Pay Proper Attention to Your Bio

author bio notes
Photo by wecand / Flickr

Lately I’ve noticed that some freelance and author bios are very short—sometimes not more than one line—and say little more than “John Doe is a writer.”

I made this observation on Twitter a couple weeks ago, and Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal responded that it was a response to the “super long bio.” The Magazine editor Glenn Fleishman said he fights 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 it, which involve writers modeling themselves after famous authors who can totally get away with a one liner. Fleishman said it’s analagous to Japanese business cards, at least in the 1990s. Less info = more important.

So for some writers with short bios, it’s an attempt to convey status. Other writers may be putting on that “mysterious” act—the romance of the introverted author whom you should never know too well, because that kills enjoyment of the work.

But as an editor and curious person, the message I take away from the writer of the short bio is: “I don’t care about, nor do I need, you or your opportunities.” A poor bio statement is a missed opportunity—unless you’re Jonathan Franzen or Oprah—to say something about yourself, explain what interests you, and lead people to more of your work.

At this point I should mention that a brief bio has never stopped me from investigating a person I’m super interested in. But it’s an unnecessary stumbling block, and it’s usually the people with the super-short bios who have no websites or easy contact information.

If you don’t tell your story, who will?

Look, I know writers like to be mysterious, or want their work to speak for itself. But getting discovered is part of the game of every writing career, and unless more paid and amazing opportunities are landing in your lap than you can possibly accept, now isn’t the time to use a mysterious one-line bio. (If you’d like a further argument about why bios are important—potentially even more important than a resume—please read this excellent piece by Michael Margolis.)

Now I’ll get off my soapbox and offer some tips for writing a bio (or a number of bios) suitable for online venues. I do this exercise regularly with my university students.

1. Write the kitchen-sink bio.

Start the process by writing a long bio if you don’t have one. I like the five questions that Michael Margolis proposes to help you get started:

  • 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 share in common?

For authors specifically, I would boil this down to the following:

  • Who am I?
  • How did I get here?
  • What do we share in common?

As any sensitive person would probably realize, 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.

Here’s an excerpt from Christina Katz’s long bio:

A champion of mom writers while also maintaining her own prolific career, Christina’s writing career tips and parenting advice appear regularly in national, regional, and online publications. 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, at the start 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).

While there is no single “right” way to write a bio, it should convey something of your voice, personality, or point of view. Howey and Katz both do that, with very different approaches. After reading just a few lines, you start to understand what you share in common with them.

Your long bio should probably be at least 250 words, and its primary home is on your website. You might not use it anywhere else or—that is—if 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 or blog.

2. Create a short, capsule bio appropriate for running with your published articles.

Take your long bio and start pruning. What are the most important things to keep?

  • A broad picture of your experience and background
  • External validators (where you’ve been published, where you’ve worked, awards you’ve won, anything that lends social proof); for authors, this usually amounts to your credits or publications
  • A point of view or voice

Let’s look at Glenn Fleishman’s bio, which is beautifully concise and tackles all of the above:

Glenn Fleishman, @glennf, is 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 or voice here? We have some pretty distinctive words and choice of detail that conveys a POV: curious with a technical bent, geeky media guy, Jeopardy winner. All of these quickly signal to readers what Glenn is about.

On a personal note: Many of you know that I mention bourbon in my Twitter bio as well as in my website bio. That little mention of bourbon offers a human touchpoint—that “something in common”—that has created unforeseen connections and opportunities. When I was invited to sit on a panel at the NEA, I was told that when they researched my background (by visiting my website), the mention of bourbon added a bit of personality that indicated I was probably not so bad to work with.

3. Customize your bio for each social media site where you’re active.

You get extra credit if you tailor your bio for each of your social media profiles. In some cases, this is necessary, like on Twitter, where you only get 160 characters and must come up with something original. In other cases, you might just copy-paste your short bio (from above), but since every social media community is different, it’s best to focus on details that are most relevant to that particular community.

Where I think customization most benefits you:

  • Facebook. Why? People use this site for many different reasons, and it’s impossible to predict who might end up reading the public parts of your profile. If you’re sending out friend requests to people who may not know or remember you, that public bio becomes even more important. (I speak as someone who often looks for a Facebook bio note, but rarely finds it!) Long story short: it’s a missed opportunity if you’re using Facebook partly for professional reasons, but do not have a customized, public bio on your profile.
  • LinkedIn. This mostly depends on your day job and what role your professional career plays in your writing life, but LinkedIn bios should be far more, well, business-like—focused on business outcomes and achievements.

