Write biography

Writing a biography - 5 tips for a life story

Every life is unique. When you write a (auto)biography, you have to convince your readers that the life story you write is extraordinary and worth reading. In this article we would like to support you in this. We give you tips on how to proceed with the structure, research and layout.

What is important in a biography?

The Cover is a central element of your book and tells the reader a lot about the content. Therefore, it is also a design feature for a biography, with which you can attract readers to your story. When researching your biography, you should also be very thorough and look for sources that could be exciting for your story.

Beyond design and content, you should definitely consider some legal aspects, which we have compiled here. In the foreground is the protection of the personal rights of third parties. You will also learn whether you can publish a biography in a Publishing house or self-publishing should publish. Let me say right up front: There is no one "right" way. Your choice depends on your needs and goals.

What is a biography?

In general language use, biography and autobiography are often used synonymously. But in fact they are similar but not identical genres. In a biography the author writes about the life of another person. This person can be (world) famous or come from the private environment of the author.

The protagonist of an autobiography, on the other hand, is the author himself, because he writes about his own life. Many (more or less) well-known personalities have already written an autobiography. A current example is the biography of Michelle Obama. Some of these personalities have an (exciting) story to tell, but they lack the talent to write. Here help Ghostwriter or co-authors.

There is a growing number of less or not at all prominent people who write their life stories. The intention here is less the attention of a broad mass. Some autobiographers want to process events from the past by writing their book. Others try to encourage a certain target group to set an example or simply write down their personal life story for future generations.

Besides the basic distinction between biography and autobiography, the genre can be divided into four categories:

  • (Auto)biography: The chronological account of events in the life of a person. The time span reaches from birth to the time of the book. In a biography, the person concerned is often no longer alive. The focus of the work is on personal development.
  • (Auto)biographical novel: It contains the same elements as (auto)biography, but mixes real events with fictional ones. This serves to develop a tension that makes the life story particularly worth reading. Within the book the reader can hardly distinguish fiction and reality. However, it is important to point out in the preface that not all elements of the story are real.
  • Life memories: These can also be written about the author himself or another person. However, not the whole life is dealt with, but only important stages of life.
  • Memoirs: In this form of (auto)biography, the person is put back somewhat and placed in a social, political or historical context. In the memoirs of a politician, for example, personal life tends to take a back seat. The focus is on the political career.

How do I write a biography?

These four steps are important for a biography:

  • Think about who should read your biography
  • Work out a good structure for these readers
  • Define the appropriate writing style: factual or narrative
  • Identify the extraordinary moments of the biographed person


Whether you're writing about your own life or someone else's, the first thing you should do is create a structure and think about what is most important for the book. Particularly for an autobiography, this consideration includes who the target audience of the work should be. Do you want to record your life or certain events from it for friends, family and future generations? In this case, your focus of interest is probably not on the sales success of the autobiography. 

Nevertheless, a certain Arc of Suspense When you publish a book, you are automatically competing with many other book titles. Always make sure that there is a common thread running through the story. Because no matter whether your private environment reads your book or a reader unknown to you: The claim should be that your book presents the respective topic and the portrayed person in an interesting and vivid way.

If your goal is to become a successful author, your book should cover the interest of a wide audience. So ask yourself what from your life is interesting and extraordinary for your readers. Maybe a special love story? A rare career path? A stroke of fate? An illness overcome? Remember to highlight the thematic aspects that make your life story stand out wherever the reader is drawn to your book: In the Subtitle of the book, in the short description, in the Blurb etc.

How is a biography structured?

First you need a rough structure for your narrative. A very simple timeline on which you record important life events can help here. You can also print this later in the book for better orientation for the reader. You can also use the timeline to plan time jumps and flashbacks without the book losing its logical context. This overview also helps you to filter out key stages of your life. Because you should not include too many events, both you as author and the reader will lose the overview. For this reason, you should also determine from the beginning how much and, in relation to individual topic blocks, how detailed you write.

What makes an exciting biography?

Every author knows Writer's Block. In the case of a narrative about one's own life, there is the additional complication that one often wonders whether certain events are actually interesting for a (broad) audience. In the introduction we have already put forward the thesis that there are extraordinary aspects in every life, you just have to find them and process them in an interesting way.

In order to help you find your way through this process, we have put together some questions that will help you keep the thread running and filter out exciting events. What belongs in a biography? With the answers to these questions, you will work out what makes a biography exciting:

  • What makes the person?
  • Who or what shapes her life and work?
  • Which events from childhood are important for later development?
  • Who are/were the most important companions? (relationships, friendships, colleagues, family, role models)?
  • What crises and successes has the person experienced?
  • What were the turning points in life?
  • What influence do political or social events have (religion or culture can also play a role here)?

Thorough research is important

In order to answer these questions, you will have to do extensive research, although this is limited in the case of an autobiography. However, if you want to link your own history with that of your family, then it is worth going to the registry office or city archives. In addition, every life is connected to historical events, so check these again carefully in any case.

Otherwise, research for an autobiography is limited to your home or that of your family. Look through photo albums, old letters, diaries or other records. This helps to refresh memories and gives you clues for the narrative. In addition, photos or other illustrations will liven up your finished book and give the characters a face for readers.

arouse emotions

The research for a biography is much more complex. Be sure to contact the person you are biographing. In the best case, you should have one or more personal conversations. Prepare yourself well for these and draw up a list of questions. During the interview, take notes or, if the person allows it, record the interview. Be an active listener and also let emotions such as enthusiasm, sadness or passion flow into the book. If a biography results from a direct conversation, the book will always have a very personal and lively touch and will make the person tangible.

