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The term “biography” comes from Greek and means something like “writing life”. In the following, we will tell you what a biography is, how you can write one yourself and what good reasons there are for doing so.
Things to know about biographies
The biography came into being as early as the fourth century BC when the individual became more and more prominent in ancient Greece. Readers no longer wanted to read only the works of poets and scholars but also wanted to know about their life.
Biography still plays an important role as a literary genre today. It serves historical archiving and is a popular means of self-realisation and the psychological processing of problems.
In old age, it is usually used in autobiographical form to reflect on one’s life once more, to embark on a search for meaning and finally, to record family history.
What a biography is
A biography is a genre of literature that tells the story of a particular person’s life. These are usually public figures, politicians, authors and artists, scientists or people who have made an important contribution to society.
A biography includes the person’s origins, upbringing, education, and significant life events that shaped them. It usually highlights individual stages of life that were of great value for personal development or reflect the main theme.
Biographies can reveal family genealogies and portray subjective perceptions of the world. Their themes include war or childhood experiences, illnesses, strokes of fate, migration experiences, special professions, careers, travels, artistic achievements and more.
They are either written by themselves (autobiography) or by someone else. Literary sub-genres of biography are, for example, the autobiographical novel, national biographies and short biographies.
Reasons for a biography
There are many good reasons to write a biography or autobiography. Either be inspired by someone whose life you want to write about or write about your own life.
If you write it yourself, it doesn’t matter whether you publish it afterwards. Keep in mind, however, that if you publish an autobiography, the mentioned family members should agree to it. Talk to them about a possible change of names.
Below you will find many good reasons for writing a biography, but the most important is probably to record your life or a person’s life in general.
A biography reveals a person’s value, achievements, problems and character – their way of facing life. This is a treasure you should preserve.
- Preserving memories
- Become more mindful
- Reappraise your identity and understand yourself better
- Working through trauma and negative experiences
- Passing on knowledge and experiences
- Recording the memoirs of a contemporary witness
- Improving memory: Causes of forgetfulness and tips for better remembering.
Writing a biography: A guide in 9 steps
There are different ways to write a biography. We have a guide for you to write a biography or autobiography in nine steps. In the following, we assume that you are writing an autobiography. However, the instructions can also be applied to writing the biography of another person. Proceed similarly, but relate each step to that person’s life.
Step 1: Organise your life into broad chapters
If you want to write your own biography, the first step is to organise your life into broad chapters. Depending on how old you are and how much you have already experienced, you will find more or fewer events that have significantly shaped your life.
The chapters with your life stages should help you filter out the significant events that have shaped you. In addition, you can already think about a common thread that should run through your work.
Examples are your path to professional success, overcoming an illness, self-discovery, or personal growth. Other possibilities are to present your view of the world, record your family and history, or dedicate your biography to an important person in your life and bring them into focus.
Alternatively, you can create a mind map and organise your life according to specific themes. Examples are “love” or “childhood”. You can then subdivide these further and write keywords on them.
Step.2 Take notes on each chapter
In the second step, it is time to make notes on each chapter of your life. Write down in bullet points what you associate with this period of your life, which people were in it and try to define rough periods with the help of dates.
This is the best way to think about how you want to refresh your memories in the following steps. Time periods are important for finding photos or written material from the time and for contacting people to hear their version of stories and compare them with yours.
Step 3. Make a list of questions
After making rough notes of how your life has been structured, you can ask yourself a list of questions for the details. We have written down some questions for you to ask yourself as you go along.
Think carefully about each question and include marginal figures who may have had more significance in your life than you would first suspect.
- Which events and which people have shaped me and my life?
- Who has always stood by my side?
- Which experiences have had a negative influence on me? Which ones positively?
- Which decisions have had a lasting impact on my life?
- Have my dreams come true or not?
- Which life goals have I achieved and which have not?
- Where are my priorities in life? What is important to me?
- What wishes and plans do I have for the future, or do I miss something in my life?
Step 4: Refresh your memory
Autobiographies are sometimes called memoirs. Memoirs are nothing more than memories. However, they may have faded or been distorted by your subjective perception.
Check old letters, diaries or photos to ensure you have stored memories correctly and bring up new memories. Also, listen to music you listened to at the time and go to places you visited at the time.
These two methods can certainly refresh your memory. Afterwards, make notes directly and assign your thoughts to a corresponding chapter.
Here you can find tips and exercises for memory training.
Step 5. Get relatives and friends to help you
In the next step, get friends and relatives to help you who have already experienced a lot with you. Conduct interviews on specific situations and ask them in general which moments they remember with you.
Record everything in writing in the form of questionnaires or make an audio recording. This way you can complete your notes later and perhaps already form your first sentences.
If you still have gaps in your memory, you can also contact old acquaintances and perhaps find out more by talking to them. They will certainly be happy to help you.
Step 6. Set daily goals for writing your biography
Once you have collected all your memoirs in bullet points, interviews and audio recordings, it is time to start writing. Sometimes it is not easy to take this step. Remember that you don’t have to create perfect sentences and clear connections immediately.
First, write down what comes to your mind and stay in the stream of thought. Do this for each chapter. The most important point here is the writing routine. If you take a break for a more extended period of time, it isn’t easy to get back into it.
Therefore, be sure to maintain the routine and set yourself daily goals, even if they are small. The point is to stay engaged with the subject daily and not lose sight of the big picture. Once you’ve written your first draft, it’s time to revise.
Step 7.Think about changing the names
Part of your revision is, for example, changing names as needed. Depending on what your autobiography is about, whether you are describing crimes or speaking ‘badly’ of a person, you should be prepared for opposition.
You have the opportunity to talk to all concerned people beforehand and get their consent to their names being mentioned in writing and with their signatures.
In the case of complicated passages in which you could be accused of defamation of character or other legal violations, it is better to consult a lawyer. The safest option is to change the names. Whether this is necessary depends on your biography and those involved in it.
Step 8: Correcting and editing
After you have made changes and optimised the content, it’s time to correct it. First, review your text and fix grammar and spelling mistakes.
If you have someone in your family or circle of friends who knows how to do this, you should also ask them for help.
The last step is to ask for professional help. Many publishers, editors and proofreaders can take on this task.
In addition, a professional service usually offers assistance with typography, layout and cover. In addition, the artwork and an eBook can be created. Many online services can print the desired edition directly, but more on that in the last step.
Step 9. Get it printed and published
If you want to publish your biography, there are a few options. You can contact publishers and hope they will publish your work, or you can publish your biography yourself (“self-publishing”).
You have three options here: The first is to have your book printed with online printing services in a certain number of copies and distribute it yourself. The second is to launch an eBook that you can sell through different distribution channels or your own website.
If you enjoy writing biographies, your next project could be the biography of a relative or friend. Conduct interviews, gather information and give a small biography as a Christmas, birthday, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift.