Writing a More Effective Bio
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Lately I’ve noticed that some author bios are very short—sometimes not more than one line—and say little more than “John Doe is a writer.”
When I made this observation on Twitter, Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal observed that the super-short bio is a response to widespread use of super-long bios, and Glenn Fleishman, then the editor of The Magazine, said he fought with some writers to give him more than “So-and-so writes articles” and chalked it up to some people being shy or trained to be modest.
But there are other reasons for the super-short bio, which involve writers modeling themselves after famous authors who can get away with oneliners. Fleishman said it’s analogous to Japanese business cards, at least in the 1990s. Less info = more important.
So, sometimes short bios may reflect attempts to convey status. Or they may reflect positioning to capitalize on the romance of the introverted author—the shadowy figure you should never know too well because that supposedly kills your enjoyment of the work.
But as an editor and a curious person, I take away the message from the writer of the short bio to be “I don’t care about, nor do I need, you or your opportunities.” A poor bio statement is a missed opportunity to say something about yourself, explain what interests you, and lead more people to more of your work.
If you don’t tell your story, who will?
Now I’ll get off my soapbox and offer some tips for writing a bio (or a number of bios) suitable for online venues.
The Four Alternatives Approach
1. Write the kitchen sink bio.
Start the process by writing a long bio. I like the five questions that Michael Margolis proposes to help you get started in “The Resume Is Dead, The Bio Is King”:
Who am I?
How can I help you?
How did I get here (i.e., know what I know)?
Why can you trust me?
What do we have in common?
For author bios, I boil the list of questions down to three:
Who am I?
How did I get here?
What do we have in common?
As you can see, these are fairly deep and complex questions that take time to answer in a way that’s not overly earnest or self-absorbed. It helps if you think in terms of story or backstory, which writers happen to be pretty good at.
A long bio by Christina Katz presents her as a champion of mom writers who regularly provides career tips and parenting advice in national, regional, and online publications.
It says, in part, “Christina has been a ‘gentle taskmaster’ to thousands of writers over the past decade. Her students go from unpublished to published, build professional writing career skills, and increase their creative confidence by working with her intensively over the years.”
Here’s another example, very different, which is excerpted from the beginning of Hugh Howey’s long bio: “Born in 1975, I spent the first eighteen years of my life getting through the gauntlet of primary education. While there, I dabbled in soccer, chess, and tried to write my first novel (several times).”
Although there is no single right way to write a bio, it should convey something of your voice, personality, or point of view. Katz and Howey both do that, with very different approaches. After reading just a few lines, you start to understand what you have in common with them.
The long bio should also offer a broad picture of your experience and background that includes external validators (information on where you’ve been published, where you’ve worked, awards you’ve won, anything that testifies to your abilities and achievements).
It should probably run at least 250 words, and its primary home will be on your website. Done right, it will be too long for most other uses. It’s for your fans, the most interested people, the editors, agents, or influencers who read your work somewhere and are now scoping out your website to learn more.
2. Create a short, capsule bio appropriate for running with articles.
Take your long bio and start pruning. But don’t lose the broad picture of your experience and background, your external validators, or your point of view and voice.
Glenn Fleishman’s short bio is beautifully concise and includes all of these:
Glenn Fleishman, @glennf was the editor and publisher of The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic periodical for curious people with a technical bent. Glenn hosts The New Disruptors, a podcast about connecting creators and makers to their audiences, and writes as “G.F.” at the Economist’s Babbage blog. He is a regular panel member on the geeky media podcast The Incomparable. In October 2012, Glenn won Jeopardy! twice.
What constitutes point of view and voice here? Some pretty distinctive words and choice of detail—he’s curious with a technical bent, geeky media guy, Jeopardy! winner. All these quickly signal to readers what Glenn is about.
On a personal note, I mention bourbon in my Twitter bio as well as in my website bio because it offers a human touch point—that “something in common”—that has led to unforeseen connections and opportunities. When I was invited to be on a panel at the National Endowment for the Arts, I was told that the mention of bourbon in my bio indicated I was probably good to work with.
3. Customize your bio for each social media site where you’re active.
In some cases, this is necessary. For instance, on Twitter, you must come up with something that has only 140 characters. On other sites, you might just copy-and-paste your short bio. But since each social media community is different it’s best to focus on details that are most relevant to each particular community.
With Facebook, which people use for many different reasons, it’s impossible to predict who might end up reading the public parts of your profile. If you’re using Facebook partly for professional reasons and/or for sending Friend requests to people who may not know or remember you, that public bio is important.
LinkedIn bios should be far more businesslike, with a focus on business outcomes and achievements.
4. So that your bio can easily be used by others, provide a cut-and-paste version on each website relevant to your book(s).
This is especially important for anyone who frequently speaks or appears on the air or at events or that might be mentioned in the media. People who write about you or have to introduce you will appreciate having a 100- or 200- word bio they can crib from.
Jane Friedman is the publisher of Scratch (community.scratchmag.net), a magazine about the business side of the writing life. She is also a professor at the University of Virginia, teaching digital media and publishing, and she actively blogs for writers at her award-winning site, JaneFriedman.com.
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