The confusion between understanding the difference between a biography versus autobiography is a simple fix. However, understanding the difference is just the start of deciding which one is right for you.
Both biographies and autobiographies are stories about an individual. Both follow an individual from birth to present day. But they differ in who is writing what.
If your personal life story is incredible and you see the benefit of sharing it with the world, you’ve come to the right place.
If you know someone who has an incredible life story and the world needs to hear it, you’ve come to the right place.
First, let’s talk about biographies and autobiographies.
1. Biography versus autobiography: what’s the difference?
A biography is a life story of an individual from birth to present day. An autobiography is the story of an individual, written by the individual himself. Often, individuals who write their life story are doing so not because they’re famous for their writing, but because they’re well known in other respects.
Perhaps they are famous sports players, celebrities, or well-known for breakthroughs they’ve made in technology or medicine.
Maybe they are philanthropists and have dedicated their lives to bettering the lives of others. Or maybe they are an inventor and their story needs to be told.
Whatever the case of the individual’s story, a biography is that person’s story written by somebody else, and an autobiography is that person’s story written by themselves.
When deciding which route to take, it’s important to adequately assess your writing capabilities.
If you are the individual whose story should be written, are you capable of writing it in the way it deserves to be told? If not, you may want to consider hiring a writer to help you write your story in the best way possible.
Perhaps you are a writer and you’ve dedicated your life to the craft of writing. You know someone whose story must be told and you want to help them get it onto the page. In this case, you would be writing an autobiography. You would be the one writing the book. This means you are responsible to run every single word past the individual whose story you are writing.
Regardless, both biographies and autobiographies should be written with the focus on the reader. Writing succeeds because of readers. Whether you’re covering your life from birth to now, or sharing specific stories of someone else’s life, keep the reader at the forefront of your mind at all times.
The more you think “reader first” the better your biography or autobiography will be.
Question: Were you also wondering how memoirs fit into this equation? You can learn about memoirs in the video below and learn more about how a memoir is different from an autobiography.
2. What’s in a biography?
A biography is all the major life events of a particular person included in one book.
A biography is not a novel, but a well-crafted biography will employ many fiction storytelling techniques in order to create a riveting story.
While fiction techniques can and should be used when writing a biography, creative liberties should not be taken.
For example, if you’re writing the story of someone who hiked seven miles through the jungle to get medicine to a particular village, don’t round up. While in fiction, the story might be more engaging to say your protagonist fought through ten miles of jungle before reaching their destination, a biography is reality. Don’t bend the facts.
That said, names, places, and events can be changed to protect individuals. If you take this route, make a note at the beginning of the book.
One of the great benefits of a biography is that they are fact. Biographies are the real life stories of real life people that really happened.
While fiction can often feel like you’re reading about a real person instead of a character, biographies take real individuals and share their stories. A biography is the life story of an individual without any creative liberties added to the story.
Writing someone’s biography can be a powerful way to take the story to the masses. Just remember, every word that you write in someone’s biography needs to be approved by the individual. This is their story, not yours, and you are simply helping them share their story with the world.
A biography also needs to include life events. While memoirs focus on a theme and only include real life events that contribute to that specific theme, biographies are the life of an individual from birth to present day (or death), and include all major life events regardless of theme.
As you begin doing your research and collecting your notes, keep this in mind, then begin the writing itself.
Stories that you may think won’t be applicable will likely be necessary later on.
3. What’s included in an autobiography?
Just as a biography includes all major life events of an individual, an autobiography includes all major life events of an individual.
When writing an autobiography, you are the writer of your own life story.
This can be extremely helpful because you know yourself best. You will not need to spend time explaining yourself to a writer and trying to communicate the emotions you felt during certain life events. When writing your own autobiography, you can make full use of the five senses and employ them to create an engaging read for your target audience.
If any particular life events feel important to you, they likely will be important for your autobiography.
As mentioned above, a memoir focuses on a theme and uses an individual’s life events to contribute to that theme.
