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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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Biography vs. Autobiography

Whenever a person reads a story of someone’s life, they are reading either a biography or an autobiography. The two words are used to tell the difference between who wrote the story.

A biography is a story about a person’s life where the author is not the subject of the story. So if anyone other than President Joe Biden writes his story, it will be called a biography.

An autobiography is a story written about a person’s life where the author is the person the story is about. If President Joe Biden writes a book about himself, it’s an autobiography. The prefix auto in the word autobiography is Greek and means self. Therefore, an autobiography is a biography written by the self.

A term that often gets incorrectly used as a synonym of autobiography is a memoir. A memoir is an account of a part of someone’s life, written by themselves but in service to a more significant theme instead of just a story of their lives. For example, the book Dreams of my Father by Barack Obama is a memoir because it focuses on his early life and his parents’ influence on him, and the culture he grew up in. The best way to disseminate between the two is to ask why the book is being read? If the answer is to read about a person’s life and accomplishments, then the story is most likely an autobiography. The story is probably a memoir if the answer is to learn more about a topic, theme, or idea.

Another important way to figure out which one is which is to look at what is most important in the story:

  • Autobiography – Facts and information are most important.
  • Memoir – Emotions and feelings are more important.

I am Malala is an autobiography about the author who protested for education.

Image of the cover of the book I am Malala

Analyzing an Autobiographical Essay or Book

When a task requires the analysis of an autobiographical work, it needs a bit less analysis than a regular biography. The main difference is that analyzing an autobiography does not need an in-depth evaluation of the facts presented in the book. Since the author is also the main subject, more leeway is given when looking at whether facts are true. This applies even more so when the author refers to events that they were the sole participant in. For example, if the author states that they got lost hiking in the woods one afternoon, and it took them five hours to find their way back, the author is the primary source for the account.

However, some things can be analyzed in an autobiography that can help to understand the story better. The first that any analyzation should try to determine is the purpose of the text. Why did the author tell their story? Whenever the question of the author’s purpose comes into play, it should fall into one of three categories.

  1. Inform – Is the author simply telling their story so that it can be told? If the purpose is to inform, then there will be lots of facts and information to expound on the story.
  2. Entertain – Is the author telling their story for the pure enjoyment of it? Stories meant to entertain will use lots of emotional language and present situations in ways that make the story fun to read.
  3. Persuade – Is the author telling their story to persuade the reader to think, feel or do something? Persuasive autobiographies are often ones that are trying to get the reader to take action or to bring attention to something that is important to the author. These often include a call to action part.

Once the story’s purpose is decided, the next part of the analyzation process is to evaluate the effectiveness of the autobiography. This is done by looking closely at three crucial aspects of the writing: style, diction, and tone.

Style – The style of writing is the way the words of the story flow and how it is being presented to the reader. There are three main types of style that authors may use:

  1. Narrative – Narrative writing straightforwardly tells the story and does not include many emotions, feelings, or heavy descriptions.
  2. Descriptive – Descriptive writing focuses more on creating a vivid picture in the minds of the reader.
  3. Emotional – Emotional writing uses words, language, and situations to evoke feelings in the reader as they read the story. Those feelings could be happiness, anger, sorrow, or even fear.

One of the most interesting concepts about an autobiography is that it has to be written at the time of the person’s life. Once someone dies, the option for an autobiography dies with them. This fact is vital to the concept of diction.

Diction– Diction is the words and phrases that the author chose to use in their writing. This ties back to the person’s lifetime because autobiographies often use the diction of the time period in which they were written. For example, autobiographies written in the 1600s in England will use Old English words and phrases that will be difficult to understand in modern times.

Tone – Tone is like the personality of the story. It reflects the attitude the author wants to portray. Tone in a story can be humorous, scary, sad, or respectful, not to mention many other examples. For example, in a quote from a biography on Hellen Keller, the author states, ‘Immense crowds gathered whenever they lectured or appeared on the vaudeville stage, and even presidents, kings, queens, and popes deferred to them.’ The tone in this quote uses facts and words to show a respectful tone with regards to Keller.

