What Is a Biography?

At times, a biography serves as a branch of history, but biography in literature far encompasses the chronological account of a person’s life. It holds a place among the oldest forms of literary expression. And by the looks of it, biographies and books, in general, aren’t going to be displaced by other types of storytelling just yet. While the world remains to think and read, the global market for books is still massive, with 675 million books in print sold last year based on Statista market data. Among those were 10,842 books in the biography category, including new editions.

Every memoir, biography, and autobiography should have a narrative unique to the person telling it or whoever it is about. You want a narrative kept in bookshelves, among the best books readers have in possession. A large number of biographies are about famous athletes, political figures, celebrities, and so on. Newsweek’s list of the 75 Best Biographies of All Time, features a great selection of real-life stories about key figures in history from Nelson Mandela to Anthony Bourdain. Since biographies are historic in their own right, readers can choose to read books about the lives of a diverse group of men and women in literature, politics, science, and the arts.

Types of Biographies

The earliest accounts of great men, such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, detailed the lives of empire leaders. Biographies should also include factual information about the person’s or subject’s motivations in the most monumental periods of his life. And while most are about people who are already household names, you can also write a biography of someone who may not necessarily be a historical or cultural figure, but whose life is nevertheless worth telling for its narrative value. To further avoid confusion, here are the types of biographies you can read:

Autobiography: People often say we should be the author of our own stories and dictate how we live the chapters of our lives. They’re not wrong. An autobiography is literally a self-written account of a person’s life, which can go from diaries of the deepest, most private recollections to notebooks and journals with borderline formal tones. The latter gives the reader a different kind of truth which is often in the shape of a life retold from both deliberate and accidental omissions or products perhaps of foolhardy, romanticized reminiscence. Memoir: This is often confused with an autobiography, which is understandable. However, memoirs tend to be more personal, telling only a part of a person’s life. Some prefer to give emphasis to certain experiences which made them who they are—a journey before some triumph, a battle with a certain sickness, or a personal experience of a phenomenon or event that shaped or changed history. A famous example is Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize war memoir, Night, in which the author tells of his time in Nazi concentration camps. With gut-wrenching prose and a clear portrayal of the horrors he experienced, Wiesel provides a harrowing, powerful account of what it means to face humanity’s most shocking brutalities.Literary Biography: A popular genre in nonfiction, a literary biography is a type of literature focusing on the life of an author’s chosen subject. As mentioned previously, you can write about famous people, granted what you’re going to write has not been told yet. It may come as no surprise that there are already several biographies about the world’s most iconic leaders and cultural figures. Steve Jobs and Churchill, anyone? If you’re planning to write a biography about a certain personality, it better be something that holds a different narrative. If you’re lucky, your biography isn’t only going to hold a place on books’ and magazines‘ bestseller lists but also be among the most critically acclaimed works⁠—which is a feat only a few authors get to tie to their names. Historical Biography: The largest and most famous library known to man boasts rich antiquity of stories of great men and their glories in empires past. But even the Library of Alexandria wasn’t large or safe enough to hold the records of Greco-Roman greats. The height of biographies about emperors, kings, warriors, and princesses died with the empires from which they were based on. Taking the place of historical biographies were life accounts and stories of martyrdom to appease the Middle Ages’ cry for religious correspondence. Instead of writing about thinkers, biographers had to center the narrative on the Church as well as on men and women who abandoned their lives to heed the spiritual call. Later on, biographies of this type would set the course for defining human achievement.

Whether it’s a personal or academic task, it’s important to write only about someone whose story you want to tell. You also need a proper biography project planning or writing strategy. A biography worksheet template won’t hurt either, to keep track of your progress. You may also want to use schedule templates to help you organize this task.

How to Write a Memorable Biography

Much of the challenge that comes with writing a biography, especially for long-dead subjects, is the amount of research involved in it. Depending on who your subject is, the lack of paper trail, evaluation, and traceable records or parts to include can be time-consuming on top of being mentally exhausting. Here are some steps to guide you further in writing a biography worthy of the Franks and the McCourts of this generation:

Step 1: Choose a Subject

It’s always a good idea to have a project plan if you want your biography to have commercial value. Write about people or a person whose ideals, interests and, to some extent, experiences match yours. If you have ambitions of a rags-to-riches biography of a homegrown football superstar but don’t understand the fuss about the game, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. Many people—readers and authors alike—don’t realize the richness of scope that a well-written biography requires. It is challenging to get started because you have high hopes that your writing can do justice to your subject’s story, and rightfully so. So choose someone whom you can pour all your writing for. But you must first make sure that you have access to the information you’ll need.

Step 2: Look for Primary Sources

When it comes to complicated projects and subjects, a little ignorance can work in your favor. Because it is when you get to unfold the parts you need, piece by poignant piece, that you’ll figure out how your narrative will take shape. Evaluate the amount of both people and paperwork to cover the most important parts of your task. Check local archives. Go to the places where your subject spent most parts of his or her life. For instance, writing about leaders like Mandela would mean visiting prison cells. Or reading Invictus and feeling the courage and power of every word. This is because it would be a shame to be so out of touch with your subject’s life, and that’s what your readers would feel too if you fail to bring them to the scenes.

