Biographical Writing BWR205

Learn to Write Biographies

  • Short or long
  • Profiles and obituaries through to books

Like any kind of writing, biographies require a clear structure. Investing time in planning will help you determine the structure of your work, define a theme or themes, decide on the necessary research and source materials, a general word count, and the best way to present your information.

As you work, it is important to remember that no two biographies are the same. Find what is uniquely interesting about the person you are writing about; and with that as your reference point, the structure, themes and everything else should start to fall into place.


There are eight lessons that make up this course; as follows:

1. Scope and Nature of Biographical Writing

  • The difference between a biography and autobiography
  • Unauthorised biographies
  • Using ghost writers in biographies
  • Choosing your subject
  • What do biographies cover?
  • Timelines
  • Fiction versus Non fiction
  • Uses for biographies
  • Biography vs. Memoir
  • Sequels

2. Researching a Biography

  • Types of Evidence.
  • Using Evidence.
  • Fair Use.
  • Where to find evidence.
  • Conducting an Interview.
  • How to deal with conflicting sources and information.
  • Citations and Referencing.

3. Developing Context

  • Using themes
  • Determining Your Theme
  • Mapping links
  • Defining purpose
  • Developing the theme
  • Themes and Structure
  • Using Context
  • General planning
  • Unauthorised versus authorised biographies
  • Considering rights
  • Protecting copyright

4. Short Biographies

  • Principles of the Short Biography
  • How to start
  • Distilling Information
  • Obituaries
  • Social media bios
  • Blog bio
  • Author bio
  • Magazine profiles
  • Professional bio
  • Preparing to write from life experience
  • Approach

5. Comprehensive Biographies

  • What makes a comprehensive biography comprehensive?
  • Writing about living versus deceased
  • Writing a Great Biography
  • Voice in Writing
  • Some essential writing skills

6. Planning a Biography

  • The Short Outline.
  • The Detail-Heavy Outline.
  • Outlining the biography.
  • Defining a theme, writing to a central theme.
  • Word Budget.
  • Organising Chapter Content.

7. Editing and Marketing a Biography

  • Editing.
  • Writing a Sales Package.
  • The Publishing Process.
  • Publishing Processes for Ebooks.
  • Self-Publishing Your Work.
  • Distributing and Selling your Work.
  • Grants for Writing.

8. Project: Writing a Biography


Course Duration - 100 hours



Writing any biography should start with a clear purpose, then a theme should be developed that fits that purpose and is appropriate to the context of the story. 

Define the Purpose
Who is your reader? Some biographies may be written for people who already know the person, but others may be about people unknown to the readers. Consider why you are writing this book? You may have been commissioned to write it by a publisher, by the subject of the biography, or by a relative or associate.

What do you want your reader to take away from the book? Knowing your purpose will help you determine a theme and develop it. It will also be helpful when you reach the outlining stage.

Developing the theme
A life story is a very big thing. On the day you turn 60, you will have lived 3,120 weeks, or 21,900 days, or 525,600 hours. There are 8,760 hours in a year. Even if you wrote just one page for every two hours of your life, you’d still have 4,380 pages. And many of them would be boring: it is the rare reader who wants to know when you slept, for how long, and what you ate upon rising each day.

Using a theme helps you identify what to include and what to leave out. Once you’ve determined a theme, it’s time to develop it. Think about how you can turn your theme into questions. Can you answer one or more of these questions in your chapters or sections? Why/why not? 
As an example, here are some questions we could use for a dancer’s journey biography:

  • Why does dance make you feel like you belong?
  • When you feel like you don’t belong, is there a specific quality or idea behind the feeling? (e.g. working in classical dance vs. contemporary dance etc.)
  • Thinking back, when did you feel most at home in a group? Why?
  • How do you think moving around as a child and teen affected the way you interact with people?

Note that these questions are open-ended. They provide a starting point for some of the stories and chapter structure for the book, while still relating back to the main theme. As you work through, you’ll find some of your questions are very Big Picture, and might cover several chapters, while others are quite focussed, and may relate only to a small, but important, event. 

Themes and Structure
A biography’s theme may affect its overall structure. For instance, the Australian food writer and restaurateur Stephanie Alexander has a cookbook companion memoir which relates recipes and her cooking style to events in her life. The recipes she refers to are included throughout the text. Similarly, the English food writer and cook Nigella Lawson writes recipe books which include a biographical element: many of her texts include discussion of how she learned a recipe or technique and how it has affected her life in a tangible manner. 

Writing centred around travel is often more likely to divide life events and discussion into sections or chapters defined by place. A memoir about the author’s time in Italy might divide the content into sections named for the cities visited. 

The “mummy memoir”, counterpart to the “mummy blog”, might be divided into ages and stages sections, such as “Terrible Twos” and “Preschool”, or sections about each specific child, such as “Betty”, “James”, “Theresa” etc. 
Once you know your work’s theme, spend time reading other works in the area. Study their structures; keep notes on what appeals to you and why. Although many biographies are linear, they do not have to be. The material point is to communicate pieces of the subject’s story in the way the best relates to the reader. 

Using Context

Context is about the circumstances surrounding an idea or event. When we talk about contextualising something, we’re talking about providing extra information to help understand it, and the perspective it is written from. A simple example: “I’m going to kill you”. 

What do these words mean? Should we interpret them literally – death is in the cards? Or should we interpret them figuratively – we’re in big trouble? If we have context, i.e. extra information, like who is speaking, how they’re speaking, and who they’re speaking to, we can work out the appropriate interpretation.

Biographies do require context. The events in a biography are situated in some greater context: writings about a particular event, like the Ukraine declaring independence from the USSR, or writings about life in the 18th century. Thinking about how your work fits into a greater body of work will help you:

  • determine what’s different about your subject 
  •  determine a new perspective, or a fresh take on the subject and area

This work will also contribute to your overall theme. Contextualisation can also help you reach your reader. If you were writing about your marriage ending in divorce, you could contextualise your story by starting with information about how many marriages end in divorce in your age group, and common reasons. This can help you build a relationship with the person reading your work.


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