We’ll just say it: biographies don’t often make the most exciting reads, especially when they’re loaded with fact after fact, and not much insight or narrative.
However, when the writer is passionate and highly knowledgeable about the story they’re telling, a biography can be just as riveting as an action-packed novel.
If you’ve considered writing a biography about the life of someone you admire or whose story interests you, you’ll definitely want to do a thorough job. The steps and information presented below will help ensure that your writing is accurate and well organized.
What Is a Biography?
A biography is an account of a person’s life that includes facts and anecdotes from that person’s experiences. They can be great resources for studying the lives of fascinating figures, both living and dead.
Most biographies are written to tell the stories of famous or highly influential people, such as politicians, celebrities, athletes, and billionaires.
But biographies can also be written about ordinary people who have made an extraordinary impact on others, even if they are not extremely well-known prior to publication.
A biography may come with the label “authorized” if the subject or their family members gave the author permission to write the story. “Unauthorized” biographies are also frequently published, but without the permission or input of the subject, which may leave the authors subject to legal action.
Difference Between a Biography and an Autobiography
A biography is an account of the life of someone other than the author. An autobiography is an account of the author’s own life. However, the definition may be blurry in cases when a ghostwriter helps someone write his autobiography.
A ghostwriter is a writer who helps another person in creating a book. This help may come in the form of collaboration, or the ghostwriter might do all the writing themselves. When a person wants to write their autobiography but is not exactly gifted at writing, they may ask a ghostwriter to help create it.
What Should a Biography Include?
Biographies usually share more intimate information about their subjects, compared to what is generally included in a feature article. The most interesting things typically included in a biography are:
- the subject’s family background and childhood
- stories that illustrate their personality
- their motivations, goals, and achievements
- their key relationships, such as their siblings, spouse, children, best friends, colleagues, mentors, rivals
- their hidden fears or desires
- stories and anecdotes about their experiences, especially those that illustrate the traits you wish to highlight
How Do You Start Writing a Biography?
When you write a biography, you’re exploring the details of a person’s life, including their thought processes and emotions.
This means that you must be able to write with care and tact. You will also be analyzing the events in your subject’s life and explaining why they do certain things to draw connections between those experiences.
The length of a biography can vary greatly. It might be very short, and divulge only the basic facts of a person’s life.
However, for most published works, biographies offer a deeper analysis, including many stories and examples that demonstrate the person’s unique character.
1. Choose your subject.
Ideally, your subject should be someone whose life deeply interests you. Note, however, that this doesn’t mean you have to like the person. Many biographies are written from a critical viewpoint, in which the subject’s flaws and mistakes are analyzed.
Keep in mind that your feelings about the person will affect the way you write, and consequently influence how readers view the work.
If your subject is still living, you should make every effort to interview them (or at least their representatives). When it comes to writing a biography, a you are writing about someone alive or not, the process remains the same, except for the fact that you can still interview a living person.
An important part of choosing your subject is obtaining their permission. You need to ask the person whether or not they agree to let you write their biography.
If they agree, it’s all well and good! If they don’t agree and you proceed anyway, you might be subject to legal action should your subject decide to pursue it.
If the person you choose to write about is dead, you will not need to ask anyone’s permission.
2. Find out the basic facts about your subject’s life.
If the person you are writing about is famous, you will likely be able to find certain details online, such as their birthday, family background, and other basic information. The same holds true even if he is not famous but you know him personally.
Then, you can use news articles or similar sources to help you decide which part of their life interests you the most.
3. Conduct thorough research.
For research, biographers rely on both primary and secondary sources.
- Primary sources: If you are writing about a living person, primary sources might include interviews with that person, their family members, friends, and colleagues, as well as letters, journals, diaries, speeches, newspaper accounts, school records or reports, and other documents.
- Secondary sources: If you write about a famous person, chances are there are already other books written about them. Biographies that another person has written fall under secondary sources, as do reference books and histories that support your information.
Because a good biography will include stories from the subject’s experiences, be sure to collect personal stories and even anecdotes.
These will surely bring greater credibility to your writing, and make your subject more relatable to your readers.
How to Write a Biography
Now that you’ve done your research, it’s time to begin writing the biography, starting with a detailed outline to help you organize your idea and information.
4. Write an outline of your biography.
Once you’ve figured out the direction you want to take with your biography, an outline will help you organize your thoughts and information so you’ll be better prepared to start writing.
Create a bullet point for every main theme that you want to include which may correspond to one chapter. Then write another bullet, indented to the right, for each different sub-topic within the main theme. These will be the different sections inside each chapter.
You have several options for writing your outline:
- Chronological order: Many biographers go for a chronological account of their subject’s life, from the day they were born, through their childhood, school days, career, and so on.
- Specific time periods: Another way of outlining is to group certain time periods around a specific theme. For example, your subject’s difficult childhood may be lumped together into a theme entitled “Early Adversity.”
- Thematic: Other biographers outline their chapters by themes. For example, a theme on your subject’s generous heart may include examples from across his life, while a theme on his intellectual prowess may also portray his academic achievements across many years.
5. Start writing your first draft.
Now that you have all your information collected, start to write your story based on the outline you prepared in step 4. Some writers prefer to write one chapter after another, while others don’t mind jumping around chapters. Experiment and find what works best for you.
When you start to write, don’t worry too much about editing or fact-checking. At this point, just concentrate on crafting the story in an interesting way that will hook your readers.
6. Take a break before proofreading and fact checking your first draft.
You will likely be excited to start editing once you’ve finished your first draft, but you’ll actually be doing yourself a favor by taking a break for at least a few days.
In this way, you’ll be able to return to work with a fresh set of eyes, which will leave you better able to catch errors and see your work from a new perspective.
Once you feel ready, start scanning your work for typos, cut and paste paragraphs you want to transfer, and even eliminate whole passages that don’t seem to play an important role in the story.
This is also the best time to fine-tune and fact check your writing.
7. Get another perspective.
Once you have smoothed out everything you can in your work, now is the time to get someone else’s feedback.
Whether you intend to publish your biography or not, it’s always a good idea to get feedback from someone who is skilled in writing.
Their comments will not only improve your biography, but also provide valuable tips for improving your writing in the future.
8. Send a copy to your subject.
Consider sending a copy of your manuscript to the person whose life you wrote about in your book.
The copy may serve as a thank-you gift, but also, if you intend to publish your work, you will need them to approve, as well as fact check, everything you put into the story.
Publish Your Biography
Congratulations! Now that you’ve finished writing your biography, you should start to work on getting your book published.
Check out our ultimate guide on how to publish a book, which features tips on self-publishing, as well as pitching to traditional or independent publishers.
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