Autobiography v Memoir

I have been prompted to write this post following a discussion with a fellow writer who has been asked to ‘write as a memoir rather than autobiographically.’ So what’s the difference?

Memoir v Autobiography

There is controversy in the literacy world about these two words, and to be truthful a bit of snobbery. If you talk of the one when you really mean the other, it can be seen as quite a crime. Maybe we should be looking at the writing on its own merits instead rather than arguing semantics.

Exploring it a little further I found these definitions from the Oxford Dictionary interesting:


  • a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge:in 1924 she published a short memoir of her husband
  •  (memoirs) an account written by a public figure of their life and experiences: “a revealing passage from Khrushchev’s memoirs”
  • 2 an essay on a learned subject: “an important memoir on Carboniferous crustacea”
  •  (memoirs) the proceedings of a learned society:Memoirs of the Royal Society


  • an account of a person’s life written by that person:he gives a vivid description of his childhood in his autobiography
  •  [mass noun] autobiographies considered as a literary genre:”the book is a curious mixture of autobiography and fantasy”

There’s not much difference is there?

The popular difference between the two likens ‘memoir’ more to story telling and tends to be a selections of stories of a person’s life, whether they be written by that person or another. An autobiography, on the other hand, tends to be a more sequential account of an individual’s life, as in the celebrity autobiographies, much in vogue over the last few years. This distinction isn’t clear from the definitions above though.

I really like the following explanation:

  • Zinsser on the Art and Craft of Memoir
    “A good memoir requires two elements–one of art, the other of craft. The first is integrity of intention. . . . Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.

    “The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t. . . . Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.”
    (William Zinsser, “Introduction.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Mariner, 1998)

What do you think?

Memoir v memoirs

The other thing that raises an intake of breath is the ‘s’ on the end of memoir. Is it memoir or memoirs? I am guilty of confusing the two I must admit. Is it simply a case of ‘plural’?


Here is the definition of ‘memoir’ from the free online dictionary:

1. An account of the personal experiences of an author.
2. An autobiography. Often used in the plural.
3. A biography or biographical sketch.
4. A report, especially on a scientific or scholarly topic.
5. memoirs The report of the proceedings of a learned society
Whereas for ‘memoirs’ the same site reads:
1. (Communication Arts / Journalism & Publishing) a collection of reminiscences about a period, series of events, etc., written from personal experience or special sources
2. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) an autobiographical record
3. a collection or record, as of transactions of a society, etc.
According to these definitions, I believe a written account of a particular memory, written in narrative is a memoir, whereas a collection of memories are ‘memoirs.’
Norman Campbell told me many stories about his life and he was a born storyteller. I have actually recorded them sequentially. Have I scribed Norman’s autobiography or written his memoirs?
Well folks it’s over to you. What do you think?

About Diana Jackson

Author of 'Mystery Inspired by History' series,' 'Inspirational and Motivational' series and 'The Riduna' series, historical romantic fiction set in 19th and early 20th Century. Member of SOA. Websites: Riduna on Twitter and DianaJacksonauthor on Facebook too! To get in touch email:
This entry was posted in Here and Now, Memoirs, Norman, The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Autobiography v Memoir

  1. J T Weaver says:

    My understanding, simplistic perhaps, has always been that a memoir is “what you can remember” about your life and an autobiography is what you can research about your life.

  2. Pingback: Memoirs and Memories | pattytmitchell

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