How to Write a Biography

Whether you're hoping to become a published author, need to write a biography essay, or have a professional bio to complete, writing a biography requires care and tact. In a biography, you're telling the story of someone's most prized possession, their life. Follow a few simple steps and use tips for writing biographies to learn how to write a biography.

how to write a biography how to write a biography
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What Is a Biography?

Before you can write a biography, you have to understand exactly what a biography is. A biography is an “account of a person’s life written by another.” In the world of online bios, you could write your own biography.

Everything you write in a biography must be presented accurately while being interesting and engaging. What is it about your subject's life that will strike a chord or educate people?

Step 1: Choose a Subject

The first step in writing a biography is choosing your subject. Is that subject living or dead? For the most part, the process will be the same either way. You'll want to examine major life events, relationships, and the person’s influence on society.

When choosing a subject, there are several important questions to ask yourself.

  • Is the person's life interesting enough to warrant a biography?
  • Did they make an impact or meaningful decisions that will encourage others?
  • Will their life connect with an audience?
  • Is the subject already famous or a lesser-known person who should be brought to the forefront?

Writing About Celebrities

Celebrities and famous figures are universally viewed as interesting and will have a wider audience.If you choose to write about a famous person, make sure your biography stands out in some way from all the others.

Writing About an Unknown Person

If you know an ordinary person with an extraordinary story that could strike a chord with people, don't be afraid to write about it. Just be sure to narrowly focus the biography on those striking components that will connect with the readers. Someone unknown will be a tougher sell because you have to convince people to care about this unknown entity.

Writing About a Person Who Is Dead

When writing about someone who's already passed, you won't have access to their voice and will never know their feelings on your work. You can work with their family and former colleagues or use personal writings like journals to help you get an intimate view of your subject’s life.

Writing a Personal or Professional Bio

Unlike all other biographies, you are the author of your own personal or professional bio. In literary terms, this is considered an autobiography, but in the modern world the word “bio,” which is short for “biography,” is used. You can use the same steps for writing a biography to write an online bio.

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Step 2: Gain Permission From the Subject

Once you've chosen your subject, you'll likely need their permission. If the person is deceased, you can ask their living family members for permission. 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 far more compelling if the subject is willing to talk to you.

If you don't get permission and you still wish to publish, you'll have to make sure you don't print anything untrue that could be viewed as slander or libel. If you hurt someone's reputation through your unauthorized biography, you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit.

Step 3: Research the Life of Your Subject

As you conduct your research, the ultimate primary source is the subject. But, whether they're living or dead, that may not always be an option.

Using Primary Sources

Thankfully, there are other primary sources besides the subject of your biography. They include the subject's personal writings, those with firsthand information about the subject, original historical or legal documents, statistical records, and audio or video recordings. A piece of writing created during the time of an important event, such as a news article, may also be considered a primary source.

Using Secondary Sources

Secondary sources will be helpful to your research too, if you choose wisely. A secondary source is something created by someone who didn't know the subject directly or didn't witness an event with their own eyes.

A secondary source was created at a later time, based on primary or secondary sources, such as a review, analysis, or documentary. When using these sources, be sure to look into the writer's credibility to see whether they can be trusted.

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Step 4: Choose a Biography Format

Since a biography is a non-fictional account of a person's life, starting at the beginning will probably set the rest of the story up nicely. That said, your audience may not want the details of your subject's happy-yet-uneventful childhood when a heroic or evil deed is on the horizon. So, the manner in which you organize your ideas should be determined before you really dig in.

The key to organizing a biography is to tell a story that always comes back to a theme. Is it about a person's resilience? Is it about their sense of adventure and exploration? Once you've decided that, the order in which you choose to lay out the details is entirely up to you. So, trust your instincts. Beyond that, keep to the narrative you'd like readers to pick up on.

Types of Biographies

You can find biographies written as children’s books, magazine stories, or novels. An abbreviated biography is called a biographical sketch.

Here are some ways to format your biography, aside from chronological order.

  • By topic - Focus on the topics that affected the person's life. Detail each major event one by one.
  • By theme - A thematic biography uses an overarching point of view or a characteristic of the subject to tie all life events back to a central theme.
  • Through interviews - Talk to your subject, if you can. Ask people close to the subject what they thought of the subject, the people around the subject, and key events. Relay the story through these first-person accounts.
  • In media res - In media res is a literary term meaning "in the middle of things". Stories written in media res do not lead up to the main event but begin in the middle of the tale and work backwards to hit on crucial elements, only to then resume a forward-moving account.
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Step 5: Outline Their Story

Before you've gathered all your intel, you need to decide what you're going to do with it. Generally, it's best to start with an outline so you know what details are going to be included in the biography. Determine the main point, or thesis, then outline how each section or chapter tells a part of the story to support that thesis.

Do you want to cover a person's entire life, or focus on one significant aspect of their story? A timeline of their life will help you paint a picture and decide what to highlight. This will also help you decide if you want to present your biography in chronological order, by major life events, or in some other fashion.

Step 6: Write a First Draft

Now you know what information you need to fill in the details. Remember to present your subject accurately and tell a compelling story. Include relevant details, stick to that theme you're trying to convey, and draw your reader in with intrigue and motivating elements.

Have fun writing. If you're invested in the story you want to share through the chronology of someone else's life, that will translate well. Your readers will absorb your enthusiasm and give credence to your subject. You're about to take on a project that can shape the hearts and minds of others. So make sure you enjoy the ride.

Step 7: Edit Your Work

As you edit, make sure you've stuck to the outline you selected, whether that's chronological, event-based, or in media res. Tie every major element back to the theme and teach your readers something, whether that's the power of resilience, the impact of an adventurous heart, or the need for goodness in the world.

When you’re happy with the biography, get a second opinion from your subject or other primary sources you used. Be thoughtful about making any suggested changes.

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Biography Examples

Researching other biographies is an excellent way to draw inspiration for your own biography. YourDictionary features a Biographies channel where you can view a variety of biographies for famous figures from actor Bruce Willis to Filipino revolutionary Melchora Aquino.