biography writing

Biography Writing: 10 Steps to Great Biography Writing

Salmaan Ahmad

Salmaan Ahmad

November 29, 2023

Biography writing is a distinct skill. A good biographer can explain why a person’s life mattered and how their work contributed to world history. A biography can shed light on a particular historical era or developments in art and literature.

Why Do You Want to Write Biography?

The first step in biography writing is to determine your purpose. A biography shares the life of another person with the reader. Consider why you think the person you’ve chosen would be interesting to read about.

  • Did they invent something that changed the course of society?
  • Were they a great ruler or a famous dictator?
  • Did they live during a fascinating time in history?
  • Are they part of an important historical family?
  • Did they introduce new ideas in art or literature?
  • Are they known for their contributions to societal changes?
  • Did they leave a legacy?
  • Are they known for founding a famous company?

Famous Biographies

For examples of outstanding biography writing, you can turn to these bestselling and award-winning books. These writers brought their subjects to life through their vivid imagery, attention to detail, and carefully crafted dialogues.

  • A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar: This biography of mathematician John Nash was made into a movie in 2001. The movie changed many details of the story as it was told in Nasar’s book.
  • Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert: Considered the definitive biography of Winston Churchill, who was prime minister of Britain during World War 2. There are many biographies of Churchill, but Gilbert’s is one of the most highly regarded.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman whose cancer cells were taken from her without her knowledge and used in medical research.
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer: This is a gripping, detailed account of Christopher McCandless’s last few years of life. McCandless left everything behind to live in the wilds of Alaska, where he died. The book was also made into a movie.
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser: This book draws on new historical resources to paint a vivid picture of its subject, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books.
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin: Jackson was a highly esteemed writer of gothic horror and mystery, best known for the book The Haunting of Hill House and the short story The Lottery. This book describes what gave Jackson her dark vision.

1. Choose the Right Subject for Biography Writing

If someone is important enough to write biography about, they probably lived an interesting, eventful life. In good biography writing, you bring those stories to life. Biography writing is all about making history come alive through the eyes of one person. That person can be very well-known, but it may also be someone who’s been overlooked in history books.

Most biographers write about people who have inspired them. They may also write about those who fascinate them because of the good—or the evil—they committed during their life.

Some people are so famous that they’ve been the subjects of several biographies. Their popularity shouldn’t stop you, however, especially if you have a fresh take or newly published sources on the subject. People who enjoy biographies often enjoy reading different version of their favorite subject’s life.

2. Do Some Research for Biography Writing

To write biography, you will need to spend some serious time on research. Research is essential to writing biography because you never want to write something in your book that isn’t backed up by research findings.

Here’s a summary of sources you can use to find out more about your subject and the time he or she lived in.

  • Primary sources: Use as many primary sources as possible. This includes diaries, journals, letters, and other materials written by the person you’re writing about. Original sources also include interviews of the subject, eyewitness accounts, court records, and recollections by family members, friends, employees, and colleagues.
  • Secondary sources: These include books and articles written about the subject of your biography. Some will be sources which were written during the time your subject lived. Others are written by contemporary historians who have gathered and analyzed the primary sources with their unique perspective.
  • Background sources: To write biography, you must have a solid understanding of the time period they lived in. Research what was happening during that time, what the newsworthy events were, and how the conditions of the time affected them.
  • Documentaries: Documentaries may help sum up a person’s life or their contributions, but don’t rely on them as primary sources. Despite seeming authoritative, they can be highly biased. They are best used to find researchers and reference materials that you can consult yourself.

3. Organize Your Material for Biography Writing

Once you have completed your research, you must organize all the information you’ve uncovered. Start by outlining the basic structure of your biography. A simple format for biography writing is to follow this format.

  • Open strong: Most successful biographies open with a strong scene that immediately draws the reader in. This could be a key event in the subject’s life or something that happens immediately before their birth. Use this scene to set the tone of your biography. Introduce your subject, and explain why this scene is important.
  • Set out a chronology: While it’s fine to open with a scene from anywhere in the subject’s life, you must follow it with a standard chronology. Talk about the place your subject was born, describe their childhood, and detail their relationship with parents, siblings, and other family members. Describe their childhood home and any childhood events that had a lingering impact on them.
  • Follow their growth: In your chronology, follow them from childhood to adulthood. Describe their education, work, jobs, marriages, divorces, deaths of family members, and other major life events. Include their accomplishments, failures, and actions that show them as fully dimensional people.
  • Conclusion: Wrap up your biography with a summary that sets out why the person’s life mattered, why their contributions were significant, and what their legacy will be.

4. Include a Foreword for Biography Writing

A foreword should come first in a biography. It’s especially important to have one if you are a first-time writer. A foreword is an introduction to the book written by someone who the reader will recognize as an authority. It might be an expert in the subject of your biography or someone who is very familiar with the historical era you’re writing about. If you’re writing about someone who achieved fame in a particular field, the foreword could be written by another leader in the same field.

A foreword works like a recommendation from someone the reader respects. It can convince a reader to give your book a fair chance. The foreword is typically short. Shoot for a word count of about 200 to 300.

5. Add a Preface for Biography Writing

Most biographies need prefaces. It’s where you briefly explain your research methods and your approach to the biography. A preface should be short. Save the “meat” of your thesis for the introduction and the rest of the book.

6. Write an Introduction for Biography Writing

Every nonfiction book needs an introduction. An introduction can be a few paragraphs long, or it can cover several pages. Use the length you need to write a powerful introduction. Every nonfiction book should have an introduction written by the author.

Explain what the reader can expect from reading it. For a nonfiction work like a biography, it’s appropriate to include an introduction that lays out your thesis or theme. What is your takeaway on this person? How do you see them and their place in history? Make sure your introduction explains this clearly, and invite the reader to follow along as you make your case.

The order of this front matter should be:

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Introduction

7. Choose Illustrations for Biography Writing

Bring your subject and their family, historical period, and settings to vivid life with photos, illustrations, and artwork. Make sure you clear any copyright issues related to publishing artwork or photos.

8. Write Your Biography

Now that you’ve done the research, developed a thesis, and chosen your pictures, it’s time to start your biography writing. Set a schedule based on hours worked or words produced and get to work. Writing a biography is a major undertaking, and it’s important to be patient with yourself while you’re getting through it. Organizing your materials and setting a daily schedule are key to getting it done.

9. Add a Bibliography to Biography Writing

Your biography must end with a reference section stating what you used to research your book. Give credit to all the sources you used during your research.

10. Get Biography Writing Printed

At Publishing Xpress, we specialize in working with first-time biographers and other writers who are new to publishing. If you want personalized attention from professional printer that delivers on time every time, contact us today.

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