Biographies are invaluable to a writer. A strong bio makes a strong impression and is a powerful tool to advertise and sell the writer’s writing skills. A good bio can lead to repeat business with editors whose attention is captured, a loyal readership whose interest is retained and new clientele whose imagination is piqued, which is great for your business and credentials. And writing a good bio should be a piece of cake for a wordsmith. Yet writers often stumble at this important task.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid while writing your verbal selfie:
1. Going on and on about it
No epics, sagas or long-winded monologues on who your secret crush is, what surgeries you have had or how the country should be run. Your bio is a few words about you. The operative word here being few. There is a reason why magazines specify a word-limit for bios, too, in addition to articles. Remember, most magazines are strapped for space, so do everyone a favor — befriend Brevity.
2. Lying, exaggerating or being irrelevant
This is not the place to show off your yarn spinning skills, unless it follows an article you wrote on that topic. Won an award? By all means brag, provided it wasn’t the first prize in your school’s Lemon-and-Spoon Race. Belong to a writers’ group? Mention it. Only, don’t make it sound like you’re Tom Holt’s bosom pen pal.
3. Writing in first person
Even though each writes his own, the writer’s bio acts on behalf of the magazine and should therefore refer to the writer in third-person. Psychology determines that praise coming from someone else is more valued than that from the person himself. “I am a highly accomplished writer” sounds boastful. “He is a highly accomplished writer” sounds acceptable.
4. Saying too much
A bio should give a concise summary or idea of the writer’s career. You may list a few of the bigger names of publications that your articles have appeared in. Employ this carefully lest it turn into disguised name-dropping. Mention, don’t attempt to impress. It will be downright embarrassing if you claim to be the winner of the Booker Prize but ninety percent of your readers can’t understand what your article is all about. Your work should speak for itself.
5. Saying too little
I once read a bio that was a one-liner: “John Smith writes stuff.” The writer had missed a big chance to spread the word about himself and his work in favor of an arguable quirky bio. A bio should give an idea of what the writer’s normal repertoire of writing skills is and what genre the writer is most comfortable in. But there is such a thing as too little information. A bio that doesn’t educate, entertain or engage is a lost opportunity.
6. Being impersonal
Offer your readers a glimpse of the person behind the writing. A personal touch allows a connection to be made between the writer and his audience and allows people to relate better. You needn’t give away intimate secrets. And in these days of identity theft and data privacy issues, definitely no vital financial or private data. Just a peek into an interesting non-writing aspect of your life will suffice to lift the overall tone of the bio.
7. Not tailoring to the publication
Common sense, really. You wouldn’t make the mistake of submitting a hard-core fantasy/science fiction article to a historical romance stories market. Similarly, you shouldn’t submit an outrageously hilarious bio to a journal that deals with literary criticism of world cultures, nor should you submit an insufferably grave bio to a whacky teenagers’ magazine. Always keep in mind the target audience of the publication and tailor your bio accordingly.
8. Not varying it
When submitting stories to the same magazine frequently, don’t keep enclosing the exact same bio each time. You don’t want your readers to learn your credentials by rote, do you? Variety is the spice of life. Try to vary your bio by relating it to the piece you have just written, even if it is in some tangential way.
9. Varying it too much
At the same time, do remember to keep all versions of your biography consistent. Don’t claim to be an introvert in one version and an extrovert in another.
10. Not having fun
A light-hearted bio tends to be often more entertaining than a solemnly presented one. Not only does it suggest the presence of a sense of humor, but it also expresses the feeling that the writer does not take himself too seriously and may therefore be approachable and open to feedback. Correspondence with your readers is an invaluable weapon in your writing arsenal because it keeps you in touch with ground realities and can help you improve your skill in leaps and bounds. Isn’t “know your audience” a mantra that every magazine swears by?
11. Making it time-bound
Consider this example: “Jane Doe’s work has previously appeared in The Sun and is forthcoming in The Herald this year.” When this bio appears with an article that is submitted in late 2014, accepted in early 2015, published in late 2015, and may be read by a reader in 2016 as an archived back issue, which year exactly is being talked about? Using time periods like “last week” or “this month” in your bio is confusing and pretty much useless because erratic publication schedules throw the time references out of the window.
12. Mentioning specific numbers of publishing credits
Like referencing time, mentioning how many stories you’ve published also gets outdated very fast. “Jack Stalk has published seventy articles on genealogy and family life.” By when? What if by the time a reader reads this, Jack Stalk has actually crossed the hundred-article mark?
13. Not giving contact information
A bio’s most important purpose is to give readers a way to contact the writer. If you don’t provide ways for your audience to get in touch with you, you are destroying your platform. If you don’t want to provide an email address, there are others means to achieve this. Tag on a website URL to more samples of your work. Display the direct Amazon link where readers can buy copies of it. Refer them to your blog, Facebook or Twitter spaces. A good idea is to provide alternate means of reaching you so that those who don’t have access to one method can use another.
Think of your bio as a condensed CV. Most principles that apply to a typical CV also apply to a bio. Don’t let work slip through your fingers just because you made these mistakes and failed to capitalize on this very lucrative marketing tool. Build a memorable bio and let those checks flood in!
Devyani Borade writes on the humour and pathos of everyday life. Her articles on the craft, business and heart of writing have been accepted/published by nearly all writing-related magazines in the US and UK. She likes to eat chocolates, read comic books and try her husband’s patience! Visit her website Verbolatry at http://devyaniborade.blogspot.com to contact her and read her other work.