A biography is a written account of another person's life. Biographies can be about anyone, from historical figures to celebrities to everyday people who have accomplished something noteworthy. Biographies aim to comprehensively understand a person's life, including their experiences, achievements, challenges and impact on society.
It's essential to obtain someone's consent before writing a biography about them. Without approval, it may be considered unethical and even illegal. Even if you're unsure, it's better to seek permission.
Some types of biographies
- Historical biographies focus on famous historical figures, such as political leaders, scientists, inventors and artists.
- Celebrity biographies may be on famous individuals in entertainment, sports and other industries.
- Autobiographies are stories about oneself and provide a first-person account of one's life.
- Memoirs are similar to autobiographies but focus on specific periods or events in a person's life.
- Biographical fiction uses real people as characters in a fictional story. (See the comment above about permissions.)
How to write a biography
To write a biography, there are several steps:
The subject could be someone you find interesting or inspiring or someone who has chosen you to write about them (possibly for a fee). (Also read our piece on ghostwriting -- link below.)
- Research your subject
The first step to writing an excellent biography is to conduct extensive research on the person you're writing about, their career, their family and other information about them. Unearth as much information as you can find about your subject:
- Interviews will breathe life into your research—interviews can bring to light stories you can’t find in a book or articles. Interview the subject and people close to them: spouses, friends, business partners, family members, co-workers and peers. Interviews may be in person, by phone, or through e-mail. For personal interviews, you may record the sessions for ease of reference. Remember, you may need to interview the subject and others several times to get the material you need.
- Read news articles and newspaper archives. Look for primary sources about the subject, including books, letters, pictures, newspapers and newspaper clippings, magazines, internet articles, journals, videos, interviews, other biographies or an autobiography by the subject. A Google search will reveal many leads. Read as much as you can about your subject, taking note of any critical information.
- Attempt visiting locations related to your subject. Visiting significant locations will give you a better understanding of your subject's experiences, emotions and perspective. It can help you create a more authentic and detailed representation of your subject's life and story. By immersing yourself in the physical environment, you can gain insight into the subject's life to help you write more effectively. But if you cannot visit locations in person, ask to look at photographs.
- To write about historical subjects, explore history websites, read the historical text as widely as possible, research genealogical data if available, talk to historians, familiarise yourself with the subject's work and look for additional related material. Immerse yourself in knowledge about your subject.
- Don't write about anything you don't know. Please don't make things up unless it's fiction. Even then, be very careful of legal implications.
Throughout your research, document your findings and take detailed notes for your reference or citations as you write your story. You can use websites and software programs to organise your research.
- Develop a thesis
Decide what your story is and develop your thesis, which is a message or topic you want to convey your angle. The thesis will help guide the tone and content. The thesis will be the core of your story; keep coming back to it if you meander.
- Outline your story timeline
Another critical step to writing a biography is to map your outline chronologically. The outline will help you visualise your story's structure and major components. It will help you organise your material into chapters and sections.
You may sketch your outline with a pen and paper or on a computer. Keep your outline somewhere you can access easily; reference it throughout your writing.
- Fill in the body
Once you have a thesis and an outline, you can start filling the body with your research material. Now, you begin writing the story of your subject. Hints:
- Write freely. It's all right if to make mistakes. You can deal with them during editing.
- Take breaks, walk, or do other things around the office or house. It will help your mind and body stay fresh.
- Remove distractions to immerse yourself in writing. (Like any other form of writing, you must be in the zone.)
This is a critical step in any writing. Please edit it thoroughly or hire a competent third party to do it. It's your choice. An objective third-party view will be helpful if you feel too close to your work. But if you're very experienced and are not too precious about your work, go for it. Hints:
- get spelling and grammar right. This is fundamental. It's all right to look up the correct meaning and spelling of words and expressions when in the slightest doubt.
- Check your formatting for inconsistencies like font, line and word spacing and punctuation.
- Fact-checking. Here comes the tricky part. It is easier to avoid factual errors if you are wiring about a historical figure from a distant past. But if the subject is still alive (or has relatives who still are), this can be complicated, especially if they pay for your work. It can be a minefield; tread carefully.
Writing a biography is rewarding and challenging, but you must be systematic and organised. You can produce a stunning memoir that's comprehensive and engaging and provides insight into a person's life and legacy. You can make your subject come alive on your page and not just present a catalogue of events or characteristics of the subject. Please thoroughly research, organise your information, and write clearly and accurately. With practice, you'll become a skilled biographer.