Difference Between Autobiography And Personal Narrative Essay
While each of these forms of writing illuminates the life, work, and worldview of an individual, they are differentiated by the degree of objectivity and factual content, as well stylistic approaches and perspectives.
Note: The below definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary [electronic resource.]
Autobiography, n. –
Typically in book form, an autobiography is an account of a person’s life told by the himself or herself. An autobiography tends to be a more general history, while a memoir focuses on a specific piece of the author's life.
Biography, n. –
A biography is a written account (although it may come in other forms such as recorded or visual media) of events and circumstances of another person’s life. Most commonly written about a historical or public figure, it profiles a person’s life or life’s work.
Diary, n. –
A daily record of personal matters, transactions or events affecting the writer personally or the result of the author’s observations.
Journal, adj. AND n. –
Often referring to a more detailed account than that of a diary, a journal contains events or matters of personal interest, kept for one’s own use. Either in the form of daily accounts or entries for when events occur.
Memoir, n. –
A record of events or history from the personal knowledge, experience, perspective or special source information of the author. Frequently include autobiographic reminiscences. Memoirs tend to cover in detail a specific aspect of an author's life, while an autobiography is a more general history.
Narrative, n. –
Such an essay tells a story about a personal experience. This writing form is interested with language, character development, description, etc. to illustrate the story being conveyed and the purpose of narrating it.
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Expository, n. –
This is a genre of essay that requires the author to research an idea, make original observations and present an argument based on evidence in a clear and concise manner.
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Oral history, n. –
A story or collection of stories or past events that have been passed down by word of mouth. Sometimes including record oral histories, this form of history relies on compiling recollections from people who were told these histories or whom lived these stories.
Conducting Oral Histories with Veterans
In recent years, publishers have avoided classifying life stories as “autobiographies”, with the attendant expectation of editorial fact-checking. By using a classification such as “memoir” or “personal essay” or “narrative”, a number of works later determined to be mostly or entirely fictional have been initially presented as nonfiction (e.g. A Thousand Little Pieces by James Frey). As when evaluating other research materials, it is important to consider whether the author is objective and complete in his or her writing.
In addition, only a biographer writing after the subject’s death is able to relate the events surrounding the death and the post-death consensus as to the individual’s significance.
Nonetheless, the personal narrative, even if subjective or incomplete, may add to one’s understanding of the individual’s values and viewpoint.
For briefer articles on individuals, try the biographies contained in print and online reference works, including:
Below are some library resources on interpreting the various forms of life writing.
- Jolly, Margaretta. Encyclopedia of life writing [electronic resource] : autobiographical and biographical forms. London : Fitzroy Dearborn/Routledge, 2001. [Credo Reference]
- Wolfreys, Julian. Critical keywords in literary and cultural theory. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. [PN44.5.W64 2004]
- Cuddon, J.A. ; Preston, C.E.. (rev.) A dictionary of literary terms and literary theory. Malden, Mass. : Blackwell, 1998. [REF PN41 .C83 1998]
- Turco, Lewis. The book of literary terms : the genres of fiction, drama, nonfiction, literary criticism, and scholarship. Hanover, NH : University Press of New England, c1999. [PN44.5.T87 1999]
- Spengemann, William C. The forms of autobiography : episodes in the history of a literary genre. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1980. [CT25.S63 1980]
- Memories are made of this - and that
Q: What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? —Marty
A: In some general contexts, memoir and autobiography can be used interchangeably. In fact, Amazon.com puts them in the same category. But there’s a key difference that publishers use to define each—the timeline covered in the writing.
(Get more advice in The Everything Grammar and Style Book)
An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life. So, if I chose to write about my complete life up to this point—including growing up in Cincinnati, my time in New York, the few years I spent in Chicago and eventually landing at Writer’s Digest—I’d write an autobiography. If wrote a book about the winter of my sophomore year in high school where I got my tongue stuck to an icy pole, I’d write a memoir.
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