"Please provide a short third-person bio along with your submission." The familiar polite request beams up at me cheerfully from the guidelines of an illustrious magazine. It is just what I have been dreading.
If you are the type who breaks out in sweat when asked to introduce yourself in front of a sea of unknown questioning faces, then you are not alone. It is the single worst request in the world, guaranteed to put anyone in an anxious quandary. What to reveal? How much of it? Why do they want to know anyway? Now visualise the number of onlookers multiplied by a few thousands, as in the readership of a popular magazine, and suddenly knocking off a biography begins to appear an insurmountable task as high as an angel on Ecstasy. I like to call this condition "ego phobia," an acute fear of knowing the self.
On a good day you would like to think you are affable, intelligent and a magnet for the opposite sex, in addition to being God's gift to the publishing world and the reigning world champion of fly-swatting. Assuming that this is all really true, is it actually relevant? Even if it is, how does one put all this across without sounding like a braggart? And how do you do it in under the regulation fifty words?
Puzzling over these questions, I resolve to rid myself of this recurring apprehension once and for all and discover the formula for building the perfect bio. After all, I am a writer. I use words like others use oxygen. How hard can it be to string together a couple of sentences about myself?
Biographies have been around since the very first manuscript was scratched onto parchment. They are one of the most powerful tools that a writer can use to make himself stand out from the crowd. Having an eye-catching attention-grabbing bio is important for several reasons.
Strong Bios Make Strong Impressions. Regardless of whether you are an established or a less-known writer, chances are your story will be read by editors whom you may be unacquainted with. Your bio makes the first impression. An authoritative bio establishes your bona fides as a writer, gets the editor interested and leads to profitable repeat commissions and long-term contracts.
Free Advertising Space. Imagine a generous five-inch-by-two-inch empty canvas available to market your writing skills to the world. Now imagine being paid for it instead of paying for it. That is your bio, the fifty or so extra words' leeway that you can exploit to sell yourself as a story-teller. This is why even when magazines do not ask for a bio, you should provide one. Even if it doesn't get published, it will still have passed under three pairs of eyes; the more visibility, the more opportunity.
Sticky Eyeballs. Readers tend to remember writers whose work they have enjoyed, and look for more such works. This information can be supplied by your bio. From then on, it is only a matter of readers spreading the word to others.
So I puzzle over whether to reveal my day job, fight the impulse to gloat over my latest article sale, decide to disclose a well-kept family secret and give free rein to my artistic temperament. Finally, after hours of staring at glowing cathode rays, running Spell Check umpteen times and shedding vast amounts of the sparse hair on my head, I think I've found it. The One.
A Bio Should Be Short. No epics, sagas or long-winded monologues about how sweet/smart/sexy you are, which school you studied in or why you think Auntie Grace has made your life a living hell. There is a reason why magazines specify a word-limit for bios. Especially those that are strapped for space. Which most are.
A Bio Should Be True. This is not the place to show off your yarn-spinning skills, unless they are the type that actually involve cotton and wheels. Keep the fiction for the story.
A Bio Should Be In Third Person. Even though each author 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 favourable.
A Bio Should Do What It's Supposed To Do. That is, give a concise summary of the writer's career. I briefly accomplish this in my bio by adding the word "published" straightaway. Alternately, I could have included a few of the bigger names of publications that my articles have appeared in. This reeks to me of disguised name-dropping, however. Besides, I can never decide which names to favour and which to ignore. To me, every published article is precious and tenderly cherished, no matter whether it has appeared in print in the small press or from the house of publishing giant.
Another point worth remembering is that you will probably be sharing the limelight with at least one other writer who has never been published before. Mention, don't 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 story is about. Your work should speak for itself.
A Bio Should Describe The Writer's Area Of Expertise. 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. (This is another reason why I don't like to list names of magazines in my bio; often the name of a magazine may not indicate what market it caters to. Family Tree Magazine is pretty obvious, Candis isn't.) This explains why in my bio I mention "short light-hearted" and "topics drawn from everyday life."
A Bio Should Be Personal. A bio should offer a glimpse of the person behind the writing. Unless you are J. K. Rowling, your readers will get to know you only through your writing. A personal touch allows a connection to be made between the writer and the audience and allows people to relate better. Readers like to know that the writer is just like any one of them. You needn't give away intimate secrets. And in these days of identity theft and data privacy issues, definitely no vital financial or private details. Just a peek into an interesting non-writing aspect of your life will suffice to lift the overall tone of the bio. Thus the reference to "chocolate cookies" and "Calvin and Hobbes comics" in mine.
A Bio Should Match The Magazine's Overall Theme And Taste. Common sense, really. You wouldn't submit a hard-core fantasy story to a historical romance market, would you? Similarly, you shouldn't submit an over-the-top hilarious bio to a journal that deals with literary criticism of world cultures, or an insufferably grave bio to a wacky teenagers' magazine. Always keep in mind the target audience of the publication and tailor your bio accordingly. Isn't "know your audience" a mantra that every magazine swears by?
A corollary of this is 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.
But remember to keep bios consistent. Don't claim to be a timid paragon-of-peace-wouldn't-hurt-a-fly in one and a total Quake III aficionado in another.
A Little Humour Helps. This is strictly my personal taste, but I find a light-hearted bio more entertaining than a solemnly presented one, and people are more likely to remember something they enjoy. In my particular case, adding the phrase about "she likes... trying her husband's patience" to my bio also serves another purpose. It gives a clue that I am a woman ("Devyani" not being exactly the most common name in the world) and that I am married -- yet another titbit from the writing-unrelated facet of my life.
It is a good idea to ensure that your name features in the first five words at the beginning of your bio, because nothing introduces you better than your name!
A smart move is to tag on a website URL to more samples of your work. If you are the author of a published book, display the direct Amazon link where readers can buy copies of it.
Think of your bio as a condensed CV. Most principles that apply to a typical CV also apply to a bio.
There are bios and then there are good bios. Here's a quick look at some of the ones floating around:
This is one of the most widely-used formats and the sheer number of writers with this type of bio means that you are safe using it. It satisfies on all accounts; however, in my opinion, it is a tad unimaginative.
Too short. Although it does inform the reader on where similar work by this writer can be found, it won't hold the reader's interest, and therefore is likely to be forgotten pretty much instantly.
Nice. A brief background, followed by information that the writer has been published before, rounded off with a link to more work.
These are not hard-and-fast rules. Rather, they are guidelines that you may use intelligently for a creative bio that will work for you. So go ahead and make an impact. Meanwhile, I had better get back to my submission and begin on the actual story itself!
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