How Not to Write a Biography

How Not to Write a Biography

By on Mar 1, 2016 in Writing & Editing


Biographies of famous men and women have always been in demand because of the interesting lives they read. Some of the best-selling books these days are either biographies, autobiographies, memoirs or fictionalized biographies. This is sufficient to tell us how fascinating people find the lives of other people, especially those who have done things that most readers will not have the chance to do. By reading a biography, they are transported to a different world and are in the thick of important or interesting events. It might be easy to know how to write a biography, but what mistakes must one avoid?

Focus on a single angle

As a biographer, your job is to document the life of a person thoroughly. You must be able to tell your readers about the person’s achievements and failures, the challenges they faced, etc. This is pretty much basic. But it is important for a biographer to go deeper than that. Understanding why the person who is the subject of the biography became who they were and how they ended up doing what they did is important to explore. So don’t limit yourself to just one facet of a person’s life, but explore them as a complete person, and try to shed some deeper insight.

Not keep a distance

One big issue with many biographies is that the author seems to fall in love with their subject and is unable to portray them subjectively. Obviously, it is good and useful if you like the person on whom you have chosen to write a biography, but you still need to portray them realistically, taking into account all the factors in question. Don’t get too close to the events or the person. Instead, your role is to observe the events from the outside, asking relevant questions and showing how the story of their life unfolded from the outside. If you try to put yourself in the narrative, it will by necessity become fictional rather than a factual biography.

Not do your research

Almost everything has been written and analyzed over the years and while some people remain fascinating, you really need to contribute something new if you are undertaking a biography project. If you are just going to rewrite other people’s work, your book will neither be interesting nor useful. So, extensive research is essential for a good biographer. Of course, read all the secondary sources that you can get your hands on, because they do provide valuable information, but also try to obtain access to as many primary sources as possible. And most of all, learn how to analyze the facts you have unearthed so that you can present them in context.

Pick a boring subject

If you are not enthusiastic about your subject, your readers certainly won’t be. Picking a person just because they are popular or you think they might be well-received will not make for a good subject unless you also are interested in them and are curious about delving into their life. Avoid picking subjects who haven’t done anything much of importance, because after a few pages, it will begin to pall on the readers. Avoid subjects on whom nothing much is known at all. You would have to descend to generalizations or speculate one thing after the other, and nothing annoys a reader more than reading a book consisting entirely of speculation. Pick a subject to which you know you can do justice, depending on your level of interest and the resources available to you.

Provide a dry summary of facts

Real people are made up of the good and the bad, strengths and weaknesses, positive and negative emotions. They are not merely entities to whom things happen out of the blue and who do things unconnected with any emotions or background. When writing a biography, avoid simply listing one thing after the other. That would be as boring for the reader as a history book with a list of dates of one battle after the other. Infuse feelings in your story. Try to bring the reader into the story and relate to the subject by depicting a full-fledged human being. Bare facts are important, but knowing how to present them in a readable and interesting manner is what makes a good biographer.

Image credit: Pixabay

Kavitha is a freelance content writer and French translator, and has been working in this field since 2008. She has degrees in computer applications and international business and has a background in business and international trade. She enjoys learning languages and is currently learning Japanese. Her interests vary from books and writing to travelling and history.


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