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How to Write a Biography
Last Updated: May 14, 2023 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Stephanie Wong Ken, MFA . Stephanie Wong Ken is a writer based in Canada. Stephanie's writing has appeared in Joyland, Catapult, Pithead Chapel, Cosmonaut's Avenue, and other publications. She holds an MFA in Fiction and Creative Writing from Portland State University. There are 7 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 1,842,413 times.
Writing a biography can be a fun challenge, where you are sharing the story of someone’s life with readers. You may need to write a biography for a class or decide to write one as a personal project. Once you have identified the subject of the biography, do your research so you know as much about them as possible. Then, dive into the writing of the biography and revising it until it is at its finest.
Researching Your Subject
- If the subject does not give you permission to write the biography, you may want to choose a different subject. If you decide to publish the biography without the subject’s permission, you may be susceptible to legal action by the subject.
- If the subject is no longer alive, you obviously do not need to ask permission to write about them.
- You may create research questions to help focus your research of the subject, such as, What do I find interesting about the subject? Why is this subject important to readers? What can I say that is new about the subject? What would I like to learn more about?
- For in person interviews, record them with a tape recorder or a voice recorder on your computer or phone.
- You may need to interview the subject and others several times to get the material you need.
- You may also want to visit areas where the subject made a major decision or breakthrough in their life. Being physically in the area can give you a sense of how the subject might have felt and help you write their experiences more effectively.
- When researching the time period ask yourself: What were the social norms of that time? What was going on economically and politically? How did the social and political climate affect the subject?
- You may also include historical events or moments that affected the subject on the timeline. For example, maybe there was a conflict or civil war that happened during the person’s life that affected their life.
Writing the Biography
- You may end up focusing on particular areas of the person’s life. If you do this, work through a particular period in the person’s life chronologically.
- For example, you may have a thesis statement about focusing on how the person impacted the civil rights movement in America in the 1970s. You can then make sure all your content relates back to this thesis.
- Flashbacks should feel as detailed and real as present day scenes. Use your research notes and interviews with the subject to get a good sense of their past for the flashbacks.
- For example, you may jump from the person’s death in the present to a flashback to their favorite childhood memory.
- For example, you may focus on the person’s accomplishments in the civil rights movement. You may write a whole section about their contributions and participation in major civil rights marches in their hometown.
- For example, you may notice that the person’s life is patterned with moments of adversity, where the person worked hard and fought against larger forces. You can then use the theme of overcoming adversity in the biography.
- For example, you may note how you see parallels in the person’s life during the civil rights movement with your own interests in social justice. You may also commend the person for their hard work and positive impact on society.
Polishing the Biography
- Revise the biography based on feedback from others. Do not be afraid to cut or edit down the biography to suit the needs of your readers.
- Having a biography riddled with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors can turn off your readers and result in a poor grade if you are handing in the text for a class.
- If the biography is for a class, use MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations based on the preferences of your instructor.
- Be careful when publishing private or embarrassing information, especially if the person is not a celebrity. You may violate their "Right of Privacy" or equivalent. Thanks Helpful 30 Not Helpful 5
- Have the sources to back up your statements about the subject's life. Untruthful written statements can lead to litigation. If it is your opinion, be clear that it is such and not fact (although you can support your opinion with facts). Thanks Helpful 15 Not Helpful 15
You Might Also Like
- ↑ http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/writing/how-to-write-a-biography.html
- ↑ https://au.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/how-to-write-a-bio
- ↑ https://grammar.yourdictionary.com/writing/how-to-write-a-biography.html
- ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/3-tips-for-writing-successful-flashbacks
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/how-to-write-bio/
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/editing-and-proofreading/
- ↑ https://www.plagiarism.org/article/how-do-i-cite-sources
About This Article
Before you write a biography, gather as much information about the subject that you can from sources like newspaper articles, interviews, photos, existing biographies, and anything else you can find. Write the story of that person’s life, including as much supporting detail as you can, including information about the place and time where the person lived. Focus on major events and milestones in their life, including historical events, marriage, children, and events which would shape their path later in life. For tips from our reviewer on proofreading the biography and citing your sources, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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Table of Contents
Collaboration, information literacy, writing process, a student’s guide to using wikis.
- CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 by Matt Barton
If you’re like most people, when you hear the word wiki, you automatically think of Wikipedia . Almost anyone who uses the Internet has used Wikipedia from time to time to learn more about any of the millions of topics it covers in its four million pages. Indeed, it might seem harder not to use Wikipedia than to use it since its pages tend to come up first, or at least in the top five, of most Google searches, and most surveys of the world’s most popular websites put Wikipedia in the top ten. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what the internet would be like today without wikis!
This article is about how you—and your fellow students—can use wikis to help write essays and conduct academic research. To make things easier, we’ve divided it into two sections. First, we’ll talk about how to use wikis to conduct research. Then we’ll talk briefly about using wikis to actually help you write your project.
Wikis as a Research Tool
As a student, though, you’ve probably been discouraged from using Wikipedia by well-meaning teachers. They might have forbidden you from citing or even looking at Wikipedia articles. Most of their objections are based on the myth that “just anybody” can put or change articles on a wiki. What if that article you’re citing about oil spills was authored by a BP employee? What if that article on ghost hunting was put up there by a “believer” who refused to consider any evidence that didn’t confirm her views on the paranormal?
While these suspicions are false— Wikipedia is often more accurate than commercial encyclopedias—these teachers are right about one thing: if you’re writing an academic paper, you need to cite academic sources, and Wikipedia —just like any other encyclopedia—is not an academic source. That’s not their fault; they were never intended to be used by students writing research papers. Instead, they’re designed for everyday people who just want a concise, simplified summary of a topic or issue. The author of an encyclopedia article might go to great lengths to make sure the facts presented there are accurate, but the information is still heavily filtered and diluted by the time it gets to print or screen. That’s because the author has to take in whatever has been written by professional researchers, then interpret it for people who have little to no understanding of the subject at hand.
Imagine trying to describe a new phone app to your tech-savvy friends versus a family member who has never owned a mobile phone. That’s the level of ignorance that every encyclopedia (or Wikipedia ) contributor has to deal with. Needless to say, a lot of information is going to be simplified or just left out entirely.
Academic sources, on the other hand, aren’t filtered or diluted at all. They don’t need to be, because the people who read them are experts in the subject matter. Because they are experts, they are better able to pick out where authors make mistakes. They can also tell (usually) when an author is intentionally being dishonest.
This line between academic and non-academic sources is where Wikipedia shines compared to its print-based cousins. Unlike them, Wikipedia pages are heavily referenced, meaning that the authors are routinely asked to provide credible documentation to back up their information. If you look closely at a page such as the “Deepwater Horizon oil spill” page, you’ll notice lots of numbers in brackets at the end of some sentences—nearly five hundred different sources! Click on one, and you’ll jump straight to the citation, which in most cases is a credible source such as an academic article, book, reputable website, government report, or newspaper item. Even though your teacher might not accept Wikipedia articles as a source, he or she is probably fine with a scientific report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management or the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. If these sources aren’t available online, you’ll need to go to your library’s homepage to figure out how to access them. You can do that by searching your library’s database, but if it gets confusing, just ask a reference librarian to help you.
Wikis like the Wikipedia can help you do research, but remember—they’re just there to give you a shallow understanding of a topic. When you’re ready to go deeper, click on the sources and find the actual academic research you need for your project.
Wikis as a Writing Tool
Using wikis to actually help you write a paper is very different than just using them for research. The big problem is other people. When you write an old-fashioned essay, you get to make all the decisions regarding what you say, how you say it, what order you put it in, and how many times you proofread it before handing it in. A wiki, on the other hand, turns all of these decisions into discussions. If you anger the other people working on the wiki, they might simply roll back your changes or even banish you! In any event, a poorly functioning group with lots of anger and resentment is very unlikely to produce a good wiki, assuming they produce anything at all.
