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Knowing the Difference between an Autobiography and a Memoir

Part of the Memoir Writing For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Many people interchangeably use the terms “autobiography” and “memoir.” Although Amazon and many brick-and-mortar bookstores put them in the same category, they are quite different. Here’s how they are different.

An autobiography

  • Focuses on the trajectory of an entire life

  • Starts at the beginning and progresses chronologically to the end

  • Feels more like a historical document; tons of fact-checking and very specific dates/information

  • Strives for factual, historical truths

  • Typically is written by famous people

A memoir

  • Focuses on a key aspect, theme, event, or choice in a life

  • Starts anywhere and can deftly move around in time and place

  • Feels more personal; less intense fact-checking

  • Strives for emotional truths

  • Can be written by anyone

Both are based in truth. Both are highly marketable in the publishing world. And both require a good deal of research, which can range from phone interviews and trips to places you once lived, to sitting back into a comfy chair and doing some deep, focused remembering. Yet as you can see, there are significant and crucial differences between an autobiography and memoir.

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