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Lives in Print – Ten Tips for Writing a Biography

“When you write biographies, whether it's about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.” -Walter Isaacson

Every life is a story, every person a central character. The biographer’s task is to weave the complex proceedings and events of someone’s life—triumph and tragedy, success and failure, happiness and sorrow--into a coherent, easy-to-follow story that keeps the reader intrigued from start to finish.

These events can include (but are not limited to):

  • Birth and death dates
  • Geographical locations
  • Family background
  • Accomplishments and failures, both professional and personal
  • How the subject’s life impacted (and was impacted by) world events
  • Volunteerism, political activities, and religious membership
  • Conditions of the times

That list looks overwhelming, but these ten tips should get you going in the right direction!

1. Research,Prioritize, and Reflect

The biographer’s interpretation of events will inevitably creep into the writing, and there is always the risk of emphasizing, diminishing, ignoring, or distorting events and actions. This risk is minimized when you research thoroughly, and put plenty of thought into which items should be mentioned in your book.

While you should keep your personal thoughts and feelings to a minimum, it is important to include some reflection to keep the story interesting. A listing of facts will not make an interesting biography. Effective storytelling will help ensure your information flows and doesn’t sound too much like a textbook.

2. Start on the Right Foot

Begin each section with an interesting, relevant statement to catch readers’ attention and make them excited to read about the next stage in your subject’s life. This statement could be a little-known fact or an exciting scene, as long as it’s related to the section that follows.

3. Link to Larger Issues

In biography, like most nonfiction, your book is more interesting when it’s linked to larger issues. For example, if your subject grew up during the Great Depression, you can use his life to illustrate what people went through during that time. This widens your potential audience from readers simply interested in your subject to people interested in that time period.

4. Identify Your Audience

Biographies usually attract a niche market. Before starting any type of marketing, it’s important to figure out who will be interested in your subject and why. Be sure to think outside of the box when considering a possible audience, and tailor your marketing plan to attract those individuals.

5. Build Your Website

One of the most important elements of your marketing campaign will be your author website. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but should contain information about your book, and how readers can purchase it. It’s also an excellent place to post reviews, a schedule of upcoming author events, and free content that relates to your subject.

6. Create Handouts

Business cards or book-specific bookmarks (including your ISBN, website address, and other important book information) are also excellent ways of reaching your market. Local bookstores will probably be willing to place your bookmarks or business cards close to the register for patrons to pick up. Also, contact book fairs or conventions about getting your promotional items placed in gift bags.

7. Visit Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores

Make a list of privately owned bookstores in your area (or areas featured in your book). Owners usually love meeting writers, and can be your greatest ally when it comes to selling your book. If the store holds book signings or other author-based events, be sure to become a familiar face during them.

Building relationships with bookstore chains can be more difficult. Self-published authors should contact the Small Press Department at the chain to find out how to get the book considered for placement in the store. You will most likely be asked to send your book and a detailed marketing plan, so be prepared before you call.

8. Meet Readers Face to Face

Most areas have reading groups that are looking for new books to feature. Contact them to suggest that your book be added as one of their selections, and then try to attend the discussion of your book. Compile a list of questions beforehand to keep the conversation flowing.

9. Network

Remember to network. Hang out where other writers do, and build strong relationships. Other authors may have thought of marketing ideas that you wouldn’t have discovered on your own, and vice versa.

10. Get Press

Start building a list of magazines, newspapers, and websites that might review your book (or write a feature about you). Reviews keep buzz about your book from dying down and offer third-party validation. You can even ask the authors of positive reviews to write a tag line for you to use in your promotional items.

Remember though, many authors request reviews and features. Be prepared to offer the reviewer reasons why your book is interesting and why you are worth reviewing or featuring.

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