Instead of viewing wikis as a writing tool, then, you should view them as a writing community. Understand that the other people involved are probably just as proud and convinced of the rightness of their choices as you are. Wiki writers have to be willing to see their own work routinely modified or even deleted by other people. That’s a big blow to a lot of students’ egos, especially those with good grades in their writing courses and who are proud of their ability. There’s always the temptation to get angry or depressed about it, lose your focus, and end up with a bad grade.
If you’re starting a new wiki project, then, the most important thing you can do is make sure that everyone onboard is clear about the goals you’ve set and the method for getting there. Plan ahead for disagreements and treat everyone with respect, especially when you feel they don’t deserve it. For your part, if you’ve argued your case and the majority still disagrees with you, don’t be stubborn or resentful. Just quietly accept it and move on, and don’t let it stop you from trying to make the rest of the project as good as it can be. If you show that you can handle disagreement in a professional and mature fashion, you’ll gain a level of trust and respect that’s a lot more valuable in the long run than the short-lived satisfaction you get from lashing out.
On a positive note, wikis are very simple to use, and the software is often free. Wikispaces , Wikidot , and Wetpaint are great choices for anyone new to wikis. Check out their various features and see which one will work best for your project. It’s also a good idea to look for existing wikis that are similar to what you have in mind; you’ll learn a lot by example. Even if you can’t find a wiki on your particular subject, such as the prevention of oil spills, you might find one on the prevention of forest fires. Whatever worked (and didn’t work) for the forest fire page will likely apply to yours as well, so study it carefully.
There’s a lot to know about wikis, and a good place to learn more is Wikipedia itself. Next time you’re doing research, take some time to notice the numbers in brackets and examine the sources the contributors have used to support their points. If you’re creating or contributing to a wiki project, don’t treat it like a traditional essay. Now, you’re working with other people. Be clear about the goals of the project, any rules and guidelines, and always be willing to compromise.
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Blog • Perfecting your Craft
Posted on Jun 30, 2023
How to Write a Biography: A 7-Step Guide [+Template]
From time to time, nonfiction authors become so captivated by a particular figure from either the present or the past, that they feel compelled to write an entire book about their life. Whether casting them as heroes or villains, there is an interesting quality in their humanity that compels these authors to revisit their life paths and write their story.
However, portraying someone’s life on paper in a comprehensive and engaging way requires solid preparation. If you’re looking to write a biography yourself, in this post we’ll share a step-by-step blueprint that you can follow.
How to write a biography:
1. Seek permission when possible
2. research your subject thoroughly, 3. do interviews and visit locations, 4. organize your findings, 5. identify a central thesis, 6. write it using narrative elements, 7. get feedback and polish the text.
Biography Outline Template
Craft a satisfying story arc for your biography with our free template.
While you technically don’t need permission to write about public figures (or deceased ones), that doesn't guarantee their legal team won't pursue legal action against you. Author Kitty Kelley was sued by Frank Sinatra before she even started to write His Way , a biography that paints Ol Blue Eyes in a controversial light. (Kelley ended up winning the lawsuit, however).
Whenever feasible, advise the subject’s representatives of your intentions. If all goes according to plan, you’ll get a green light to proceed, or potentially an offer to collaborate. It's a matter of common sense; if someone were to write a book about you, you would likely want to know about it well prior to publication. So, make a sincere effort to reach out to their PR staff to negotiate an agreement or at least a mutual understanding of the scope of your project.
At the same time, make sure that you still retain editorial control over the project, and not end up writing a puff piece that treats its protagonist like a saint or hero. No biography can ever be entirely objective, but you should always strive for a portrayal that closely aligns with facts and reality.