However, if your main person is no longer alive or a conversation is not possible for other reasons, then contact descendants, friends or companions. Additionally, use all sources you can find. These include personal records, photo albums, diaries, videos, films, books, newspaper articles or documents from archives. Also view existing biographies. There is nothing wrong with getting inspiration. However, if you have a famous person about whom a lot has been written, you should look for a niche. In other words, an aspect of life about which not much is known yet.

If the person has a certain level of familiarity, the Internet also offers various databases. For example the Estate and Autograph Collection of the Hamburg State Library.

Set great store by accuracy and thoroughness in the research. However, you should not get too lost in details. The more information you find, the more difficult it can be to filter out exciting aspects for your book.

Use an appealing writing style

In a mystery novel, it's much easier to build up an arc of suspense. But (fortunately) murder and manslaughter do not occur in every life. Nevertheless, a biography must not be boring. It must have the suspense of a novel and the informational value of a Nonfiction show. To achieve this goal, you should develop a unique writing style. This can be humorous and cheerful or factual and informative. While you should stay true to your style, you should adapt it to the person and the events at hand. A consistent approach to perspective and tense is also recommended. In most cases, you will probably choose a first-person narrator and past tense for an autobiography.

entrée medias res

Furthermore, although you can orientate yourself on the chronological sequence of events, you do not have to start with the earliest time. Start your biography with an unusual and concise detail or period of your life. In this way, you will captivate your readers and build up a tension. Also, you should not string year after year and label the chapters with numbers only. This looks very dry and probably reminds your readers more of history lessons. Other elements to bring the person to life are photos, a timeline, important documents, a chronology of events, a family tree or a glossary. A preface and dedication will give your book a personal touch.

What legal aspects must be taken into account in a biography?

Detailed information on this can be found in the Federal Agency for Civic Education. By the way, the personal rights in Switzerland and Austria differ slightly from the German ones. For this reason, we recommend obtaining a declaration of consent from all persons present. This should not only be done for named persons. Especially with very famous people, it is often easy to guess the name from a description, which is equivalent to being mentioned by name. The same applies, by the way, to the publication of photos, pictures or other documents. Accuracy is the top priority here, because in the past there have been numerous disputes in this context, which often ended up in court. It is therefore essential to contact relatives if a person is no longer alive, because in this case the personal rights are transferred to third parties.

An autobiography is not the right medium to use for a personal act of revenge or as a reckoning with a particular person. This is not only extremely questionable from a human and legal point of view, but also contradicts the work of a professional author.

The requirements of a biography for layout and book cover

When you're writing a book, it's not just the actual content that matters. Every genre has different requirements for Layout and book covers. And these, in turn, have a very significant effect on the sales of your book. Why is that?

In terms of content, your book focuses on the biographed person, whereby different aspects can be highlighted. These can be, for example, personal development or the importance of the person in a historical context. The reader should recognize this directly on the cover of the book. This way, he or she already has a rough idea of what to expect when first looking at the book. His interest is aroused and he risks a second look at the book.

On the biographical novel "Henry VIII" by author Margaret George, for example, the monarch is depicted in the royal robe that was customary at the time. Otherwise, the cover is kept dark. So the reader expects a historical story from the Middle Ages and this is what he gets.

The following applies to the blurb: Do not string events together in excerpts, but summarize what the person is about. You can also briefly outline why you decided to write this (auto)biography. Please do not get lost in details, but write short and precise sentences.

Publish a biography in self-publishing or publishing house?

You've already received an answer to the question, "How do I write a biography?" Now the question remains: Where and how can you publish your biography. You can't think about that too early. Self-publishing or classic publishing house? Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of a Publisher lies in the fact that the design and marketing of your book is done there. However, experience shows that only the works of well-known authors are promoted to any significant degree, so you have to do it yourself. Also, at major publishing houses, only a fraction of the submitted Manuscripts read at all. And even if you are accepted into a publisher's program, it can take up to a year or more for your book to be published.

If a renowned publishing brand is important to you, you should definitely make sure that the publishing house of your choice also fits the topic and profile of your (autobiography). You can read in detail at tredition what you need to bear in mind when submitting a manuscript.

A real alternative is therefore the Self-Publishing dar. Here you don't have to apply, but can publish your book immediately. Of course, depending on the service provider, you will receive less support in terms of layout, typesetting, illustration and marketing than in a traditional publishing house.

However, some service providers offer services to help you with this and not leave you on your own. We have written a detailed overview about this: "The best self-publishing platform: what to look for when comparing self-publishing providers". If you want to self-publish, you can also take a look at tredition's tools. For example, our Cover Designer for the layout and the typesetting you create quickly and easily with the automatic book setting.

Conclusion

A biography is a special discipline within book writing. The art is to present the life of a person in an experienceable, exciting and authentic way. Nevertheless, you have to do justice to the person with your book. In order to master this challenge, you should put special emphasis on research and give the biography a suitable structure. In this way you write a book worth reading about an extraordinary person. But please never forget to pay attention to the personal rights of the people in the book.

If you've got the taste and would like to start writing and publishing your biography right away, get started with tredition: it's 100% free of charge!

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