I scoured the Internet the other day looking for tips on writing biographies for a college history class. In actuality I was just looking for a decent web page that I could link for my students, but most of what I found was either of poor quality or designed for elementary and junior high school students.
Thus, I decided to compose my own tips page and fill a glaring gap on the Internet. Feel free to offer your own criticisms or suggestions in the Comments section.
• Read books, articles, and websites about your subject before beginning the writing process. Writing a biography, just like all forms of writing, is much easier if you are fully knowledgeable about the subject. Crack open a few books and absorb the life of your subject - not only will you write a better paper, but you might add to your knowledge base.
• Develop a meaningful thesis statement. After thoroughly reading about your subject, you should begin to have some ideas about the arguments you will make. Here is an example of a strong thesis statement on Mao Zedong: “Though Chinese Marxist historians still venerate the historical legacy of Mao Zedong, millions of Chinese citizens died as a result of his failed policies and his brutal attacks on political dissenters.”
• Recognize what is absolutely essential for inclusion in the paper. Avoid unnecessary details that do not reflect your thesis statement, and refrain from cluttering your paper with unimportant filler like “Josef Stalin loved to eat beef tripe” or "Jesse Jackson sometimes uses shoe polish to cover up scratches on his dining room table."
• Follow a logical outline. Biographies generally use a chronological ordering of events, but if you choose another format, such as a thematic or topical approach, be sure that this will make sense to readers. If necessary, use transitions or subheadings that clue the reader into section changes.
• Develop arguments about your subject. The best biographies place a subject in a historical context and make arguments about the person’s relevance, importance, or representativeness. Avoid simply presenting a collection of unrelated facts.
• Maintain the interest of readers. Provide compelling events, interesting anecdotes, and insightful details that help readers understand the importance of your subject.
• Create an initial splash. Begin the biography with a particularly intriguing sentence. Think about a little known fact or describe a pivotal moment in the person’s life. Avoid beginning the paper with a dull and predictable sentence such as “Susanna Somebody was born in Paris in 1917.”
• Avoid using a clichéd quote to begin your paper. I have yawned through many papers that began with a lofty-sounding but overused passage such as this: "Winston Churchill once said: 'The price of greatness is responsibility.'" Create your own memorable prose and avoid relying on famous people to cover up your lack of content.
• Refrain from using dictionary definitions in your paper. One of the most annoying and trite rhetorical techniques is to include sentences like this: "Webster’s Dictionary defines a leader as 'a person who has commanding authority or influence.'" Assume what is known as the “informed reader” when writing an academic paper.
• Develop an interesting title that reflects your main argument. Avoid generic titles such as “Biography Paper” or “A Biography of Sam Significant” in favor of a title more appealing, like this one: “Egomaniacal Blunderer: An Assessment of the Military Career of Napoleon Bonaparte.”