How to write a good biography

April 26, 2016
April 26, 2016 Theo Brainin

How to write a good biography

The best biographies are written for novel reasons. A biography aims to inform, captivate, enrage, inspire, or all of the above. They offer us an extensive insight into the life of a remarkable person. They are the lifeblood of any section marked ‘Non-Fiction’.

The worst biographies are written for no reason at all. Or no real reason, anyway. They fail to capture the imagination and, as such, are often abandoned mid-way through, left unread on the dusty shelf of an obscure bookshop or marked as spam in a potential publisher’s inbox. And trust us, it happens all the time.

But it doesn’t have to be that way… No, Sir. That is why we are proud to present the Story Terrace guide to crafting a hit biography for dummies.

The Start of Your Biography: The Idea

One of the first recorded biographies to grace the page was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Written in the 1st Century by the Charles Dickens of Ancient Greece, the book was a compilation of the life and times of famous men (Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Coriolanus, to name but a few) ‒ and is, what you might call, a bestseller of the time.

Plutarch’s idea was to not simply write the history of these people, but to reflect on their character and how it was critical to their success.

It might not sound like a lot, but Plutarch was a life-writing revolutionary. He made the distinction between biography and plain old history, realising that the thing that makes a story interesting is not the facts or events, but the feelings and motivations of the people involved. Why would someone buy Katie Price’s bestselling autobiography Being Jordan when the information is available for free on Wikipedia? The answer is because it offers the reader a glimpse of the action, it narrows the gap between reader and subject, allowing us to understand them on a more personal level.

Don't be a puppet, biography writing is about freedom.

picture by Jose Maria Cuellar

So how does this relate to your spine-tingling biography idea? Well, whilst you might have an idea of who you want to write about, it is also important to take the advice of Tom from Your Life, Your Story and think about why you want to write about them. Think in terms of: what makes your subject interesting? What is it about your subject that a reader would want to know (that they don’t already)? How can you make the story come alive?

The Research

Depending on whether your subject is living, living and unwilling to help, recently deceased or long deceased, your research may take a different path…

If they’re alive then your best shot, and primary research tool, would be to interview the subject, their family, friends and anyone else who may have a unique perspective on the person.
There are three basic ways of conducting an interview:

  • The hard journalistic method: Using heavily prepared, specific questions on a specific subject to reveal specific answers.
  • The soft journalistic method: Using prepared but open questions, allowing the interviewee to move in the direction that they want.
  • The conversational method: an open back-and-forth, letting the interviewee lead the discussion in the hope of revealing something a little special or unexpected.

Each method has its positives and negatives, so it’s up to you to decide the best way of eliciting information from your interviewee. For example, if your collecting background information or trying to understand your subject as a person, then a soft journalistic or conversational method would probably work best. Whereas if you’re attempting to extrapolate succinct quotes or precise information, the hard journalistic method is the way to do it.

If you’re unable to rely on interviews, then it comes down to good old fashioned research ‒ roll up your sleeves and prepare for a long ride. You’re going to need to amass a wealth of primary and secondary sources if you want your biography to have any legitimacy, so hit the books, scan the internet and talk to experts for information.

Do periphery research, too. If your subject lived long ago, then study what life was like back then. What was happening socially, economically and politically? What were the attitudes and opinions of the people around your subject? How might this have informed their life?

Though you should start with a fully-formed idea, remember to keep an open mind. You never know what you might find during your research, what you might learn that will shatter your preconceptions of the subject.

Most of all, keep in mind the words of Albert Szent-Györgyi: “Research is to see what everyone else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”

Make sure to prioritise research when writing your biography.

picture by Leo Hidalgo

The Writing Process

So you’ve got a solid idea in the bank, you’ve done months upon months of research and now you’re ready to write. This is where it counts folks, so listen up…

What you’re essentially trying to do is condense an entire life into the form of a book; an interesting book. A book that someone might even want to read in their spare time. And let’s get one thing clear: life and life-writing are not the same thing. Life has no form, no structure and is completely unlike a book. Think about it: there’s barely any plot, no overarching themes and mostly bad dialogue. Twists and events are either predictable or random; and the ending’s always the same. In the words of Elbert Hubbard: “Life is just one damn thing after the other.” So how do you then leave your mark on your story? How do you create a beautiful narrative of your life story to share with others?

The job of the biographer, therefore, is to shape and condense a person’s life into a structured story.

This means focusing on the relevant parts of the subject’s life, choosing the bits that developed them as a person and arranging it all into narrative form. This means privileging suspense, humour, pathos and all the other things that spin a great yarn… We never said it was going to be easy.

A typewriter and plant sits on a table, ready for biography writing.

picture by Chris

The good news about this is the freedom. Fancy starting in the middle? Go for it. Have a unique theory about your subject? Stick it in. So long as all the action and events are verifiably true, anything else is generally fair game.

Writing a book is said to follow 3 stages:

  • Drafting: Creating and shaping the original body of text.
  • Revising: Reviewing and altering the text to craft a more cohesive work.
  • Editing: Correcting, organising and condensing the text into the best it can be.

In reality, however, these stages tend to overlap and intermingle depending on the writer. Even so, it’s good to remember that the first draft is NEVER perfect and is often completely different to the finished product. Meaning: don’t get bummed out if things don’t seem to click at first. It may take several drafts and revisions to craft the biography of your dreams, but keep trudging onwards until you’re happy. Then, when you’re happy with the content, get down to the editing.

Ready to start work on your hit biography yet? Are you sure? We wish you luck, writer ‒ heed our advice because there’s a long road ahead…

Caolan Blaney, Story Terrace

Infographic by Story Terrace on how to write a good biography. Step-by-step guide showing writers the process involved in writing a biography from the initial idea to the method.

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