If you can’t get an answer from your subject, or you’re asked not to proceed forward, you can still accept the potential repercussions and write an unauthorized biography . The “rebellious act” of publishing without consent indeed makes for great marketing, though it’ll likely bring more headaches with it too.
✋ Please note that, like other nonfiction books, if you intend to release your biography with a publishing house , you can put together a book proposal to send to them before you even write the book. If they like it enough, they might pay you an advance to write it.
Book Proposal Template
Craft a professional pitch for your nonfiction book with our handy template.
Once you’ve settled (or not) the permission part, it’s time to dive deep into your character’s story.
Deep and thorough research skills are the cornerstone of every biographer worth their salt. To paint a vivid and accurate portrait of someone's life, you’ll have to gather qualitative information from a wide range of reliable sources.
Start with the information already available, from books on your subject to archival documents, then collect new ones firsthand by interviewing people or traveling to locations.
Browse the web and library archives
Put your researcher hat on and start consuming any piece on your subject you can find, from their Wikipedia page to news articles, interviews, TV and radio appearances, YouTube videos, podcasts, books, magazines, and any other media outlets they may have been featured in.
Establish a system to orderly collect the information you find 一 even seemingly insignificant details can prove valuable during the writing process, so be sure to save them.
Depending on their era, you may find most of the information readily available online, or you may need to search through university libraries for older references.
For his landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow spent untold hours at Columbia University’s library , reading through the Hamilton family papers, visiting the New York Historical Society, as well as interviewing the archivist of the New York Stock Exchange, and so on. The research process took years, but it certainly paid off. Chernow discovered that Hamilton created the first five securities originally traded on Wall Street. This finding, among others, revealed his significant contributions to shaping the current American financial and political systems, a legacy previously often overshadowed by other founding fathers. Today Alexander Hamilton is one of the best-selling biographies of all time, and it has become a cultural phenomenon with its own dedicated musical.
Besides reading documents about your subject, research can help you understand the world that your subject lived in.
Try to understand their time and social environment
Many biographies show how their protagonists have had a profound impact on society through their philosophical, artistic, or scientific contributions. But at the same time, it’s worth it as a biographer to make an effort to understand how their societal and historical context influenced their life’s path and work.
An interesting example is Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World . Finding himself limited by a lack of verified detail surrounding William Shakespeare's personal life, Greenblatt, instead, employs literary interpretation and imaginative reenactments to transport readers back to the Elizabethan era. The result is a vivid (though speculative) depiction of the playwright's life, enriching our understanding of his world.
Many readers enjoy biographies that transport them to a time and place, so exploring a historical period through the lens of a character can be entertaining in its own right. The Diary of Samuel Pepys became a classic not because people were enthralled by his life as an administrator, but rather from his meticulous and vivid documentation of everyday existence during the Restoration period.
Once you’ve gotten your hands on as many secondary sources as you can find, you’ll want to go hunting for stories first-hand from people who are (or were) close to your subject.
With all the material you’ve been through, by now you should already have a pretty good picture of your protagonist. But you’ll surely have some curiosities and missing dots in their character arc to figure out, which you can only get by interviewing primary sources.
Interview friends and associates
This part is more relevant if your subject is contemporary, and you can actually meet up or call with relatives, friends, colleagues, business partners, neighbors, or any other person related to them.
In writing the popular biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson interviewed more than one hundred people, including Jobs’s family, colleagues, former college mates, business rivals, and the man himself.
🔍 Read other biographies to get a sense of what makes a great one. Check out our list of the 30 best biographies of all time , or take our 30-second quiz below for tips on which one you should read next.
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When you conduct your interviews, make sure to record them with high quality audio you can revisit later. Then use tools like Otter.ai or Descript to transcribe them 一 it’ll save you countless hours.
