Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Writing Biographies

You’ll need to summarize your experience for the back cover of the book you’ve finally written. You might need a tag line at the end of an article, or maybe you need a full-page exhumation of your life for your Web site. No matter what, writing your own biography is hard.


Let’s look at the facts. Your audience is curious about you, but they’re not going to hire you based solely on anything you say in a biography (as opposed to your resume). This is an opportunity to tell people how you came to be qualified to appear in print. That means that the first thing you have to determine is your audience.


If you’ve written a novel, your audience can be from any walk of life. This biography should list other publications, relevant awards, and perhaps name the state in which you live. (I don’t know why people want to know this, but they do, or at least it’s a common convention on book jackets.) If you’ve written a high-tech book, your audience for the cover is your audience for the book, PLUS the distributor’s salespeople, textbook reviewers, journalists reviewing your book among other books on the same topic, and the authors for the competing books.


If you’ve written an article or story, you only have a few words—50-75, perhaps even fewer—to make yourself known. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are writing your life story for your Web site or that of your employer, you have as much space as you want, within the bounds of modesty.


A biography is the chance to provide resume information in narrative form. You already know all about yourself, so this should be fun. You don’t have to list facts baldly like you do in your resume, you can leave out the less important employers or academic work altogether, and you can take this chance to propound about why you liked some tasks or how you saved the day at a certain job. But don’t spend any time bragging, please. That’s just tedious. Tell the facts and provide relatively few adjectives. You can be personable, but keep focused on your audience and why you’re creating this document.


All biographies should be written in third person (yup, that feels really odd), should not wander off topic for the audience, and should scrupulously avoid personal information like whether you’re married, have children, have an unusual lifestyle, hobby, or car, and should be edited as firmly and ruthlessly as your resume.


For an article or story, list relevant publications with your name on them or in them. You might want to say where you work or what you do there if it’s relevant to the article or story.


Here are some examples. Note that editors may crop all but the first sentence to make space or to keep the biography focused, and keep that in mind as you write.

Nels Peddersohn is Head Fact Finder at Humbolt County Oyster News, a local newspaper with a subscription base of 47 people. Nels is an essential player on the corporate cribbage team.


Pritika Gupta-Shah is a consultant with Purple People Plotters and travels the world installing and repairing plotters. She has been with the company since its beginning in 1998 and speaks seven languages.


Ivan Stepovitch is President and CEO of OneStep Technologies, a Midwest-based ERP development company specializing in the telecommunication and healthcare industries. Ivan formerly worked as a programmer building databases to warehouse personnel information.


Telva Brendin’s work has appeared in Lighthouse, The Sun, and Ploughshares, and her first full-length novel is scheduled to appear in Fall 2007, from St. Martin’s Press. She spends her days teaching Middle Eastern history at the University of Saskatchewan.


In each case, the essential information (why the individual is qualified to write the article) is in the first sentence, and only covers what the person is currently doing. The second sentence (or any others after that) should expand on qualifications, whether it’s by mentioning hobbies, listing longevity at a company, or by listing an occupation not implied or specified in the first sentence.


If you’re a contributor (or the sole author) on a book, you can take more time. The structure should be pretty much the same, but you can expand and talk about relevant experience as well as your present occupation.


Harold Tompkins is Managing Editor in the Print Media Advertising department at Floristan Department stores. He oversees a team of editors and copywriters who write ads about women’s clothing, perfume, shoes, and haberdashery for local papers. Prior to heading the advertising group, Harold was a copy chief at Floristan News, the purveyor of hard news in a small New Hampshire township. He graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University and still hopes to write The Great American Novel.


Barbara Stoneyfence is a freelance database developer specializing in ERP systems using SAP and Oracle. After 23 years of working in the industry, she feels she knows how to solve just about any database problem and is eager for new challenges. Barbara’s hobbies include monitoring horse and dog racing, and developing a program to analyze the odds over the course of a single horse or dog’s career. So far, she’s right about 50% of the time. She’ll go public with her system when she’s right 75% of the time.