4. If your bio is often used by others, provide an easy cut-and-paste version at your website, on your bio page.

This is important for anyone who is frequently speaking or doing events, who might often be mentioned in the media, or who otherwise has to frequently send out their bio for distribution. People who have to introduce you will appreciate having a 100- or 200-word version they can crib from and use in publicity materials.

I hope this post has encouraged those of you with the “mysterious” bio to be a little more forthcoming. And if you don’t tell your story, who will?

I’d love to hear bio tips from all of you in the comments, as well any positive/negative experiences you’ve had with your bio notes.

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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. This fall, she's proud to be offering two creative nonfiction courses from experienced university writing professorsFind out more.

Comments

  1. says

    The difficulty I’ve had with my bio is that, as you mention, I have two online identities — novelist and professional freelance writer/editor. The bio I use on any given site depends upon the audience I’m looking to attract. Freelance writer bio goes on LinkedIn in hopes of landing more freelance work. Novelist bio goes on Facebook in hopes of landing more readers. But there’s often overlap, and sometimes business folks find me on Facebook and readers on LinkedIn, etc. So it seems now my two bios are morphing into one rather professional sounding bio to be consistent. However, I love the opening of Hugh Howey’s bio, and now I’m wondering if I should return to a more playful (and still professional) tone, something a had years ago. Thank you for an insightful post.

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    • says

      Ah, yes. That’s a layer of complexity I didn’t really address. I’ve seen some authors maintain/run separate bios, but include 1-2 lines indicating the “alternate” profession, with links/leads to where more info can be found.

      No one right answer, I think. Depends on the context and one’s particular focus/goals at a moment in time.

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    • says

      I actually have two bios on my website at the moment. The first is a short, straightforward bio with the basic information of writing credentials and the like. The second bio is longer and much more playful for anyone who want to read on and get a bit more fluff and personality. I’ve seen other authors do this an decided it was a good format for me to follow. You might try something similar with your.

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    • says

      Yes, I have wondered how to get around my multi-career and have ended up morphing them into one line by writing ‘author, artist, yoga teacher’ after my name to indicate I’ve got a few things going on. Thing is I want my yoga students to buy my books and I want my readers to know I have experience in those fields.

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  2. says

    Yes, this is an insightful post, Jane! Contrary to Dina’s thought above on Hugh Howey’s bio, I don’t like that kind of playful fluff and get immediately turned off. When I want to know about a writer, I really don’t want to read that the writer starting writing in 7th grade or is married with children and loves chocolate. That’s the kind of bio I read on Twitter and Facebook and it sounds like high school to me. I’m looking to see if the writer has publishing credentials or experience in the literary world and I prefer to know that at the get-go. Is the writer serious or just dabbling for fun and pitching their personality instead of their work? Once I read the writer’s work, then maybe I’d like to get to know more about personal life.

    Your point about customizing the bio is a great idea!

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      • says

        Good point, Dina. I suppose yes well-known authors can take such a liberty. But I’m not sure I would care if an author like Stephen King had in his bio that he lives with a cat and runs every morning at 6 am. I do like to know where an author lives… in USA or UK, Australia, etc. That gives me a sense of the author’s culture. But more than that feels like filler.

        I do admire when I see a new author without credentials who has the courage to create a bio that is direct and clean. I once read a new author’s bio … “Jane Doe is new to the fiction industry. This is her first publication. She spends every day writing, reading, and studying to perfect her craft. Several of her stories are currently being considered by literary editors. She lives in London.”

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    • says

      To be fair to Hugh, I did pull his bio off his website, which I think is a very different environment than, say, a publication credit at the end of an article or what’s printed in the back of a book.

      But I think your response contrasted with Dina’s response shows the range of reactions a bio is likely to elicit. E.g., some people find my bio far too sterile and business like.

      One might approach this as: Like attracts like. Angle your bio for the type of person you wish to attract to you.

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  3. says

    This is great, Jane! I can’t remember ever seeing advice on this subject before. I try to remember that my readers want to get an idea of who I am, and give them something they might connect to….so dogs, British partner, mountain living, and my foodie pleasures. I also add a line of credentials…awards, etc, depending on the identity I’m using.

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  4. says

    It’s funny, when I had no publishing credits, I wrote a bio with numerous personal touches. As I’ve garnered credits, I’ve essentially supplanted those with a long list of my published work – relevant, perhaps, but dull reading. I really like your idea of the long bio that does both. I’m definitely going to take your advice and rework my bio accordingly – and I’m convinced I’ll end up with a much better short bio as well.

