Tips from Rhiza Press Biography Editor, Lynne Stringer
Many people feel that they have a story worth telling. It might be something that will inspire others to overcome adversity, or relate something of historical significance. However, writing an autobiography or biography requires more than a great story.
As an editor, I regularly read biographies that are being prepared for publication. Most are written with enthusiasm and are full of detail as they relate the story that they want the world to hear. However, when writing a biography the essential elements of storytelling are just as important.
Writing a biography is not too different from writing a work of fiction. Flow and pace must be maintained, and this requires keeping descriptive passages brief, in spite of the temptation to go into huge amounts of detail. The biggest problem most biographers face is, because the topic is personal to them (i.e. it is about themselves or a loved family member), some things can seem necessary when they are not.
When writing your story ask yourself continually if what you are relating will be interesting to someone who has no knowledge of it. Try and stick to one topic at a time, rather than inserting bits of random trivia as they occur to you. Do these have a place? Perhaps, but wait until they fit into the overall story.
For example, if you are talking about your grandfather and how he became a fantastic preacher, do not insert a paragraph on how much he loved gardening while you are relating what he learned about preaching at college. If the story on your grandfather's gardening fits into a later point, that's great, but if it does not, discard it.
You don't have to include everything your subject ever did or wrote. Sometimes it can be far more effective to concentrate on a particular element of their story. If something stands out for you stick to that and discard the rest.
Also, be cautious about including too much of yourself in the manuscript if you are writing about someone else. Your opinion on what they said or did is usually not relevant to their story. Sometimes, if they are a member of your family and what they did had an effect on the family or you, it can be good to include these things, but if that's the case, that should be a feature in the story. Perhaps you can make the story about your relationship with your grandfather amidst his career as a great preacher. However, most of the time inserting personal comments about what took place breaks the flow of the narration.
When you have finished writing try and find someone outside the family or your close circle of friends (i.e. someone who isn't familiar with the story) to read it. Tell them you want honest feedback, and be prepared to take it on board. This also applies when you are trying to find a publisher. Listen to the feedback you are given and try to be objective. Don't get offended because they tell you they didn't think the reference about your mother's doll collection should be included in your story about her singing career. Instead, consider their suggestion and see if the overall story works better with the suggested changes in place.
Stay open-minded, and try not to hold any part of the story too dearly. Remember, if you think it's a story worth telling, then it probably is, just make sure you are open to some changes. Inflexibility will not see your story published. But try not to be discouraged. Keep trying, make adjustments, and have faith that the story you find so inspiring will inspire others.
Visit our Biographies Submission page to find out more about our guidelines.