Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

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Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Fri Dec 05, 2014 10:29 am

A biography is the story of a person’s life, told by someone else. Obviously, in just 750 words, you will not be able to write a person’s entire life story without simply summarizing or listing their milestones and achievements—and no one wants to read that. So for this challenge, you’ll probably have to highlight just a few specific events—or maybe only one event. However, it’s conceivable that you could write a person’s entire life—or the most significant years of it—if you come up with a creative, non-list-y way of doing it.

There’s not much to say about writing style or format, but the one that’s really necessary is that a biography should be written in third person.

However, a biography is more than just the relating of the events of a person’s life. A biography should also tell how the person reacted to the event(s), how the event(s) changed him or her, the consequences of the event(s) within the circles in which the person moves—family, community, perhaps even the whole world. In other words, the biographer definitely needs to go deeper than just surface level. In addition, beware of writing your biography in such a way that it sounds like a school report or an encyclopedia article. You still need to use all of the writing skills that make writing compelling: good word choice, good pacing and the like.

A biography need not be of a famous or notable person—but choose your subject carefully. Keep in mind that one of the judging criteria is How publishable is this for its intended audience? While you may find your great-aunt Griselda’s life fascinating, ask yourself if the intended audience (readers of biographies) will be equally fascinated. My family has lots of fascinating, funny, and touching stories—all families do—but they are mostly interesting to me because they are mine. Others lack the “insider” status that’s necessary to find them as entertaining as I do. It’s not forbidden to write about a family member or some other non-famous person; just be sure, if you do, that this person’s story has universal appeal. You could also write a biography of a fictional person, in a pinch.

Edit after posting: If you're writing about a notable person, or anyone not personally known to you, you should cite your sources. This could be done as an author's note at the end of your entry, or within the text. I recommend the author's note, as it's less disruptive to the flow of your writing. The author's note will not be counted as part of your word count.

So who should you choose to write about? I can’t really say, but I’ll certainly suggest that you brainstorm quite a bit on this one. There are a few people whose names will probably come up several times this week, and you don’t want to pick a subject who someone else has also picked—while the judges are impartial, readers may not be, and you don’t want them thinking, I already read a story about Joe Schmo. I can skip this one.

Here are some groups of people you might consider choosing a biographical subject from:

1. Artists, musicians, writers, dancers, actors, athletes, other performers
2. Activists for peace, freedom, justice , equality, liberty
3. Founders of charities, unsung heroes
4. Scientists, inventors, innovators, discoverers
5. Religious leaders, past or present
6. Firsts (first woman to…first American to…first African-American to…)
7. Criminals, antiheroes
8. Political figures. Think beyond ‘presidents.’
9. Overcomers (disability, poverty, prejudice, victimization)
10. Someone from an unusual country (not Britain, but Burkino Faso…) or an unusual time period (not the 1800s or 1900s, but the 1200s or the 600s…)

Be sure to do your research well, if you are writing about a noted person. If you decide that you want to write about Gertrude Gork, the gal who invented the tiny rubber bands that go on kids’ braces (I totally just made her up), and you’re not the foremost Gertrude Gork scholar, you really want to be sure to get your facts correct. Others who know more about Gert will inevitably catch you in any mistake or inconsistency that you make, and of course you don’t want to say something happened in a real person’s life when it actually didn’t. When you’re writing a memoir or autobiography, you’re permitted to take some license with your own life story and perhaps to condense events or create composite characters. But you really can’t take liberties with the facts of another person’s life.

Finally, if your subject is not a noted personality and is still alive—perhaps he or she is someone known to you—don’t write about them without their permission.

No homework this week, but I’d welcome:

1. Your comments or questions about this lesson.
2. Suggestions for future classes
3. Cookies



Biography - Part 2 - Examples
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Anja » Fri Dec 05, 2014 11:27 am

Three questions.

1. I don't want to 'give away' any examples, but not all of our "heroes," whether they are heroes of the faith or literary heroes or even un-heroes, have totally glowing (or evil) résumés. I don't care for whitewashing or unwarranted glorification, so I would be inclined to be honest and mention those skeletons in the closet or not-so-nice traits. Is that acceptable?

2. Documentation? Citing sources?

3. Animals? (Giants in the animal world like Sea Biscuit or Wild Strawberry.)
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Fri Dec 05, 2014 11:48 am

Anja wrote:Three questions.

1. I don't want to 'give away' any examples, but not all of our "heroes," whether they are heroes of the faith or literary heroes or even un-heroes, have totally glowing (or evil) résumés. I don't care for whitewashing or unwarranted glorification, so I would be inclined to be honest and mention those skeletons in the closet or not-so-nice traits. Is that acceptable?

2. Documentation? Citing sources?

3. Animals? (Giants in the animal world like Sea Biscuit or Wild Strawberry.)
Great questions! In fact, I'm going to go back and edit to include your #2.

1. Yes, include warts and all.

2. Yes, documentation of sources as an author's note or within the text. Definitely, except for things that are common knowledge.

3. Animals would be acceptable subjects for biography.
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Fri Dec 05, 2014 5:29 pm

Is it okay to write about the life of a famous person from the POV of a friend, servant, or other associate? Which brings me to my second question:

Certainly a biography shouldn't misrepresent the character of the subject, nor attribute to them achievements that weren't theirs. But would it be okay to stretch the historical record just a little by allowing the friend or servant to come into the life of the subject a little earlier than they actually did? The purpose would be to allow them to witness important events in the life of the subject.

