certain level of influence, and find people regularly interested in the everyday details of your life, you may want to hire someone to help you write your biography.

If you want to write your story yourself, you can write an autobiography. However, even if you chose to share your story via a biography, you can work closely with the writer to ensure the final product is exactly as you want it. 

Two key traits of memoirs 

First, if you choose memoir as your final choice in your decision in memoir vs biography, rest assured that you do not need to recount your entire life story. 

This can feel empowering for some writers who may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of condensing decades of experiences into one manuscript. 

Instead, as you draft your memoir (and articulate the memoir sub-genres right for your story), focus on one main theme or story and the life experiences that build on this theme. Memoirs focus on teaching the reader through the experience of the writer, so don’t forget to be vulnerable and establish that connection at an emotional level.

Memoirs allow readers an inside look at defining moments in your life and what you learned in those seasons. 

Second, remember to use fiction writing techniques when drafting your memoir. Begin in medias res, or in the middle of the action. While biographies often begin at the start of the subject’s life, with memoir, begin in the middle. 

Grab your readers early on. Helpful questions to consider are below:

  • At what point did I encounter a profound awareness that this specific situation was teaching me a lesson?
  • What part of my experience will be most engaging for readers?
  • How can I immerse them in my world as quickly as possible?

But now what? What’s a concrete step you can take now that you understand the key differences between memoir vs biography? Here are some examples of writing goals to inspire you. And don't forget to check out the free resource below! 

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