What is a biography?
A biography is an account of someone’s life written by someone who isn’t the subject of the book. The book will probably be written chronologically, telling the story of the person’s life from birth to the present day (or to the end of their life). It will almost certainly be written in the third person, e.g.
Gertrude was born into relative poverty in a rundown tenement in the stews of the city.
Biographies may be written with or without reference to the subject of the book. In other words, the biography writer may not have spoken to the subject of the book, or anyone connected with them. The finished book does not even need to be approved or authorized by the subject. That’s why you’ll often see biographies with subtitles like the unauthorized guide to…
In the contest of biography vs autobiography, it’s fair to say that biographies often lose out on points for their lack of empathy and insight. Biographies tend to feel like colder, more detached books than autobiographies. (That’s hardly surprising if the biography is written without any access to the subject of the book.) In the case of biographies that are written after the subject has died* the manuscript will be built up from facts collated by the author.
It’s all a far cry from the personal insight and articulation of feelings which you’d expect to read in an autobiography, as the named author reflects more on the life they’ve lived…
What is an autobiography?
An autobiography is a book that tells your life story in your words. It will tell as much of your life story as you want to share. That story about how you met the love of your life? That needs to be in there. That time when you embarrassed yourself in front of your in-laws? Perhaps not. As it’s your story, you’ll effectively curate the content.
The beauty of it is that you can write any kind of autobiography you want. There are no rules. Write about all the ups and downs of your life, or focus on the ways you beat the odds and overcame obstacles. Be as funny, sad, or heroic as you think is appropriate.
You’ll be writing in the first person, saying things like:
I didn’t think things could get any worse, but then he walked into my life.
If you decide to write your autobiography, you’ll need to think about who it’s for. That sounds like a very obvious point, but remember that there may be things you’d be happy to discuss in a small circle of friends and family that you wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable sharing with a wider audience. People who have biographies written about them don’t necessarily have that level of control. And that is perhaps the key difference between biography and autobiography writing.
Can an autobiography be written by someone else?
If you want to tell a story about your life, but you don’t want to write it, you can still have an autobiography written for you.
You can hire a life story writer like me (also called a ghostwriter) to write your story for you. I would tell your story based on a series of interviews; I’d ask you lots of questions and uncover the things that your story needs to say. And I’ll use your tone of voice, and write in the first person, so it sounds as if you’re telling your story.
There’s an understandable worry that if you hire a ghostwriter to write your autobiography, it won’t be your story any more. But I can promise you that’s not the case. Your autobiography will cover all the same things you would want to cover. It will tell (broadly) the same story. The name on the cover will still be yours. You just don’t have to write the book yourself.
Why do people hire someone to tell their life story?
There are a few reasons. Many people want to tell their story, but they don’t want to have to write it themselves. They know it will take up months and months of their life, and they simply haven’t got the time to do it. Or else, they simply don’t fancy the job of writing it themselves.
A professional life story writer can tell your story quickly, efficiently, and with maximum impact, meaning you’ll have an autobiography to be proud of.
Aren’t biographies and autobiographies just for famous people?
Readers have a huge appetite for biographies and autobiographies, and if you look at some of the most popular titles over the last few years, books like The Glass Castle and This is Going to Hurt were written by ‘normal’ people talking about their lives and livelihoods. But people loved them for their honesty and insights.
I believe that everyone has lived a life worth writing about. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every autobiography can be professionally published. One more point on the biography vs autobiography scorecard – biographies are typically about famous people and published for financial gain. But if you decide to write a story about your life, you can do it just for you, and for a small circle of friends and family.
Some people write autobiographies to help them in business. Some people write autobiographies to help other people learn by the lives they’ve led. And some people write an autobiography purely for their own sense of satisfaction. So, if you’re going to embark on telling your story, do think carefully about the size and scale of your audience before you start writing.
Biography vs autobiography vs memoir
Just to muddy the waters a little bit more, I’m going to throw memoirs into the mix.
Without getting too bogged down in all the subtle differences, a memoir tends to be a less formal book than either an autobiography or a biography. Memoirs often focus in one small part of a person’s life, rather than telling their complete story.
A memoir may also be a more reflective book, more concerned with the emotional ramifications of life events. A memoir is a good vehicle for people who are telling stories about the struggles they’ve faced and overcome, for example.
Are you ready to tell your story?
I hope that’s helped clear up the differences between biographies and autobiographies, and if it’s inspired you to tell your own story, here are eleven tips for writing your autobiography.