What to keep in mind while writing a biography?


The first and foremost thing to do before embarking on the journey of becoming a Biographer is to decide whom to write about. Whatever topic you choose to write about, make sure it is thoroughly researched upon. Research involves a significant amount of time, energy and money, so plan it carefully. Don’t stick to the information available on Google or Wikipedia. Write about the parts of the subject’s life that people can’t get from search engines; topics like their childhood, their desires or other elements that matter.

A lot of hands-on research is required and it is hard work – digging into archives all day long, contacting various sources and following leads, all the while hoping that it wouldn’t lead to a dead end. Luck plays an important role too. You might stumble upon an old letter archived in a file somewhere that might throw light on some unknown aspect of your subject. Such bits of information will enrich your biography.

You require a very inquisitive mind for researching about the subject. Think laterally. Go off the tangents. Think broad and dig deep. Patience and perseverance are crucial in writing a biography. By the end of this experience, you should be able to speak accurately and authoritatively about the events in the biography.

Keep good notes and a log of your research activities. Categorize the information you gathered. Take note of the high spots, low points, and other periods that are particularly interesting. Think about what’s left to be found. The amount of detail you reveal and the length of the biography you want to write are crucial points to think about while researching. Make a practice of waking up early every morning and writing. Continuity is very important. It’s very difficult to do it part time.

Immerse yourself in your character. The exhilarating feeling when the character gets under your skin can be very addictive, especially when you are obsessed by their life. But you need to maintain a little distance as well. Know where to stop. Don’t let too much information overwhelm you. Remember that you are writing the story of a person’s life, not a detailed chronological account. On the other hand, less information will make you second-guess things. So, you need to find a balance between the two.

Even after conducting a thorough research to fill all the gaps in a person’s life story, you aren’t going to get all the information that you require. You can’t be 100% objective all the time. In order to contextualize the information, to make it more interesting for the readers, sometimes you have to fictionalize certain events. Often you have to use your personal experience to fill up the gaps. Some people feel that it’s alright to take those liberties. But there is a certain limit to the authorial license to add fiction to a biography. You can’t conjecture things. It is a grey area – what’s wrong, what’s right.

Writing a biography is much more than recording facts. Along with stating the facts of a person’s life, you also need to make it more interesting for the readers by adding minute details that you can’t know unless you were actually present on the scene. It’s a risk that you have to take because you can’t just report a series of events in a biography. But do so without converting a biography into historical fiction.

A safe way to balance this situation is to write the biography as the author’s quest to discover more about the person. In doing so, you can keep changing between 1st person to 3rd person to introduce a change of pace. This will connect the reader more closely to the author’s journey to know more about the subject. And it will also avoid bombarding the readers with just literary facts and make the biography more interesting for them to read. Or you could start the biography on a dramatic note from their life’s most sensational phase. Instead of following a chronological narrative, experiment with the plotline.

Good biographies are not about what your subject did, but why. Make sure that along with highlighting the accomplishments of the subject’s life, you also present the obstacles they faced, the reasons for the choices they make and the effect of the decisions they take.



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