Step 3: Conduct Interviews

Probably the most challenging part of your preparation, getting firsthand accounts from people close to the subject will depend on your sources’ willingness to contribute to the project. This will also depend on whether or not your subject is living or deceased. If it’s the former, then your best shot at developing a good story is scheduling interviews with the subject. Doing so may encourage the willingness of family and friends to grant you interviews or written statements, depending on the information you want or need.

Be careful not to get overwhelmed with too much praises (or criticisms, for that matter) that you’ll forget the unique perspective required for a compelling biography. From the onset, you must have an editable list of what part of the person’s life you want to narrate, and which parts you need to leave out. Even if some parts don’t warrant leaving out, you cannot fit a person’s whole life in one book, especially if there are already existing materials about him.

Step 4: Reflect and Write an Outline

Written at a time when there was little to no record of what went on in the world—when man’s first tastes of civilization came from battles of wits and arms, Plutarch wrote an epic characterization of the heroes and villains of his time. Parallel Lives became a touchstone for biographies to follow. And though it came from someone who bore witness to the victories and crimes of the 1st century, it still took a great deal of reflection and painstaking raw writing to structure the biography as a cross between life stories and a rich history book.

You may be far from being Ancient Greece’s life-writing revolutionary, but having an idea of the focus you want for your biography will be a fundamental starting point. Create a simple outline of the parts of the subject’s life that you think needs to be highlighted more. For example, how do you plan to put a voice to the story of a world-renowned scientist who was also a famous first-class recluse?

Step 5: Organize and Start the Process

This is where it gets tricky since you’re trying to fit the life of a person—or one good chunk of it, in a book. You also want to end up with an interesting and compelling read. Otherwise, you would have failed to give the work you started and its subject, the justice they so deserved. So, filter your paperwork well and get rid of the information you don’t need. As with any forms of writing, you must weed out the parts that won’t help with completing a well-written, clearly structured story. This means focusing the pieces of the subject’s life in their development as a person and what made them worthy of a biography.

The Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Biography

After months (or years) of research, interviews, and lots of traveling to understand your subject better, you’re finally ready to get down to the actual work. But this isn’t even half the challenge yet. There’s a long way to go, but at the very least you know how to get there. And that is through the information you collected, a solid outline to guide your writing as well as a few things that you mustn’t leave out and those you should avoid:

Dos

1. Do write only about someone whose story you’re interested in.

First of all, why this subject? What’s so interesting about this person? If it’s someone fairly or widely known to many, what makes your work different from the existing text that surrounds the person? Finding the answers to these questions will help you decide whether or not your chosen subject would make you end up with something worth discussing and reading. It’s not so much about writing the story of names in every hall of fame than it is about writing something that warrants analysis, argument, and understanding from many sides.

2. Do study your subject from all fronts.

Many people think they know everything about Steve Job’s larger-than-life persona. Or America’s 19th-century industrial overlords. But there’s so much more about Apple’s late CEO and Rockefeller or Vanderbilt’s exploits than just the companies they founded, the riches they made, and the world they influenced. Whether they stamped their places in American culture and the world at large for the right reasons, is another narrative worth exploring, among many others. And so with the same scrutiny and the desire to learn more, you must leave no truth uncovered and no chapter unresolved.

3. Do talk about the sad and unfortunate parts.

Maybe you think only war memoirs are worth publishing because of how people should learn of the horrors people in the past were subjected to by men whose triumphs were measured by death tolls. But your goal isn’t creating a sob story from start to end. You don’t want your audience’s sympathy as much as you want their emotional or intellectual connection. Shape your biography from the person’s early years to their achievements and what it took for them to succeed, one way or the other.

Don’ts

1. Don’t treat the biography or memoir as a written therapy.

If you’re writing a memoir, please keep it to the most relevant and compelling parts. What part of your journey as a person do you want to tell? And where should your narrative end? Remembering the purpose of your writing is important, lest you get carried away and end up with a journal with all the pages filled. Don’t cloud your consciousness to avoid spouting emotional, irrelevant drivel. Focus and get in detail only when the experience and the lessons you got from them warrants it.

2. Don’t be confused.

Even if biographies are primarily about what happened in a person’s life, it shouldn’t be just a list or a series of events void of meaning or voice. If it has to have an impact and be discussed in the same sentence as the best memoirs and biographies of modern-day writing, then you should breathe life to the events that shaped the subject as a person. Set focus on your biography’s story rather than giving your ordinary timeline of the person’s past and present.

3. Don’t get too attached.

Even if what you’re writing is your own story, or even if it’s the biography of someone you’ve spent a great deal of research on, you shouldn’t be too close to your work that you won’t welcome scrutiny. Just like any book, the pre-press process for your work would include editing as well as deciding a compelling and creative book cover when all the writing is done. Your editor may ask for revisions for several reasons. If some parts or scenes don’t quite add up, then your target readers might get confused too. Feedback is important, even to the best writers, so don’t brush off the need for revisions since polishing your biography will work to your writing’s favor. If you’re luckier still, this might well end up as the milestone of a blossoming writing career.

When you’re done writing, and your biography’s manuscript is prepared, the challenge doesn’t stop there. You want a story that sells. And that’s why it only makes sense to incorporate marketing objectives to the publication of your work.

Any type of nonfiction-writing is always challenging. But that doesn’t mean it should be void of creativity or art. The earliest biographies and the narratives that followed vexed even the most talented of writers. But they didn’t cease to affect readers a hundred times over more than some works of fiction, long after the last pages have been turned.