How To Write A Great Biography - Queen Victoria reads a book, grinning.

How To Write A Great Biography

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Ah, the biography – a form frequently mangled by those who think it’s an easy beast to tame. All you need is a person to write about or an exciting life, right? After that, the book writes itself.

Wrong. While writers of biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies don’t have to worry about thinking up original stories or characters, they do have plenty of obstacles to face: incredibly detailed research, structure, characterization, plot (yep, even biographies need plot), reportage, fact-checking, dramatization…

In many ways, writing a biography is arguably more difficult than writing a work of fiction. You’ve got to respect the truth, and the boundaries of reality and your own research limit what you can do with your characters and plot. Focus is key and, because people’s lives are uneven, with long stretches of uneventful ‘keepin’ on’ between noteworthy moments, pacing can be incredibly difficult to get right.

So, how should you go about writing a biography? Well, I can’t answer that entirely, but I can give you some great tips.

Subject

The obvious question when writing a biography is who it’s about. If it’s an autobiography/memoir, that’ll be an easy question to answer but, if it’s a biography, it’s time to think a little further.

Firstly, it’s a good idea to write about someone whose expertise/interests match your own. Writing about Picasso is going to be a slog if you have no interest in or understanding of art history, and writing about Steven Hawking is going to confuse the hell out of you if your grasp of physics is anything like mine.

Instead, go for someone who’s famous for something you already know about or are interested in. That way, you’ll be able to write with authority and will be in a good position to comment on your subject’s denser ideas, achievements, or moments.

Of course, there’s still something to be said for writers who begin a project totally ignorant of their subject’s field who’re then, through arduous research and personal learning, able to walk their reader through complex concepts in a clear and straightforward manner. However, this is a difficult path to walk and ultimately necessitates just as much (if not more) research; the benefit is mainly in the remembered state of ignorance, which allows the writer to more easily empathize and communicate with a comparatively ignorant readership.

Another thing to consider when selecting your subject is the number of sources available to you. You want enough information to have something to work with, but not so much that it’ll take you decades to chew through. After all, if you’re writing a biography, you need to be authoritative, which means you need to read everything you can on every aspect of your subject’s life. If you don’t know the ins and outs of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marriage, you can bet some snide Amazon reviewer will.

Research

Nonfiction relies far more heavily on thorough research than fiction, so don’t get stuck into a biography project if you’re not willing to spend hours trawling the internet, digging into archives, and interviewing family members, experts, and old acquaintances. Biographies sink or swim based on the quality of the research behind them, so brace yourself for hard work!

It’s important when researching to have a variety of sources at your disposal. Yes, the internet’s useful, but you’re also going to want to consult official records, newspapers, books, encyclopedias, letters, journals, people, public and private collections/archives… In some cases, you might need to travel, in which case you’ll have to factor in costs and possible language barriers.

While, in general, the more you know, the better, there should still be information you prioritize. Obviously, your subject needs to have some remarkable quality that justifies a biography, be that an achievement, an experience, or simply the bent of their life, so you should have some sense of what in particular should be the focus of your biography.

This might be a specific event, or it may be a theme. While a biography of Charles Darwin would likely be arranged around his writing and publication of The Origin of Species, the seminal moment of his life and career, a biography of Queen Elizabeth would be less obviously focused, since she’s remarkable not because of any particular achievement but because of the circumstances of her life and position. Still, in this scenario, the idea isn’t that the latter biography wouldn’t have a focus, just that the focus would be more conceptual in nature.

As a first step, you should look to gather as much basic information about your subject and their immediate family as possible. Scour public birth records, consult archives, contact living relatives, and plot the information gathered in a detailed family tree containing as much basic biographical information as possible: the places and dates of births and deaths, the places they grew up and lived, details of their marriages, etc. It’s important to have these relationships mapped out early on as you’ll be surprised to find how relevant they become throughout the course of your subject’s life.

It’s a good idea at this point to reach out to any surviving family members of your subject (being extremely polite, nice, and sycophantic, of course), as they’ll have access to information you’ll be unable to find elsewhere. Be aware, though, that they may be understandably suspicious – you are, after all, presumably a stranger who’s looking to dig up the past and delve into their family’s personal history. Be as obliging and grateful as you can!

