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Writing

How to Write a Biography: 6 Tips for Writing Biographical Texts

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Biographies are how we learn information about another human being’s life. Whether you want to start writing a biography about a famous person, historical figure, or an influential family member, it’s important to know all the elements that make a biography worth both writing and reading.

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What Is a Biography?

A biography is a detailed third person account of another person’s life story. It contains basic information about the subject’s life—like their place of birth, education, and interests. A biography may also chronicle relationships with family members, as well as major events in the subject’s childhood and how those influenced their upbringing. A biography details the various accomplishments and life events of a real person, but it’s more than facts and figures—it comes to life with great stories told from beginning to middle to end.

What Is the Purpose of a Biography?

The purpose of a biography is to share the life of another person with an audience. An author may choose to write a biography because they find the subject’s story to be interesting or to have themes that apply to life today. Some authors choose to write a biography due to a lack of information about an interesting subject, or to update the public with facts that an existing biography may have missed. Biographical stories can be inspiring—highlighting the achievements of a particular figure, pointing out ways the subject overcame hardship—giving the readers a sense of encouragement. Biographies can also serve as cautionary tales, warning readers on who not to become.

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7 Famous Examples of Biographies

  1. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  2. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
  3. Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert
  4. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Diane Jacobs
  5. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller By Jackie Wullschlager
  6. The Power Broker by Robert Caro
  7. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

6 Tips on How to Write a Biography

To write the story of a person’s life, you need to know more than just the basic facts. A good biography delves into what is really interesting about a person’s life—noteworthy achievements, moments of adversity, and major turning points. The best biography can encapsulate a subject’s entire life in an engaging way and provide enough personal details to give the reader an intimate look at their character. If you’re interested in writing a biography, the following steps can get you started:

  1. Get permission. Once you’ve chosen the subject of the biography, seek permission to write about their life. While in some cases it may not be necessary (like if the subject is a public figure or deceased), getting permission will make the research portion of your writing process much easier. If the subject is willing to be biographied, they may provide significant details about their own story up front that will help make your writing about them more compelling.
  2. Do your research. Regardless of how much you know about your subject, an extensive amount of research is necessary to paint a thorough picture of this person. If they’re a historical figure, include information about the time period they lived in and how it affected the way they lived their life. Primary sources are firsthand accounts of your subject’s life and tend to be the most reliable sources. These can include journal entries, emails, interviews, or memoirs. A primary source can also be any other information the subject has provided, such as a personal website, Twitter bio, social media account or professional bio. Secondary sources, like magazines or documentaries, can also be used if the information is proven accurate.
  3. Form your thesis. Your first paragraph or chapter should inform the reader what they will learn about this person from this biography. A thesis makes a declaration about the biographee which the rest of the biography will provide relevant information to support.
  4. Make a timeline. A biography usually structures the main points of a person’s life in chronological order. Knowing the order of key events before you start writing can save you the hassle of having to reorganize your whole story later.
  5. Use flashbacks. While writing the text of your biography, you may want to intercut between an experience from your subject’s adult life and one from their high school days. Using flashbacks allows the author to introduce relevant past information to the reader without bogging them down with paragraphs of background exposition.
  6. Include your thoughts. A biography isn’t just a transaction of facts. A biographer can share their own feelings and opinions on their subject’s life. If the subject did something noteworthy, the author may include why they feel that moment was significant, how it was affected by the time period, and what it meant for society as a whole. This will support why this person deserves to be written about and keep the audience reading from the first sentence to the last.

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