People are naturally curious beings. And they love to read about the lives of others, and what makes them tick. It is for that very reason that biographies remain a very popular genre of nonfiction.
But what is it that makes the difference between a mediocre Biography and a truly good one?
What is a biography?
Before we dive too far into what makes a good biography, let’s first take a look at exactly what a biography is.
By definition, a biography is simply an account of someone’s life, written by someone else. Pretty easy, right?
Not so fast. Anyone can write a story about someone else’s life. But not just anyone can make it a story worth reading.
To start with the basics, any good biography should contain the following key elements:
- A third-person account of the person’s life
- Descriptions of the person’s life or significant events in their life
- Factual (and not fabricated) information
- Inclusion of historical information about the time period
- Personal information that describes who the person is at the core, and why they are who they are
How to write a good biography
Now that we’ve established what a biography is, let’s discuss the eight steps to Writing a great biography.
Step 1: Ask permission.
While it is technically true that anyone can write a biography about anyone else, if the Subject is still living, it is always best to seek permission.
For starters, unless your information comes entirely from factual sources in the public domain, such as newspaper articles or other reputable books, you could face defamation and privacy lawsuits if the subject of the book feels that their privacy has been violated.
Even without the threat of lawsuits, though, it always helps to have input from the book’s subject. After all, they are the best experts on themselves!
In the case of subjects who are deceased, you do not have to seek permission, as the right to sue for defamation or invasion of privacy stops at the grave.
Be conscientious about what you write, though, as some states extend the right of privacy to family members of the deceased.
Besides, just as it’s helpful to get input from the subject themself, it can also be helpful to ask family for their support and input.
Regardless of who you are writing the biography about, be sure to research the laws in your state and, when in doubt, consult a lawyer.
Step 2: Collect the basic facts.
Before you can get started with writing your biography, you must first collect basic information about your subject. This should include things such as:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Names of parents
- Names of siblings
- Cultural background
- Organizational or political involvement
Once you have all of the relevant basic information about your subject, you will know what areas you need to research further.
Step 3: Do research.
One of the most important steps to writing a good biography is to conduct quality research.
If possible, if the subject is still living, take the time to thoroughly interview your subject. Ask them questions about their childhood, significant events in their life, their career, and what they most value in life.
Once you have gotten a good feel for who your subject is and what makes them tick, solicit interviews from their relatives and friends.
While the first-person account is incredibly important, it’s also valuable to hear from people who know the subject and can speak about how the subject has influenced their lives.
Another great way to find information on your subject is to look into primary sources such as emails or letters they wrote, diary entries, and even social media accounts.
And if you’ve exhausted all of your primary sources, looking into secondary sources, such as newspaper articles written about them, can prove to be very helpful as well.
Step 4: Nail down your theme.
You’ve conducted your research and gathered all of the important information about your subject. The next big step is to nail down a theme for your biography.
The theme is the reoccurring idea or message that you want to get across to your readers.
For a biography, this could be anything from the important lessons that your subject learned throughout their time as the CEO of a company, or their transformation from rags to riches.
Nailing down the theme you wish to convey with your biography is a must, as it helps provide direction and a goal for your writing.
Step 5: Identify what makes the subject special or unique.
Everybody has something that makes them special and unique. And if you are going to the trouble to write a biography about a person, this is probably especially true.
What kind of impact did they have on the lives of others? What kind of impact did they have on their community?
Don’t be afraid to include your own personal thoughts about what made your subject noteworthy. After all, biographies are not meant to be just a list of facts.
Step 6: Identify major “chapters” of the subject’s life.
Now that you have established what makes your subject special or unique, it’s time to figure out the contributing circumstances that helped shape who they are.
Did they lose a parent at an early age? Did they fight in a major war?
It’s no secret that who we are is a direct result of what we have lived through. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so eloquently put it, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
So, find out where your subject’s strength came from. Research both personal events in their life and world events they lived though, and see how they were affected by those experiences.
Step 7: Make a chronological outline or timeline of the subject’s life.
Once you have determined exactly what you want to write about, it’s time to pinpoint what the true storylines for your biography are.
All of the facts about a person are part of their story. But not all facts are worth diving into and telling in depth.
Think about what kinds of things your readers will want to know.
What were the high points in your subject’s life? What were the low points?
What were the situations that presented a challenge that had to be overcome?
Keep in mind that even when the book you are writing is factual, your audience is still going to expect to be entertained. So, find those major moments that shaped your subject’s life, and then use them to form an outline for your biography.
Once you have done that, the outline can be used as the map that guides your writing.
Step 8: Start writing.
Now comes the fun part!
Actually, when it comes to biographies, the whole process can be a lot of fun. But putting all of your research and interviews together to write the story is especially rewarding.
As you start writing, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Keep your audience engaged. Paint a picture of who this person is (or was) and what makes them tick.
- Try to include the “why” as much as possible. Facts are good, but facts can be boring. People want to know what motivated someone’s actions.
- Provide background context. If the person you are writing about grew up in East Berlin during the Cold War, explain the political (and geographical) ramifications of that.
- Be selective with what you include. Chances are, you have enough material to write several books about this person. But there is such a thing as too much. Think about the information you are including, and whether or not the reader will really find value in it. While it’s definitely impressive if you know what your subject had for breakfast on their 14th birthday, unless it’s a critical part of the storyline, that’s probably best left on the cutting block.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you get to the point where the writing feels like too much to handle on your own, consider hiring a ghostwriter. A professional ghostwriter can help you get past those hurdles and take your biography to the finish line.
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