Biography

Genre Overview:

Task:

Conduct research and interviews about, gather primary and secondary resources about, and tell the life story of another person.

Purposes:

  • To learn more about and educate others on the life of someone of interest or importance to you
  • To celebrate the achievements or accomplishments of a famous or successful individual (whatever fame and success might mean to you personally)
  • To tell the stories of people other than ourselves
  • To tell the story of anyone whose story is worth telling (spoiler alert: every human’s story is worth telling!)

Audiences:

  • Anyone who might want to know more about the person you are writing about
  • Anyone who might be able to learn a lesson from the life story of the person you’re writing about (perseverance, overcoming adversity, showing kindness to others, etc.)

Characteristics:

  • A flexible writing style; biographies can be dry, formal, and objective in style, but they can also be playful, humorous, and conversational as well. The proper style choice will depend on your particular subject (the person you’re about) and the life they’ve lived. Either way, biographies should be factual and accurate.
  • Timeline – Most biographies cover the subject’s life from birth to death or current age.
    • However, some biographies, especially shorter ones or ones where the subject has led a highly eventful life, might focus on a specific period in the subject’s life.
      • Example: Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished a lot in his life. An author writing a biographical essay might choose to focus just on the events of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s leading up to his assassination.
    • You as the author must decide what you want the scope of your piece to be: the subject’s whole life, or a smaller piece of it.
  • If you are covering birth to death or current age in an essay:
    • You are giving a just brief overview of the major points of someone’s life
      • Remember that famous people have entire books written about their life stories, and that you’re only working with a handful of paragraphs. Cut the person’s story down to what you feel is most essential or important.
    • You can provide a few quotes from others about the person, or from the person themselves, but there is less space for anecdotes or colorful stories about the person’s life
    • Your style and tone will be more formal and objective, because you will need to save your words for factual information rather than flair
    • A good strategy to pre-plan is to make an actual timeline on paper of just the major events in your subject’s life. This will help you see how many important events you are trying to include in your essay, and decide which events to focus on in more detail and which events to leave out.
  • If you are covering a specific time period or event in an essay:
    • You are providing a snapshot or a window into your subject’s life, rather than lots of background knowledge about the subject. This is also sometimes known as a profile piece.
    • Avoid including extra details about your subject that don’t relate to or aren’t necessary to know to understand the specific time period or event you are writing about, unless they serve a specific purpose.
      • If I’m specifically writing about MLK Jr. during the March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech, I should not include many details about his childhood, as these details are unrelated.
      • However, I might include a quote of something MLK Jr.’s dad said to him as a kid if it adds color to the story and relates to MLK Jr. giving this specific speech.
    • Because you have more breathing room to work with, play around with style and tone and voice in your writing. This will make the piece more interesting, especially for readers who might already know about this time in the subject’s life.
      • One way to do this is choose which details about the subject to play up or emphasize, and bring in quotes or anecdotes from the subject’s friends, family, or acquaintances to add additional color and outside perspectives
  • Other general ways to make a biography interesting:
    • Consider a focus on something about your subject that most people might not know or aren’t aware of, especially if the person is already famous or has a lot written about them.
      • For example, famous actor Christopher Walken once worked as a lion tamer, which would probably make a more interesting story for your reader than his already-highly-talked-about acting career.
    • Don’t automatically jump to writing about someone famous or dead. Everyone around you has a story to tell. Older members of your family are great places to find stories to write about, and consider visiting a senior home or community center to find possible subjects as well. Anyone could be a good biography subject!

Ways to Get Started:

  • Pick someone you would like to know more about. Research this person, either by doing an internet search, interviewing the person and/ or their friends and family, and gathering a mix of primary (directly from the person) and secondary (someone else talking about the person) resources. Then, decide what you want the scope of your biographical piece to be (whole life or just a snapshot), and use this to organize your information and decide how you will approach your writing.
  • Don’t have someone in mind? Ask possible biography subjects to tell you a story about their life! Then build from there by noting what other people are involved in the story and seeking out those people to get their perspectives. You can uncover some fascinating stories about people in your community this way!

Common Ways to Publish:

  • Biographies can be published as written pieces, podcasts/ audio essays, or video essays with supporting graphics and video clips

Mentor Texts:

  • Rosa Parks by Alita, Middle School Student – “This historical profile presents accurate information about a famous person and is written in an active, lively manner. Alita, the writer, immersed herself in the life of Rosa Parks until she could “feel” the person and events. She found ways to communicate these feelings to readers.”
  • Adam’s Train of Ghosts by Abigail, High School Student – “In this vintage essay, Abigail expresses her thoughts and feelings about the songwriter and lead singer of the band the Counting Crows, who are still making music a quarter century on. She analyzes the themes in Adam Duritz’s songs from the ’90’s and offers her interpretation of symbolism present in them.” (Side note – One of Ms. Burrows’ favorite bands. Second side note – Counting Crows are a great source of mentor texts for writing song lyrics with lots of depth, symbolism, imagery, and story-telling)
  • From Bed-Bound to Breaking Bounds by Rachel, Tenth Grader – “In this profile of a person, tenth-grade writer Rachel remains focused on an affliction that affects, but never defines, her subject’s young life. Rachel engages her readers with direct quotations and plenty of interesting details.”

Other Resources:

  • Coming soon

Places to Publish:

  • Coming soon