Example: Check out this memoir story centralized on theme from Self-Publishing School students Justin and Alexis Black.
Their memoir theme? How to overcome adversity while growing up in the foster system. Elements of their story, including timelines, weave back and forth through the story using this theme as a guiding point to keep the story on track.
An autobiography should include all major life events–an autobiography is more about the person who is writing the biography than about any particular theme.
Of course, a well-written autobiography will likely draw attention to specific themes, but the purpose of an autobiography is to share your life story via book form.
Think of your autobiography as a written documentary on your life. Documentaries are told in a linear fashion. They start at a single point in time and work their way to the end of a time period or to the present day.
Autobiographies are the same.
The purpose of an autobiography is to communicate your life story.
4. Examples of biographies
Biographies are the life stories of an individual written by someone else. Below are some popular examples. Read them, take notes, apply what works, ignore what doesn’t, and then plunge into your own writing of that biography:
- A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
- Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt
As you decide the best method for helping someone write your story, or writing someone else’s, remember writing is a journey. Don’t get overwhelmed with how many details there are to remember. Condensing an entire life into one book can be difficult. Take your time, enjoy the process, and slowly work toward the finished result.
5. Examples of autobiographies
If, on the other hand, you decide to write your autobiography, you’ll likely want to brush up on both autobiographies and biographies.
Autobiographies are written by the subject being written about. Often, famous individuals employ a writer to write their story rather than attempt to write it themselves. Unless they’ve garnered fame because of their incredible writing, it’s usually best to have a writer write their story. This helps do justice to their story and better ensure it is communicated well.
Whether you pick up an autobiography or a biography, the same lessons can be learned:
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass
- Autobiography of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemmons
- Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
- Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
- Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
As you write your autobiography, remember that although it is about you, you should still think reader first. Write in a way that readers will be able to easily understand and follow. Starting at birth and moving forward chronologically will likely work well.
While biographies and autobiographies are about an individual’s life, interactions, achievements, goals, failures, etc., it’s impossible to remember every word of dialogue you have spoken or others have spoken.
Especially if you are writing someone’s biography, it can be difficult to get dialogue right.
Readers understand that exact wording has been written to the best of your memory, but is not exact. Be careful to write in a way that reflects the attitudes and intentions of the moment, to the best of your ability.
If you’re writing your own autobiography, do your best to remember, and write the rest as true to the moment as possible.
If you’re writing an individual’s autobiography, do your best to encapsulate their story and write the dialogue the way you think it would have been spoken.
Whether you’re writing your autobiography, writing someone’s biography, or having your own story written with the help of a professional writer, protect yourself by changing names, locations, and any other detail as necessary.
As briefly mentioned above, you can make a simple note at the front of your book explaining how some details have been changed to protect individuals. The last thing you want is to be accused of libel or slander the week your book comes out.
Biographies and autobiographies have the power to influence in unique ways because they are fact, not fiction.
Of Alexander Hamilton’s biography, David McCullough says, “Grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written . . . A genuinely great book.”
And of Anne Frank’s autobiography, Newsday says, “How brilliantly Anne Frank captures the self-conscious alienation and naïve self-absorption of adolescence.”
Biographies and autobiographies provide a unique niché in which to communicate stories and themes in a way fiction can’t.
As you journey into biography and autobiography writing, respect this special genre and write in a way that honors the stories of the individual.
Sharing one’s story is a difficult and vulnerable undertaking, but doing so can impact hundreds, thousands, and millions of readers. To share a story is to share a life, and that is a powerful thing.
As you begin writing, don’t forget to employ fiction writing techniques, while refusing to take creative liberties.
Biographies and autobiographies are the factual life events of real people. Take the time you need to write them well. Brainstorm, draft, rewrite, and when you finally publish, sit back and enjoy the masterpiece that is this story.
Whether it’s your own story you’re writing or having written, or the story of someone else that you’re writing, finishing a book in this genre is a task well-done.