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Memoirs and Autobiographies—
What’s the Difference?

By Linda C. Senn

Memoirs and Autobiographies

Both terms describe an author-written work based on his or her own life experiences. As a rule, they differ in time and focus. A memoir covers a shorter period of time or a more specific aspect of life. An autobiography has a wider range of both.

A memoir is a type of autobiography that focuses on a short period in the writer’s life or a specific aspect of that life, such as:

  • Major health problems: It may be a battle with a particular healthy problem, yours or that of a loved one, either physical or emotional. Such memoirs frequently include the problems of the sufferer and, perhaps the caregiver, the treatments, and the ultimate outcome, along with deeper lessons learned along the way.
  • Following a dream: We all have them – the little boy who wanted to play ball for the St. Louis Cardinals, the child who planned to be a veterinarian, the clerk who yearned to start her own business. The story of your challenges, doubts, and accomplishments make interesting reading for others.
  • Any life-changing time or event: Writing about major life transitions – divorce, physical incapacity, job loss, death of a loved one – and the recovery process have long been favored by readers.
  • Inner thoughts or philosophies: Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea and Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies are insightful examples.

An autobiography tells the author’s life story and covers all or a good chunk of that life – theoretically! If you plan to write only for family reading, go ahead

and plan a birth-through-yesterday writing project. (A mini-guide follows.*)

But if you want to write for publication and book sales, you’ll need to zero in on a more specific aspect or period of time. If you feel the background information has a direct bearing on the main aspect, condense your youth into a three or four page synopsis.

Whether you write a memoir or autobiography, write from the heart rather than writing what you think you should talk about. During your teen years maybe you were more concerned with botany or your Mom’s health or getting used to a new school than with dating. When you first opened your new business, your mistakes may have far outnumbered your successes. Whatever the case, write about the real you.

©  Pen Central Communications 2006


For additional information, contact Linda Senn at Linda@PenCentralOnline.com


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