How to Write a Biography

If you’re thinking about writing your own story you’ll get an idea of what to expect here, and hopefully pick up some useful tips. If you’re looking for a ghost-writer, you’ll see how I work and get a sense of what I can do for you.

I’ve written my own biography and I’ve written other people’s. Working on my own was harder, as it will be for you. That’s because being objective is tricky when you’re the subject.

There are other challenges. For example, you know the landmark events of your life and have probably been ready to write them down for ages. But what is it that connects them? You’re privy to every single detail, so what do you put in and what do you leave out? Never mind all the positive stuff—what about the forgotten failures that were actually your key to success, the disappointments that triggered crucial insights?

There’s no single method for dealing with all this. Every book is a new puzzle. For practical advice on organizing your project, plenty of websites can help you assemble stories, verify facts, evaluate sources, record interviews, visit locations, establish chronology and build a life-thesis. But sooner or later, it’s just you and the page.

Here are three absolutely indispensable rules of thumb for good writing:

1) don’t bore the reader;
2) don’t patronize the reader;
3) keep rewriting until it works.

Organizing biographical material is never a predictable task. Every story’s different. Plus, memories change as you compare facts. At a certain point you need to hold the entire story, as yet unformed, up in the air all at once, like a juggler, as it takes shape. Balancing the various elements of good writing (here below) grows your book from the inside, giving it shape and bringing it to life.

Writers often refer to their books as children, because while you raise them the commitment is total. With skill and love, the end result is readable, interesting, exciting—and genuinely inspiring. It all depends on giving it the time it needs to grow, and keeping all the following in mind.

The elements of good writing:

1. Thesis statement

Who cares? What makes your story worth reading? These questions are brutal, but the more clearly you answer them at the outset, the better the writing goes.

‘Thesis’ makes it sound fancy—and it is critically important—but basically, it’s just a way of stating your message. It takes a while to narrow this down, and that process is what gives focus and direction to your writing, clarifies structure and helps flow. The earlier and more completely you do it, the more integrated your book will be and the more fun you’ll have.

Unlike a synopsis that describes the arc of the story, a thesis statement is like a rule of thumb that keeps your story on track as you write. For example, the thesis statement, ‘Einstein changed the way we see our universe,’ will produce one book, while the statement ‘Einstein was a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,’ will produce another.

2. Voice

As I begin the actual story, the first thing I need is a voice. The book has to sound like the person.

You’d expect this to be obvious, but it never is. We all have many voices, each one conveying a different impression of ourselves. The question is, which ones can carry the narrative through and sound just right? It took me ages to find my own voice for my own memoir! I had stuff to figure out about myself. That’s the thing about autobiography.

Looking frankly and unsentimentally into your life isn’t always fun, but it is liberating. For myself, it enabled me to feel closer to myself—less judgmental, more accepting.

When the voice is right, you just write and things fall into place. The voice in your head puts you in your subject’s shoes. This applies even when the subject is you. Writing means that you-now (the storyteller) looks back objectively upon you-then (the protagonist). These are different versions of you, with different priorities, in a different time and place—right?

If you want readers to relate emotionally, and to trust the story. the voice must be objective, but not cold—you need all that subjectivity too. That’s what makes it relatable. MORE ABOUT VOICE HERE.

3. Narrative

The cardinal sin of writing is to lose your readers’ attention. What carries them from page to page is your ability as a storyteller. However you do it, you want to make readers feel they’re right in there with you.

Pace and narrrative work hand-in-hand. Take the time to paint the picture, but use words economically. Don’t bore the reader and don’t drag things out. As well as being the writer, you’re also the front-line editor and should catch most weaknesses before the reader does. The idea is that you work things out so that the reader doesn’t have to.

4. Structure

The obvious way to structure any life story is chronological, but that’s easier said than done. Let’s say you’re discussing survival skills. You pick events to illustrate them and bunch them together, but in so doing, you interrupt other chronological threads. In fact, chronologies interweave and overlap throughout every good book.

Good structure holds the book together and makes it flow. You need to know where the story’s leading while the reader needs to not know. That creates tension.

5. Tension

Why is so much of the news we see each day bad news? Because that’s what grabs our attention. You may not like it, but the human mind works that way. Besides, how would you like to read a book about nice things happening to fine people in good times? You would SCREAM.

Even worse, you wouldn’t believe it. Life really is a struggle. You may not enjoy describing how you ended up in a deep hole at some point, but tell it right and your readers will be dying to know how you got out.

This is how you really describe yourself. Not so much with adjectives as with truthful, emotionally-charged stories.

6. Audience

As you think about your life story do you have someone in mind who’d be interested? Living or dead, real or imaginary, this is your audience—you’re writing for them. It could be your grandchildren, your fans or your competitors. If you think your story’s interesting enough for general publication it’s everyone.

Writers sometimes claim they’re just writing for themselves. I’m not sure that’s really possible. Language is a social tool. Storytelling describes events with people, and of course, stories are for people. Meanings change and significance shifts according to who’s listening, and when. How do you gauge your delivery? Are readers getting what you want them to? To figure all that out, you put yourself in their shoes as they read.

That doesn’t mean you’re not writing for yourself—you’re going to learn more about yourself than any reader will. You’re just not writing for yourself alone. Let the audience in.

7. Truth

The truth is in the way you tell the stories. Some things you’ll be proud of, and some you won’t, but if you try to tell only the good stuff, I guarantee the narrative will sound lame and no one will be interested.

Your failures and embarrassments keep you credible. They allow readers to identify with you. Once you have their confidence, they’ll follow wherever you lead, but you have to earn it first.

Equally important to understand is that too much truth is a turnoff—especially when it’s confessional. You can reveal your humanity without accounting for every single mistake, so you find a balance between being truthful and being vulnerable.

8 Memory

This is related to truth but more complicated. Scientists have shown that recollection is a creative process. It’s not completely made-up—memories represent things that did happen—but neither is it a faithful record, or even a stable one. Your most prominent memories are the ones that you’ve recited to yourself most often, with your own personal spin. The problem is, within the privacy of your own mind, that ‘spin’ feels like solid truth. Writing biography requires you to step back from your own reactivity and keep second-guessing yourself.

Butwatch out—second-guessing can turn into self-doubt. More about Memory here.

9 Drafting

Writing is not about using beautiful adjectives and making perfect sentences. That’s the work of editing. You want to keep these two tasks separate because they employ different parts of the brain, and switching back and forth between writing and editing is probably the most time-wasting mistake any writer can make. First, write your story. Don’t worry about how it sounds. Get to the end, then you’ll have something to work with. Constant editing as you write your first draft interrupts flow in ways that can permanently damage the narrative.

10 Creativity

It’s a true story, right? Not made-up.

It doesn’t matter. It may not be fiction, but to describe things in ways that make readers feel what you’ve been through takes creative writing. The thought of having to write like this terrifies some people, probably because they think of creativity as a skill they don’t have. In fact, it’s an inherent quality of the human mind. There’s no formula. You just have to find it. Write, and write, and write until you get it. Creativity comes to the committed.

The human brain hosts some 100 trillion nerve connections. Scientists call it the most complex structure in the universe, and you’ve got one. Enjoy.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Former Buddhist monk, writer, illustrator & bookmaker with 40 years experience. Mindfulness trainer & coach.

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