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  5. says

    Good points, Jane. I’ve never quite been able to craft a bio that I really like, so it’s helpful to hear your perspective and see some of these examples. Going to give it some more thought today, maybe try knocking a few versions out!

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  6. says

    Like Lori, I started with a personal bio and then moved to one that was more about my published work. I like your idea of a human touchpoint. Thanks for the suggestions and the reminder to take another look at it.

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  7. says

    Hey, thanks for featuring my bio in your piece today, Jane.

    How did you know that I just updated it?

    I try to update it at least once a year as a practice (and example, since I teach bio writing).

    I think you brought up some good bio-writing shortcuts, and because I teach bio writing, mostly to non-fiction or mixed genre writers, I can probably point out some common bio-writing pitfalls from the writer’s point of view.

    1. Not knowing how to position yourself in your field or niche. Your career can’t just be floating in space. You need to describe yourself as part of a greater context.
    2. Using too much description rather than being more specific. Bios are a great opportunity to tell not show. But writers often think they need to “sound like writers.” The art of bio writing is actually compression, not more adjectives and adverbs.
    3. Any use of hyperbole. Exaggeration is what writers reach for when they really don’t understand the bio’s job. Neither hide what you do (as Jane said) nor elevate what you do (with hyperbole), just tell us what you do. We really want to know!

    When writers think they have to impress people, they write poor bios, and when they simply embrace and articulate who they are and what they do, they write great bios.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  8. says

    I like adding personal bits to mine (mother of two kids in college and two rescued dogs) but as a writing coach and editor, usually to aspiring freelancers and novelists, I often guard against all the person info in lieu of professional credits. I think the personal plays well against the professional, but the “hubby, kiddos, pilates” angle doesn’t work for me most of the time. I want to know what writerly things a writer is doing and then, the personal bits. If there is nothing current, I even like knowing where a writer is from, where they live, college, etc. It sets a tone and gives real information. But I also look at those one-liners and think: “HUH. Now that’s intriguing.”

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  9. says

    Paula’s and Dina’s comments have me worried (seems I’ve indulged in nearly all of Paula’s dislikes). I’m unpubbed, don’t have a lot of credentials to boast, and the shorter my bio, the more I’ve leaned to tongue-in cheek (hoping to be pithy as well as clever). For example, since I was allowed only one tagline for my Writer Inboxed column, I opted for: “After twenty years battling trolls and warding off the curses of evil witches, Vaughn Roycroft left the business world to write epic fantasy.”

    My work is not comic in tone. But I flatter myself to think the overall tone of my online presence leans toward humor (or at least hopefully warmth if not cleverness). So I guess my question for the Zen-master mentor is: What’s an unpubbed fantasy writer to do?

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    • says

      Hi Vaughn,

      If Paula and Dina were fans & devotees of the sci-fi community, I’d be more concerned. (I’m pretty sure they are not?)

      Of course, I’m not really part of the SFF community either, so what I’d advise is: How does your bio feel when you examine what others in your genre community are doing—the people you admire and might be modeling yourself after? Is it hitting all the right buttons for them?

      One thing I’ve noticed about the more literary, MFA community is that people tend to value the quirky-clever bio. But that has nothing to do with the character of their work; it’s simply become a thing for this certain type of writer to write this certain type of bio.

      Not that I’m advocating you follow the crowd, but I’d be most worried about how your bio plays in the SFF community, rather than the WU community.

      Hope that doesn’t dodge the question!

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    • says

      Vaughn, I actually like your tag “After twenty years battling trolls and warding off the curses of evil witches, Vaughn Roycroft left the business world to write epic fantasy.” Made me smile and I learned something about what you left in order to write your epic fantasy. But no, I’m not a SFF; I do read it occasionally. I’d sooner your creative one-line bio than reading that you love to walk your kids to the school bus stop every day. That is of course unless you found your writing inspiration for your epic fantasy at the school bus stop. Then I’d find that tidbit interesting.

      I guess for me, the personal tidbit has to relate to the writing.

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    • says

      I like tongue in cheek bios, especially if they relate to the community in which you are aiming to be a part of. I think your bio is funny and it works well. As a reader of Scfi/Fantasy, I wouldn’t be turned off at all and might even look further because I enjoy the humor.

