A while back, I wrote a post on how to write a biography, with some tips for long-form writing about historical and public figures. However, that’s not the only kind of biographical writing you might be called upon to do. You might need to write about yourself.
Many people are comfortable writing a personal bio of about two hundred words, but it can be surprisingly tricky to write a short byline for use in a newspaper, magazine, web article, or announcement for a talk. Here are a few tips.
Keep it short: The challenge of a byline is not just what to say but what to leave out. We’ve all suffered though dreary introductions that go on way too long. A byline is not a résumé. More is not always better.
Be yourself, but without the boring parts and with some sass: When I teach writing for publication, I ask students to craft a handful of 12-15 word bylines on the first day. Here are some examples, where writers both exhibit personality and give readers something to ponder.
Aurora loves jogging, juggling, and haggling, not necessarily in that order.
Joni plans a career in publishing once she is finished staring into the abyss.
Brian is trying not to say “um” any more than is absolutely necessary.
Cassidy is an incredibly sleep-deprived Pisces with a mild Twitter addiction.
Readers can identify with these personal characteristics.
Build credibility indirectly: So-and-so “is the award-winning author of” is fine for some audiences, but often an interesting personal detail is a more engaging way to build your credibility. You can paint a picture:
Jasper Fforde recently traded a varied career in the film industry for vacantly staring out the window and arranging words on a page.
You can offer authority and authenticity, as these two mystery/thriller writers do:
John Straley, a criminal investigator for the state of Alaska, lives in Sitka, with his son and wife, a marine biologist who studies whales.
April Henry knows how to kill you in a two-dozen different ways. She makes up for a peaceful childhood in an intact home by killing off fictional characters.
Consider the audience and occasion: You can—and you should—tailor your byline for particular audiences. What aspect of your background can you emphasize to make a connection to your audience? When I include that I’m from central New Jersey or that I own more dictionaries than anyone needs, I almost always get a reaction.
Use a byline to keep your focus: When you begin a piece of writing, consider writing a byline as your first step. The byline establishes a persona and defines your voice in the piece.
A student of mine, writing on the ways that millennials are revitalizing the plant industry, started with this byline, which gave her a voice to navigate the botany and economics of her topic.
Laura Becker is a tail-end millennial from California and currently resides in Oregon. She enjoys reading, spending time with her fur baby Ponyo, and watering her plants. When she isn’t doing one of those things, she can be found browsing Etsy or Amazon for her next plant.
When in doubt: If you are stuck on a byline, make a list of your favorite things to do, places to go, or things to eat. Look through some old photos or memorabilia, or through your closet.
Browse your bookshelves to borrow from other writers. Here’s one from poet Zeke Hudson, that I really wish I had thought of:
Zeke Hudson is… he’s uh… well, he’s usually much better at writing bios. This one’s a real clunker. You can see some of his better bios in Wend Poetry, Nightblock, and Banango Street, or in his chapbook from Thrush Press. Sorry everyone.
What’s your twelve-word byline?