There’s an old joke by Demetri Marting, and it might help you understand the difference between autobiographies and biographies. “Whenever I see an autobiography at the bookstore,” the comedian recounts, “I just flip to the ‘About the Author’ section. Done!”
Both book types cover a person’s life, but you need to be aware of the differences before you start trying to pitch one to a publisher—or publish one yourself. Let’s discuss biography vs. autobiography to figure out which one you should be writing!
What Is a Biography?
A biography is a type of book that covers a person’s life but crucially is not written by that person.
Examples of a Biography
Typically, the author will conduct interviews with the subject, people they know and have worked alongside, and various friends and family—engaging in journalistic research to fill in the details. Examples of biographies include the following books:
- Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game
- A Beautiful Mind
- The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson IV
- Steve Jobs
- Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
A biography can be authorized or unauthorized. We’ll touch more on this later.
What Is an Autobiography?
The crucial distinction in the biography autobiography comparison is that an autobiography is a story about a person’s life written by that person.
Examples of an Autobiography
The author/subject can engage in research about their life and events, but usually, there’s no need to do so since the autobiography is based on the author’s recollection. Examples include these four:
- The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou
- The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
- Long Walk to Freedom (Nelson Mandela)
- Chronicles Volume 1 (Bob Dylan)
Another example is Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 1.
Comparing Biography and Autobiography Publications
Aside from the difference in authorship, what’s an autobiography or biography like from a narrative perspective? Autobiographical books tend to be more expressive, subjective, and personal since they are written from the author’s perspective. They are written from a first-person perspective, using I, me, and we.
On the other hand, biographies are more factual and to the point. They rely less on the subject’s memories of events and more on reports from various people.
The language is all in the third person, using words like “they, them, she, and he.” Biographies can also feature stories and scenes that don’t necessarily feature the subject but are important to their life’s story.
Authorship in biography vs. autobiography is the deciding factor. The author always writes autobiographical works about themselves. On the other hand, biographies can be written by anyone willing to do the research. Usually, a journalist or subject expert crafts a biography.
Both autobiographies and biographies are classified as “non-fiction” since they’re supposed to recount real-world events—even if autobiographies inject more subjectivity and emotion into the storytelling.
Frequently, biographers and autobiographers add fantastical or false elements into the narrative. But this doesn’t alter the book’s purpose, which is to give readers a realistic portrayal of a subject.
Point of View
Because it’s not about the author, a biography cannot use first-person language unless the author refers to themselves—such as if they recall an interview with the subject. Autobiographies often use first-person language to represent the author’s thoughts and actions.
Biography and autobiography timelines often cover a significant portion of the subject’s life. The subject can be living or dead in the case of a biography, but an autobiography must necessarily be about the living author.
If an author is writing a memoir, this must be written from a first-person perspective but often only covers one significant event rather than their entire life.
When a reader chooses to read a biography, autobiography, or memoir, they want to gain an insight into the subject’s life. For any number of reasons, readers are curious about the lives of significant figures.
Perhaps they want to emulate the person and want the insight necessary to do so, or maybe readers have a morbid curiosity, such as with a true crime story. Biographies and autobiographies can, although rarely, be a way to bring attention to someone previously unknown.
Biographies and autobiographies are generally written about someone of note—perhaps a celebrity, athlete, politician, criminal, business leader, or another famous person.
However, an unknown person can have a successful biography/autobiography, but there must be something interesting or compelling about their story to draw readers in and convince them to keep turning the pages.
Biographies are either authorized or unauthorized. Authorized biographies are written with the subject’s permission, while unauthorized biographies are not.
The lack of authorization isn’t necessarily a problem, but it can make getting certain information about the subject more difficult. And the author needs to make sure their facts are straight.
Autobiographies are always authorized because the subject writes them.
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The person writing an autobiography is always the subject, too.
A biography can be written by anyone willing to do research about a subject and create a narrative about their life.
An autobiography covers the subject’s entire life, while a memoir covers one specific period or event.