You can approach the interview with a specific set of questions, or follow your curiosity blindly, trying to uncover revealing stories and anecdotes about your subject. Whatever your method, author and biography editor Tom Bromley suggests that every interviewer arrives prepared, "Show that you’ve done your work. This will help to put the interviewee at ease, and get their best answers.”
Bromley also places emphasis on the order in which you conduct interviews. “You may want to interview different members of the family or friends first, to get their perspective on something, and then go directly to the main interviewee. You'll be able to use that knowledge to ask sharper, more specific questions.”
Finally, consider how much time you have with each interviewee. If you only have a 30-minute phone call with an important person, make it count by asking directly the most pressing questions you have. And, if you find a reliable source who is also particularly willing to help, conduct several interviews and ask them, if appropriate, to write a foreword as part of the book’s front matter .
Sometimes an important part of the process is packing your bags, getting on a plane, and personally visiting significant places in your character’s journey.
Visit significant places in their life
A place, whether that’s a city, a rural house, or a bodhi tree, can carry a particular energy that you can only truly experience by being there. In putting the pieces together about someone’s life, it may be useful to go visit where they grew up, or where other significant events of their lives happened. It will be easier to imagine what they experienced, and better tell their story.
In researching The Lost City of Z , author David Grann embarked on a trek through the Amazon, retracing the steps of British explorer Percy Fawcett. This led Grann to develop new theories about the circumstances surrounding the explorer's disappearance.
Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with jaguars and anacondas to better understand your subject’s environment, but try to walk into their shoes as much as possible.
Once you’ve researched your character enough, it’s time to put together all the puzzle pieces you collected so far.
Take the bulk of notes, media, and other documents you’ve collected, and start to give them some order and structure. A simple way to do this is by creating a timeline.
Create a chronological timeline
It helps to organize your notes chronologically 一 from childhood to the senior years, line up the most significant events of your subject’s life, including dates, places, names and other relevant bits.
You should be able to divide their life into distinct periods, each with their unique events and significance. Based on that, you can start drafting an outline of the narrative you want to create.
Draft a story outline
Since a biography entails writing about a person’s entire life, it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can pick where you want to end the story, depending on how consequential the last years of your subject were. But the nature of the work will give you a starting character arc to work with.
To outline the story then, you could turn to the popular Three-Act Structure , which divides the narrative in three main parts. In a nutshell, you’ll want to make sure to have the following:
- Act 1. Setup : Introduce the protagonist's background and the turning points that set them on a path to achieve a goal.
- Act 2. Confrontation : Describe the challenges they encounter, both internal and external, and how they rise to them. Then..
- Act 3. Resolution : Reach a climactic point in their story in which they succeed (or fail), showing how they (and the world around them) have changed as a result.
Only one question remains before you begin writing: what will be the main focus of your biography?
Think about why you’re so drawn to your subject to dedicate years of your life to recounting their own. What aspect of their life do you want to highlight? Is it their evil nature, artistic genius, or visionary mindset? And what evidence have you got to back that up? Find a central thesis or focus to weave as the main thread throughout your narrative.
Or find a unique angle
If you don’t have a particular theme to explore, finding a distinct angle on your subject’s story can also help you distinguish your work from other biographies or existing works on the same subject.
Plenty of biographies have been published about The Beatles 一 many of which have different focuses and approaches:
- Philip Norman's Shout is sometimes regarded as leaning more towards a pro-Lennon and anti-McCartney stance, offering insights into the band's inner dynamics.
- Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head closely examines their music track by track, shifting the focus back to McCartney as a primary creative force.
- Craig Brown's One Two Three Four aims to capture their story through anecdotes, fan letters, diary entries, and interviews.
- Mark Lewisohn's monumental three-volume biography, Tune In , stands as a testament to over a decade of meticulous research, chronicling every intricate detail of the Beatles' journey.
Finally, consider that biographies are often more than recounting the life of a person. Similar to how Dickens’ Great Expectations is not solely about a boy named Pip (but an examination and critique of Britain’s fickle, unforgiving class system), a biography should strive to illuminate a broader truth — be it social, political, or human — beyond the immediate subject of the book.
