10 Tips for Students in Writing Biographies
Besides revealing a bit about how I work, the following 10 tips for students are a map to writing biographies in the classroom. The "Lives of. . ." books are meant for grades four through six, but these tips could theoretically be adapted for a wider age range.
- Are you nosy? This is really the key. Start by picking a person you'd love to know better; the more passion you have for your subject, the more energy you'll spend, and the better your biography will be.
- Make a list of nosy questions, and actually interview a favorite relative, neighbor, friend, or even teacher. Try not to be afraid or shy. Take notes and listen carefully—their answers will get your thoughts flowing, and they might tell more than you could have imagined.
- Or pick someone, dead or alive, you don't know personally--your favorite genius in the creative arts (that includes rock stars), an athletic hero, a history maker. In "Lives of . . ." I prefer dead people. Information about them can be easier to obtain, and they can't complain when you mention their underwear, etc. Notables on commemorative stamps have to be at least 10 years dead, and I think the U.S.. Postal Service has a point in waiting until someone can be viewed in perspective.
- Unleash your best detective skills on encyclopedias, newspapers and magazines, biographies at the library, and Internet searches. Your librarian can really help (librarians are my best friends). I'm a latecomer to the Internet and didn't use it with any of the five "Lives of . . ." books so far. But I think it's the coolest enhancement to curiosity ever invented, and it will definitely be one of my tools from now on. You can't just lift chunks from the Net and drop them into your bio, any more than you can do this with encyclopedias or other sources. You have to process this information, interpret it, put your own spin on it.
- Look for juicy details to make your information come alive. What did they wear? what did they do in the middle of the night? How weird was their family life? (Many geniuses come from troubled backgrounds, proving through history that it's possible to make something great out of your life anyway.) What did they crave? While researching Beethoven, I found out one day that his favorite meal was macaroni and cheese, and this tidbit helped me focus on other concrete details.
- After you've soaked up all your information, don't use it all. Being selective is the magic key. Use only the most savory, cream-of-the-crop stuff, plus the facts that move your narrative along. Look for the arc, or shape of the person's life. Athlete Wilma Rudolph's life had the most dramatic arc possible, from her childhood with every disadvantage, her golden moments of Olympic triumph. But every life story has a beginning, middle, and end. Aim for the most dramatic part and tell what led up to it. what traits enabled them to over-come what obstacles?
- Try tweaking your story by taking a point of view other than the standard third-person omniscient. You can use bystanders, or the neighbors as in "Lives of . . .". You could take the "warts and all" approach of a critic, divulging faults as well as redeeming qualities. Or, how would they tell their own story? How would one of their children? How would one of their teachers? How would a space alien?
- Pick a number of words you want to end up with—say 500 or 1,000. Revision—the constant reworking that professional writers must do to get publishable prose—is a tricky concept to grasp. Manipulating your material until you get your 500 words will give you a taste. Immersed in the process of elimination, you will find yourself coaxing out what really matters. Lots of interesting stuff gets dropped while I try to find the essence of a person. This is delicate, almost like being on a tightrope. Here is where you can polish your biography into a small gem.
- I'm always trying to use combinations of words and ways of telling the story that are unique to me. Some other clues to pithy writing include:
• Think simple, clear, vivid, concise, and rethink clichés.
• Stick to facts—interpret but donut make up facts or dialogue.
• A sense of compassion helps— some lives are more tragic than comic.
• Humor really helps—look for little ironies.
- Above all, have fun! After all, when you're gossiping, it's hard not to.
from "Writing Biographies for Inquiring Minds," by Kathleen Krull, Book Links, May 1999. Used with permission.