Whether a family member is available or not, look to meet and befriend experts in any fields relevant to your subject. If your subject is famous, there’ll doubtlessly be someone out there who knows all about them, and it’s your duty to find them, buy them coffee, and pick their brains. They’ll be able to hook you up with other useful sources and will have access to unique personal information (especially if they knew your subject personally).

Once you’ve gathered a good amount of information, start putting together a timeline of your subject’s life. As well as organizing your more relevant information in a clear and linear format, a timeline will give you a sense of pacing – you’ll see which parts of your subject’s life were more or less exciting, and you’ll be able to organize your structure accordingly.

Structure

How you structure your biography will depend heavily on who you’re writing about. If, for example, you’re writing about a single subject whose entire career or life could in some sense be considered remarkable – the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth, for example, or a musician with a long and consistently impressive career, like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen – then it makes sense to structure your biography chronologically. Because such individuals aren’t famous for any single achievement, the focus of their biographies can be more evenly spread over their lives.

If, however, you were writing about a group of people – say, the Brontë sisters or the Black Panthers – then it might make more sense to contain your narrative within a specific time period or frame it around a particular event. This kind of structure allows you to arrange several distinct individuals around a unifying theme, keeping your book’s structure tight and your focus clear. 

This method is used to great effect in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which, as a biography, is unique in that it’s both a biography of a group and a kind of memoir. Laing uses her move to New York City and her consequent confrontation with loneliness as a framing device to explore the lives, works, and characters of four New York artists: Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. In this book, the specific time period used to bind these disparate individuals is, strangely, one that none of them occupied; it is, instead, a period in the author’s own life, long after the deaths of the artists. What all share – author as well as subjects – is New York City.

Laing’s book goes to show that, when it comes to structure, it pays to be imaginative. Instead of falling back on the default chronological structure, consider different framing devices: tell your subject’s story using, say, collected postcards as prompts for shared memories, each telling a story that, while isolated on its own, eventually becomes another piece in a wider jigsaw puzzle, or tell one subject’s life story in opposition to another’s, their differing character arcs snaking steadily closer together.

However you decide to structure your story, keep your subject in mind; what works for Bob Marley might not work for Joseph Stalin.

Style

Textbook after textbook has been written on the intricacies of biographical style, so I won’t attempt to tell the whole story here. Instead, let’s cover a few useful tips.

First, unless it’s an autobiography, it’s not about you (or, at least, it’s not predominantly about you)! If you’re writing the biography of a band, write about the band, not anecdotes about your reactions to that band. It’s easy to get lost in our own subjectivity, but your readers don’t have the same automatic fondness for your perspective. Of course, as Laing’s The Lonely City proves, sometimes a biography can be about others and about you.

Next up, keep in mind that absolute truth isn’t necessarily important. Personal accounts will always differ and diverge, and that’s OK – that’s where your story gets color. Just make sure you don’t publish anything libelous, as you can be called to defend any statements you make!

Always be mindful of your book’s scope. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and, if you feel like your book has too many ‘flat’ sections, dive into more research until you find something interesting to say. If there’s not enough interesting content for a full biography, don’t be afraid to reconsider your form – biographical articles are very popular, or you could expand your scope and use what you’ve learned as context for a larger story.

Remember, also, that you’re not writing a textbook. Biographies are nonfiction, but they also rely on narrative. While you should never lie, you do need to find an engaging, satisfying story in the truth.

Finally, if you’re going to be quoting extensively from copyrighted works, ask for permission sooner rather than later so you’re not forced to rewrite entire sections of your book. The Society of Authors has a useful guide to copyright and permissions.

A life worth telling

Biographies are no longer the dry, historical, chronological A-to-Bs they used to be; today, the genre is adapting and changing in exciting and imaginative ways. As such, there’s never been a better time to consider writing a biography, but make sure you’re aware before diving in that you’ll have your work cut out for you!

As I said, an interesting subject is not enough; a biography’s quality isn’t determined by how interesting its subject is but by how skilled and meticulous its writer. So, when picking a subject, researching, structuring, and writing your biography, pay attention to these tips!

What are your favorite biographies? Think we missed any important tips? Let me know in the comments, and check out Writing Creative Nonfiction – How To Stay Safe (And Legal) and Six Tips For Writing A Memoir That People Will Actually Read for more great advice on this topic.

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