Once you’ve identified your main focus or angle, it’s time to write a great story.
While biographies are often highly informative, they do not have to be dry and purely expository in nature . You can play with storytelling elements to make it an engaging read.
You could do that by thoroughly detailing the setting of the story , depicting the people involved in the story as fully-fledged characters , or using rising action and building to a climax when describing a particularly significant milestone of the subject’s life.
One common way to make a biography interesting to read is starting on a strong foot…
Hook the reader from the start
Just because you're honoring your character's whole life doesn't mean you have to begin when they said their first word. Starting from the middle or end of their life can be more captivating as it introduces conflicts and stakes that shaped their journey.
When he wrote about Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild , author Jon Krakauer didn’t open his subject’s childhood and abusive family environment. Instead, the book begins with McCandless hitchhiking his way into the wilderness, and subsequently being discovered dead in an abandoned bus. By starting in medias res , Krakauer hooks the reader’s interest, before tracing back the causes and motivations that led McCandless to die alone in that bus in the first place.
You can bend the timeline to improve the reader’s reading experience throughout the rest of the story too…
Play with flashback
While biographies tend to follow a chronological narrative, you can use flashbacks to tell brief stories or anecdotes when appropriate. For example, if you were telling the story of footballer Lionel Messi, before the climax of winning the World Cup with Argentina, you could recall when he was just 13 years old, giving an interview to a local newspaper, expressing his lifelong dream of playing for the national team.
Used sparsely and intentionally, flashbacks can add more context to the story and keep the narrative interesting. Just like including dialogue does…
Recreating conversations that your subject had with people around them is another effective way to color the story. Dialogue helps the reader imagine the story like a movie, providing a deeper sensory experience.
One thing is trying to articulate the root of Steve Jobs’ obsession with product design, another would be to quote his father , teaching him how to build a fence when he was young: “You've got to make the back of the fence just as good looking as the front of the fence. Even though nobody will see it, you will know. And that will show that you're dedicated to making something perfect.”
Unlike memoirs and autobiographies, in which the author tells the story from their personal viewpoint and enjoys greater freedom to recall conversations, biographies require a commitment to facts. So, when recreating dialogue, try to quote directly from reliable sources like personal diaries, emails, and text messages. You could also use your interview scripts as an alternative to dialogue. As Tom Bromley suggests, “If you talk with a good amount of people, you can try to tell the story from their perspective, interweaving different segments and quoting the interviewees directly.”
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
These are just some of the story elements you can use to make your biography more compelling. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, it’s a good idea to ask for feedback.
If you’re going to self-publish your biography, you’ll have to polish it to professional standards. After leaving your work to rest for a while, look at it with fresh eyes and self-edit your manuscript eliminating passive voice, filler words, and redundant adverbs.
Then, have a professional editor give you a general assessment. They’ll look at the structure and shape of your manuscript and tell you which parts need to be expanded on or cut. As someone who edited and commissioned several biographies, Tom Bromley points out that a professional “will look at the sources used and assess whether they back up the points made, or if more are needed. They would also look for context, and whether or not more background information is needed for the reader to understand the story fully. And they might check your facts, too.”
In addition to structural editing, you may want to have someone copy-edit and proofread your work.
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Importantly, make sure to include a bibliography with a list of all the interviews, documents, and sources used in the writing process. You’ll have to compile it according to a manual of style, but you can easily create one by using tools like EasyBib . Once the text is nicely polished and typeset in your writing software , you can prepare for the publication process.
In conclusion, by mixing storytelling elements with diligent research, you’ll be able to breathe life into a powerful biography that immerses readers in another individual’s life experience. Whether that’ll spark inspiration or controversy, remember you could have an important role in shaping their legacy 一 and that’s something not to take lightly.
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