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How to write a biography

This year I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and writing some short profile pieces. Both experiences have caused me to reflect back on a book-length biography I wrote a few years ago on the little-known educator Sherwin Cody.

I first learned about Sherwin Cody as an adolescent, when I spotted his “remarkable invention [that] has improved the speech and writing of thousands of people” in the back of a comic book. (It turned out to be a patented workbook of grammar exercises.) Many years later, reading about the history of writing instruction, I became fascinated by Cody’s life and career, so much so that I decided to tell his story. The rest is history, or more accurately, biography.

Writing a book-length biography was a new experience for me at the time. I learned a lot along the way. Here are a few tips based on my experience.

Start small—A good way to begin is by writing a short profile of your subject in no more than 1,000 words. Imagine it as a short encyclopedia piece or obituary of the person that encapsulates the basic story (the who, what, where, when and how) along with discussion of significant accomplishments and challenges. The profile will tell you if you know enough to write more and also help you to clarify your stance toward the subject. If you feel too strongly about your subject you may not be the ideal person to write a biography. There may be a temptation to adulate or unmask.

Figure out the contexts—Spend some time studying the individual’s era. What was the state of the world during the person’s lifetime, and how did major events intersect with your subject’s life. The context can be large-scale, taking in the sweep of history over several generations, or finely grained, covering one life span. But understanding the world as it was will give you a sense of how your subject may have seen it.

If you are writing about someone who has already been the subject of biographical work, you also need to consider the context of what other writers have said. How does your effort add to the story? Do you have new material? Has there been a re-evaluation of the individual? Has society changed in such a way that the person has new relevance? Is there an anniversary on the horizon? (You’ll want to plan way ahead for that last one!)

Develop a research network—As you dig into your work, be on the lookout for new material. Is archival material coming available? Are there family members who have recollections or bits of ephemera? Can you find some librarians or archivists or historical society staffers who share your interest? Some of this research may involve travel and/or copying fees, so keep that cost in mind.

Engage the backstory—Part of the enjoyment of writing a biography is that it allows you to put together a mystery not just out of large events, but out of small puzzle pieces as well. A description of some event during a person’s college years or on a vacation, for example, can illustrate their personality just as well as a large life event does, and it can make the subject relatable to readers who may have had a similar experience. Finding the sweet spot between too much digression and just enough backstory will not come immediately but it is worth the effort.

Be open to refocusing your idea—As you write and learn more about your subject, it may turn out that the story you are writing is not really about just one person. Perhaps it is a story about an ensemble of like-minded people, or a movement, and perhaps the stories of others are just as fascinating and important. Your work could turn out to be about a group working together or in opposition, or about people set in different times or places brought together by common thread. It may not be a biography in the strict sense and that’s fine. You can adjust.

Writing a biography can take an author anywhere. If there is someone whose life fascinates you and that you are in a position to illuminate as a researcher and writer, jump in.

Featured image credit: Epicantus by Daria. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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