How to Perform a Biographical Analysis

Performing an analysis of a biography is very similar to analyzing an autobiography. The main difference is that there is an added step involved.

The analyzation begins the same way for both autobiographies and biographies, but the biography needs to look at the book’s author and the sources they used to write the book. This analysis is fundamental because it can affect whether or not the story is accurate. There are two main things to analyze when looking in-depth at the author of a biography.

  1. Reputation – Does the author have a reputation for producing well-sourced stories? If they do, then the second part of the analysis can be less intensive.
  2. Sourcing – Where did the author get their information? Some biographies written about people who are still alive or recently passed should contain some primary sources. A primary source is someone who was a first-person witness to the event. The more primary sources, the more likely the accounts will be accurate.

But if the biography is on a person who passed away decades or centuries before, the author will have to rely on secondary sources. A secondary source is a person that wasn’t there to witness the event. Secondary sources are often books and scholarly articles. The best kind of secondary source is one that contains primary sources within the secondary source.

How to Write a Biography Book

Writing a biography can be a daunting task, but there are some tips and tricks that can guide an author when writing one. The first thing to do is to take the steps that were taken to analyze a biography and apply them to the process of writing it. Decide the purpose of the story, choose style, diction, and tone, and do the best sourcing possible by trying to get primary sources.

Some more tips for writing a solid biography are:

  • Get Permission – If the biography is intended for publication, it is essential to inquire into any possible permissions that might be needed to write the book. This is often not necessary, but for modern figures who are still alive or who have passed but have close family, it is worth a quick inquiry.
  • Create a Thesis – A thesis will help the reader know what they will ultimately get out of the biography. The best way to develop the thesis is to base it on the purpose of the story.
  • Define a Timeline of Events – Even if the purpose is not to tell the person’s entire life story, sketching out a timeline of significant parts of the person’s life can help narrow down the best parts to include.
  • Research – Doing thorough research is the key to providing a good biography. It is important to remember to get primary sources when possible.
  • Add in Thoughts – Some of the best biographies include the author’s thoughts as the book progresses. It can make it that much better when the reader can connect to the subject of the biography and the author.
  • Good written techniques – It is hard to write a good biography without good writing. Make sure that the writing flows and uses correct grammar.
  • Editing – Getting someone to edit the biography for content and grammatical errors can dramatically increase the book’s chance of success.

The Backwoods Boy is a biography about Abraham Lincoln written by Hortio Alger Jr

Image of the cover on the Abraham Lincoln biography

Examples of Biographies and Autobiographies

The best way to get good at analyzing biographies and autobiographies and writing them is to read some well-known examples to see what the best sound is like when they are read. The following table gives a list of some famous examples.

Famous Biographies Author Famous Autobiographies Author
Steve Jobs Walter Issacson Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank
Alexander Hamilton Ron Chernov Night Ellie Wiesel
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers Maxwell King I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban  Malala Yousafzai
Churchill: a Life Martin Gilbert A Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
Into the Wild Jon Krakauer On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King

Lesson Summary

When a story is written about a person’s life, it falls into one of two main categories. If the book was written about a person’s life by someone other than the subject of the story, it is called a biography. If the story is written in first-person and the author is the same person as the subject of the story, then it is an autobiography. One autobiography style is called a memoir and uses a person’s experiences to highlight a topic or idea.

When analyzing a biography or autobiography, it is important to determine the author’s purpose first, then analyze the effectiveness of the writing. This includes looking at the author’s style, diction and tone. If the book is a biography, it is also important to look closely at the author and the sources they chose for the book. The more primary sources versus secondary sources an author uses, the better it will be accurate.

When writing a good biography, it is essential to use analytical skills to help write a compelling story. It is also important to create a thesis, sketch a timeline, do thorough research, add in thoughts, and edit the writing when it is done. Reading other well-known and acclaimed biographies and autobiographies can also help by highlighting what a good story sounds and reads like.

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