Whether you are hoping to become a published author or you just have a school assignment to write about another person, writing a biography requires special care and tact. In a biography, you are telling the story of someone’s life. You thus have to make sure you present them accurately and that you write interesting and engaging information that leaves your reader feeling as though they learned something from your writing.
Writing a Biography
A biography is defined as a story written about someone’s life. This means that the first key to writing a biography is to choose your subject to write about.
Choosing a Subject
When you choose who to write about someone in a biography, there are a number of factors to consider.
- You must determine whether the person is interesting enough to write a biography about. A lot will depend on the person’s experiences and on how long the biography has to be. For example, while you might be able to write a short biography on someone who hasn’t had a lot of life experience or done a lot of interesting things, writing a long biography would be much more difficult.
- You might want to write about famous people or political figures, as their lives are universally viewed as exciting or as having had an impact. For example, a biography about President Reagan or Edmund Hillary might have a wide audience because people are interested in the life of the president or the life of the person who climbed Mount Everest. People are also interested in celebrities and might be willing to read a biography of their lives.
This isn’t to say that every person you write a biography about must be a famous figure. Plenty of ordinary people have extraordinary stories that can be very interesting – as long as you tell them well and focus the biography narrowly enough on the things that matter.
You could also consider writing a biography on yourself. This is referred to as an autobiography. These too can be interesting, provided you have a good story to tell, especially since you likely have a lot of insight into your own mind.
Once you have chosen a subject, you likely will need to get the permission of the subject to write the biography. This isn’t always a prerequisite – plenty of “unauthorized” biographies have been written about celebrities based on information available in the public domain. However, a biography is usually much more interesting and can give a much fuller picture of the subject’s life if the subject cooperates and is willing to talk to you about what you are writing.
In addition, if you do not get permission and you wish to publish your biography, you must be very careful that you don’t print anything untrue or false that could be viewed as slander or libel. If you hurt someone’s reputation through your unauthorized biography by printing untrue facts about them, you could be subject to a lawsuit otherwise.
Another key to writing a biography is to know how to collect the information that you are going to include. Generally, it is best to start with an outline so you will know what details are going to be included in the biography. Do you want to focus on a person’s whole life, or do you want to focus on a significant or specific aspect of what that person has done?
Biographies should generally be organized chronologically. Since a biography is a non-fictional account of a person’s life, starting at the beginning of the life would probably provide details for the rest of the story.
Other ways to consider writing a biography, perhaps if you are more advanced in the field of biography writing, are:
- By topic. Focus on topics that affected the person’s life and detail them one by one.
- Through interviews. Ask people what they thought of the individual and any stories that they would like to share. Tell the tale through a series of interviews.
- In media res. A literary term meaning “in the middle of things,” stories written in the in media res style will begin in the middle of the tale, and then go backward, work forward to where the story began, and then progress to the end
The key to organizing a biography is to tell the story in a way that makes sense with the details of the person about whom the biography is written. Researching other biographies is an excellent way to get ideas of how to organize the biography that you want to write.
- Birth and Childhood – Providing details about the location where someone was raised and what time period that person was raised in are necessary to give your readers a historical context. For example, if you are writing about a black person living in the south during the Civil War or a Jewish individual in Germany during the Holocaust, your reader needs to know that to set a tone for the type of situation that the person was in.
- Adult Life – The majority of your biography is going to focus on the person’s adult life when the significant events started to occur in the subject matter’s life. Perhaps it was during college, courtship to a future spouse, or the birth of a first child. In any case, you want to open your first chapter on this person’s adult life with some sort of notable event.
- Handling Death – If the subject of your story is deceased, you should mention that somewhere in the biography. If the person was of a particular religious background, you could incorporate those elements as well.
Determining how to divide up your chapters and what points you want the book to discuss will help you determine what information you need to gather. For example, if you plan to write a biography only on someone’s service in a war, then you wouldn’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time delving into their early career as a car salesman, unless that somehow impacted the way they performed in the war.
Determine the “thesis” or main point of your biography and then outline how each chapter will tell a part of the story to support that thesis. Make sure you don’t stray from your main idea too far and then prepare to collect information to fill in the details of each chapter.
Once you know what the book is going to be about, it is time to collect the information to put into it. You can do this by interviewing your subject, by looking at newspaper headlines and public records, by interviewing other people who knew the subject, and by using any other tools at your disposal to figure out just what was going on.
If you do conduct interviews, your book will likely be much richer since the voice of the person you are writing about will come through. Structure your questions carefully and record the interviews or take careful notes so you make sure to represent your subject accurately.
Writing and Editing
After you have done all the prewriting, it is time to actually sit down and write. Remember both to represent your subject faithfully and to tell an interesting story for the audience. Include relevant details, stick to your thesis, and show the reader just who it is you are writing about and why they should be interested in reading.