Even though these stayed fairly focused, neither of these bios is particularly dry because of the language choices. Writing a biography is a good time to pull your thesaurus out. Don’t go over the top, though. You want your readers to glean information and not be distracted by your word choices.


Like the shorter examples, the truly important information is in the first sentence of these medium-length biographies—the importance of coverage diminishes as you near the end of the paragraph. (Organizing principles apply here: these use the pyramid. For more on Organizing Principles, see my blog of February 2004.)

You can use the same organizing principle for a longer version if you get to use a page inside the book you wrote for your biography, and if you’re writing a full page for your own Web site, you can just keep expanding on the book-length version. If you’re writing a biography for your corporate Web site, be sure to keep the coverage in keeping with the rest of the site and the other biographies—in this case, your biography represents the company more than it represents you, and your biography should be neither longer nor shorter than anyone else’s.


When you have the luxury of a full page (or more) for your own Web site, take the time to outline. Think about whether you want to cover childhood or education. If you include your childhood, readers can assume that your biography will NOT be about your technical acuity. You can see that, right? If you want to be thought of as a highly technical person, you need to imply that you hatched suddenly, already fully formed and technical. You can cover education only if it’s relevant, or else be very brief. Your Ph.D in ichthyology won’t do you a bit of good if you write about building macros in Microsoft Word. (Okay, maybe you can mention it if it’s something really interesting or eccentric like ichthyology.)


Your format should be something like this:

§      Work history, relevant projects, and education

§      Hobbies, but only if they’re relevant to the skills you’re trying to sell

§      Hobbies that are not relevant to your work but display skills, ability to focus, or personality traits that are important to clients


You don’t have to adhere strictly to a backward chronology like you do in your resume. If it makes the most sense in your story, go ahead and tell it from a work-related beginning. Once you finish talking about the present, you can move on to personal information for the third and fourth major bullet points in my list.


That fourth and last major bullet point is the one where you can have a little fun. In my biography on my Web site (ahem), I talked about my pet frogs. Okay, those of you who know me know that I talk about my little guys all the time, so it’s not a leap (pun intended). But I put it in my biography because people can be leery of editors. They have bad childhood memories of those horrible red pen marks all over everything and then they got a big grade written at the top. Even if those marks were all good, it was pretty traumatic to most of us, and I want potential clients to know that I can be light-hearted. I included my own writing projects because it seems pretty nervy to tell people how to write and not do any writing myself. It doesn’t matter whether writing is my full-on obsession (it’s not, music is), or if it’s just something I do on a rainy day; including my writing projects shows that I care about and understand my clients’ issues from a personal and professional perspective. I included bits about my music because I felt it covered the “hobbies that are not relevant to your work but display skills, ability to focus, or personality traits that are important to clients” aspect.


Okay, I don’t think my biography is a particularly stellar example of biographies; I just wanted you to see my thought process. I’ll be interested to hear about any ideas you have about writing biographies, too.


If you can include contact information, think carefully about whether to include your personal e-mail address. You don’t really know who’s going to get hold of it, and it’s an open invitation to spammers to publish it. It’s a great idea to include the URL for your Web site (where your e-mail address might live), an e-mail address created specifically for publishing contacts, or your work e-mail, if you think you will be there longer than the usefulness of the work being published. Putting in a snail-mail address or phone number is kind of old school these days, but I don’t see any reason not to do it if you want to be contacted that way.


Oh, and while we’re at it, a Curriculum Vitae (CV) is the outline of your life and is used for people with little or no work experience. Most of the listings will be education, teams and clubs, and relevant hobbies. There might be volunteer work, babysitting, or tutoring, none of which earned you enough to pay taxes.


A resume is a listing of your work history. If you list any work experience on your CV, it’s a resume.