“Do not read the history,” advises Benjamin Disraeli, “read biographies, because biography is life without theory.” The biography is a kind of magical genre, according to Disraeli. It brings together the best of many kinds of writing. A good biography is as detailed and intimate as a novel, as powerful and transformative as a masterpiece of history. A good biography might recount the life of a famous, celebrated person, or a humble, obscure individual. Regardless, encountering another person’s life—told in careful detail—can reshape our sense of the past. And it can inspire us to shape our own future.
So how do you write a biography? How do you organize your research, find the right stories, and keep yourself going through the long hours of writing? We’ve assembled five practical tips for writers and researchers to guide you as you explore this genre—in all its potential and power.
1. LOOK IN THE MIRROR
In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson advises biographers: “One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.” In other words, a biography is more than just a record of someone else’s life. It is also a portrait of the person who wrote it—who dedicated countless hours of research, writing, and revision to another person’s story.
The best biographies don’t shy away from that fact. They don’t hide the passion their authors feel for the subjects. Instead, they use that passion to their advantage. If you show a reader why you care about your subject, you’ll inspire your reader to feel the same way. Passion, it turns out, is contagious. Of course, the opposite is also true: if you don’t love your subject, chances are your reader will be bored too.
So, the most important decision you make as a biographer is the first one. Who you write about matters as much as what you write, if not more. If you care deeply about your subject, that passion and energy will carry a reader through the book—no matter if you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln or your great-aunt from Indianapolis. If you don’t care deeply, the reader won’t either.
2. DON’T WAIT FOR INSPIRATION, GO FIND IT
Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, puts on a coat and tie every morning, then sits down at his desk to write. “I’m very lazy,” he confesses, “So I do everything I can to make myself remember this is a job. I keep a schedule.”
People tend to think that writing is mysterious and magical: one day the muses tap you on the shoulder and poetry suddenly pours out. Caro’s comments suggest a more humble, more practical, more workmanlike approach to writing. For Caro, writing is a craft: something you practice, something you work at. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, he goes out to find it. You can do the same. Even if you don’t put on a coat and tie, you can create routines and rituals, building a bit of time into your days for writing and reflection.
The Biograph app can help you do so. Our app makes it easy for you to make writing part of your life. You can open the app on your drive home and record a few thoughts and reflections—or when you wake up every morning. We make it fun for you to go find your inspiration.
3. STAY ORGANIZED
As you research your biography, you’ll find that you have more information than you can use. Maybe you have a stack of private letters stretching over fifty years—most of them documenting mundane events, with a few revealing passages scattered through them. Oh, and you also have hundreds of pages of fresh interviews with your subject’s friends and relatives. And videos of them giving interviews and talks from decades ago. Now you just need to condense all that information into an inclusive—but not exhaustive—story. No problem, right?
Any researcher will tell you that research is easy. It’s organizing it that’s hard. And organization is the key. You need to be able to find materials at a moment’s notice. You can’t waste an hour looking for a revealing comment in an interview or a key passage in a letter—you’ll lose your momentum, your energy.
The Biograph app helps biographers solve this problem. Everything you record into the app is automatically transcribed. More: we give you a list of keywords from the transcription. You can search for keywords and phrases and cross-reference recordings against each other. Instead of hunting through endless reams of paper—and wasting a lot of time worrying about how to organize them—let us do the organizing for you, automatically and free of charge.
4. BE INCLUSIVE, NOT EXHAUSTIVE
A biography tells the story of someone’s life, right? Well, no. Not exactly. A biography is more than a blow-by-blow chronology, starting at birth and marching to death. A biography is an argument. You’re telling your readers why someone’s life is important—important enough to be remembered. You’re showing your readers the impact of that life, its ongoing influence and significance.
It’s important to keep that in mind as you write. When you’re working through someone’s life, you can get lost in the weeds. You might feel like you have a responsibility to document everything that person did—from their lunch on October 21st, 1961 to their last words. But your responsibility is much simpler.
You don’t need to document every moment. You need to show how key moments in your subject’s life add up to something bigger—something substantial, worth remembering. Sometimes, those moments are obvious: a brilliant decision that saved the business; an invention that saved lives. But sometimes they’re smaller, more mundane. Even the way someone cuts bread or organizes their closet can tell you something essential about who they are.
As you sift through the archives and conduct interviews, keep your eye out for those revealing details. Be inclusive, not exhaustive. Anything might reveal the beating heart of your subject’s character. Identify those moments of revelation; discard the rest. And show how those moments add up to a life worth telling.
5. OUTLINES SAVE LIVES
You’ve dredged through the archives. You’ve identified the moments—big and small—that make your subject both important and human. Now you’re ready to write. How do you get started? And how do you keep yourself from getting lost in a maze of your own words? When you’re working on a big writing project, an outline is your best friend.
Let’s talk about what an outline can do for you—and what it shouldn’t. An outline can help you lay out the overall structure of your book, clarifying how the pieces fit together. It can help you find the right place for each anecdote or story. It can help you track the development of important themes and narratives across the book. It can give you, finally, the broad perspective you need to keep the book moving, to keep it organized, and to keep it interesting.
But an outline shouldn’t constrain you. An outline helps you get started and stay focused. But, as you write, you’ll discover—inevitably—problems you didn’t anticipate and ideas you didn’t expect. Be flexible, adaptable. When the outline stops inspiring you and starts confining you, throw the outline out. Then, write a new outline that better reflects the book you’re actually writing—not the one you thought you’d write.