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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Fri Dec 05, 2014 6:02 pm

My inclination would be to say no to both of your questions, because what you're describing is historical fiction. But Deb has said that she's allowing some wiggle room this last week, so it would probably be okay. You might want to ask this on her thread, though.
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Fri Dec 05, 2014 6:22 pm

Jan, I posted my questions on Deb's thread.

Assuming that Deb also says no, then I will write in the third person narrative as she states on her thread.

I am not 100% certain that I understand what is meant by third person narrative. Does it mean that the entry can be written from the POV of the subject of the biography? Can it include his thoughts as well as his words and actions? Or does third person narrative mean that the writer should be a little more distant from the subject--perhaps even including the writer's feelings about the subject? :?

For example, the writer might describe the subject as "Now, John Smith was a very brave and resourceful man."

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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Fri Dec 05, 2014 6:52 pm

Cinnamon Bear wrote:
I am not 100% certain that I understand what is meant by third person narrative. Does it mean that the entry can be written from the POV of the subject of the biography? Can it include his thoughts as well as his words and actions? Or does third person narrative mean that the writer should be a little more distant from the subject--perhaps even including the writer's feelings about the subject? :?

For example, the writer might describe the subject as "Now, John Smith was a very brave and resourceful man."

Cinnamon Bear
You've hit the nail on the head with the word "distant." So you could write, for example:

John Smith thought that no one would ever recognize the worth of his new invention.

But you wouldn't expect to see a sentence like this in a biography:

No one will ever recognize the worth of my new invention, thought John Smith.
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Anja » Fri Dec 05, 2014 8:35 pm

John Smith thought that no one would ever recognize the worth of his new invention.

If it would seem too presumptuous to say exactly what John Smith thought--and I'm not saying it is--if it hasn't been stated by any text or John himself, it might do to write something like,

Discouragement must have dogged John Smith as he received rejection after rejection from the patent companies.
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Fri Dec 05, 2014 8:47 pm

Anja wrote:John Smith thought that no one would ever recognize the worth of his new invention.

If it would seem too presumptuous to say exactly what John Smith thought--and I'm not saying it is--if it hasn't been stated by any text or John himself, it might do to write something like,

Discouragement must have dogged John Smith as he received rejection after rejection from the patent companies.
Yes! Exactly right.
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by alanrkane » Sat Dec 06, 2014 3:38 am

How about a story that is retold down the ages by his family/descendants

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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Milly Born » Sat Dec 06, 2014 6:54 am

Oh wow, without this lesson and discussion, I would have written historical fiction for sure. Thank you, Jan!!
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Deb Porter » Sat Dec 06, 2014 8:01 am

glorybee wrote:If you decide that you want to write about Gertrude Gork, the gal who invented the tiny rubber bands that go on kids’ braces (I totally just made her up), and you’re not the foremost Gertrude Gork scholar, you really want to be sure to get your facts correct.
You're a hoot! For a moment, you had me going there. I was like, "Well, golly! Imagine that."

(One born every minute.)

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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sat Dec 06, 2014 9:32 am

alanrkane wrote:How about a story that is retold down the ages by his family/descendants
This should be fine, as long as the narrator doesn't insert himself into the story. So you wouldn't have something like:

My grandfather liked to tell me about the time when his great-grandfather pulled a child from a raging river.

Instead, you'd write:

When Hiram Winters was a young man, in 1832, he pulled a child from a raging river.

The difference is that a biography of a long-deceased family member wouldn't need any citations, since it's a story that has been told for generations within that family.

Just don't make it read like a work of fiction. You wouldn't want to do something like this:

Grandpa Joe always looked forward to fishing trips with little Charlie. They were packing the tackle box for their trip to the river when Charlie said, "Grandpa, how did you get that scar on your hand?"

"Well, Charlie, that's a long story," he said. "Did I ever tell you about Great-Uncle Hiram and his pet alligator?"


Even though the alligator story might be a true family story, this is written as fiction.

Hope that answers your question!
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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sat Dec 06, 2014 9:59 am

Jan and Deb, I am following this thread very carefully, as well as Deb's on the same subject. I am trying to identify just the right tone in which to write. What confuses me is that it sounds as if the biography should contain more telling (as opposed to showing) than what I am used to in the Challenge.

Am I correct or way off base?

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Re: Be A Better Writer -- BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sat Dec 06, 2014 10:20 am

The "show, not tell" bit (that I'm not fully on board for) really applies more to fiction than non-fiction. However, that doesn't mean that nonfiction has to be dry. Consider these two passages, either of which might be found in a biography of my grandmother, Francena Arnold, who wrote Christian fiction in the 1950s.

DRY: Francena was 24 when she read a novel by the most successful Christian writer at that time. She believed that she could do better, so over the next months, she wrote Not My Will.

NOT: Soon after the birth of her first child, Francena finally had a few hours a day where she could set aside the constant household chores and simply be quiet. She used those precious moments when she was nursing little Frankie to read novels, a pastime that seemed almost like a guilty pleasure. But after reading one poorly-written novel after another, she determined that--busy mother or not--she could do better.

Bill Bryson is a very excellent writer of nonfiction, and if you go here and click the "listen here" icon, you can hear him reading an excerpt from One Summer: America 1927. While it's not strictly a biography (although it contains biographical material about many people who were important in that year), you can hear that he uses excellent writing to convey factual material.

I hope that helps!
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