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  10. says

    Hi Jane, Thanks for the bio help. This is something I am really struggling with, so I did a copy/past onto a word doc to save on my desktop for easy reference. My biggest problem is that I am unknown in my field, having just started 3 months ago and do not have any accolades to mention. I’ve heard that when querying an agent, you should never say that you are unpublished or brand new to the business. I’m pretty much taking that to mean you should not mention it in your bios either. This leaves my bios fairly bland. I’ve seen several people that spice their bios up with humor. I really like that. Is that professional enough?

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    • says

      For novel queries, if you can think of nothing to say about yourself, I think it’s fine to say nothing at all. However, even if you’re unpublished, things you might mention include: any formal writing education you have, any writing organizations you belong to, any professional experience that might play into your work, any research you’ve conducted for the work, and where you live.

      Humor is perfectly fine if it feels natural to you.

      Main takeaway: Don’t sweat the query-specific bio if you’re an unpublished novelist.

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  11. says

    I went through these steps, but it took me several years to do it. Initially I was trying to establish my credibility by including every accomplishment I had. Then at one speaking engagement, the host introduced me to speak and she read the full two paragraphs I had on my website! That’s when I realized concise is better. It took a while to determine what was essential and what wasn’t.

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    • says

      Hi Katherine,

      You make a very important point: This process can take a long time, and one often improves the bio, little by little, over many years. And of course bios need to be revisited and recrafted as a career progresses!

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  12. says

    Jane, Excellent advice. The first hurdle, of course, is overcoming the hesitancy most of us have in “blowing our own horn.” Then comes the need to avoid going too far in the other direction. You know, “The next William Faulkner,” kind of stuff. And finally, as you so properly point out, one bio does not suffice for every occasion. Although a basic bio is nice to have, it should be edited (more work, doggone it) and tailored to each site where it will be used.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom in this and so many other ways.

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  13. says

    One more note: Make sure your bio is grammatically sound. I’m prejudiced against Christina Katz now because her tips, apparently, are a champion of moms and maintain a prolific career.

    Your bio gives people 250 words to form an opinion of you, and you don’t want that opinion to be, “This person is uneducated and careless.” Christina likely isn’t uneducated or careless, but this one dangling modifier could lose her the trust of many potential writing students.

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    • says

      Great catch, Tamara! I doubt that most writers (especially new ones) would see that error. I’m betting Christina read that sentence numerous times and still missed it. I’m a copy editor and a writer and triple check my writing all the time (even do white-ruler reads). I still can’t catch everything myself. All writers need proofreaders and line editors.

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    • says

      Hi Tamara,

      Folks who use words need to understand the power of words, I agree with you there.

      I appreciate your insight regarding my bio and I’ll take your comment into account in future revisions.

      As far as folks dismissing me or my years of work and commitment to writers based on a grammatical error, I doubt it. Most people are intelligent readers and read with more than merely intellect.

      I think most writers, even veterans, prefer to be approached kindly and helpfully, regardless of the circumstances, and gravitate in that direction.

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  14. says

    This is an insightful piece on a topic every writer needs to consider. I like that you’ve also addressed the modesty tendency and the positioning point that reminds us we really need to think about our audience. Excellent food for thought with great examples. Thank you, Jane!

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  15. says

    Thanks Jane. I do have a medium- and a short-form bio, and alter either to suit the venue. But there’s often a bit of the wise guy in the material because I’m a bit of a wise guy. Here’s my Twitter bio:

    I’m a writer and editor of fiction, essays and travel pieces | Also a business copywriter | As well as a general balderdash tosser | who enjoys whiskey on salad

    Now, as a bourbon aficionado, you might smile and nod at that last bit of business. But perhaps I might lose some business interest from appending the nonsense at the end. But I’ll take that chance, because the flavor of the language is expressive of my writing.

    Bottoms up!

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  16. says

    Thanks for the great, informational post here Jane. As a newly published (traditional) writer (Nov 2012), with a 2nd book slated for release in next couple of months, I know I have a lot to learn about this business of book publishing and writing. Posts like yours are like gold, since you give solid information I can use and adapt to my current and future needs.

    Well done. Keep up the good work. :)

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  17. says

    As an unpublished author, I’ve never given it much consideration, but see how that might be a mistake. I find myself reading bios of authors I may want to keep my eye on, so I assume others may do the same with mine. Thanks for the tips. Heading off to update my bios now!

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  18. says

    Great article! My bio is pretty long…although also pretty uninformative and a bit cliche. lol I guess I really have to work on that. So much to do…

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  19. says

    Excellent breakdown of it all.

    I’ve noticed that some big names have taken to the “witty understatement” bio, much like those Japanese business cards:

    “Peter David – writer of stuff”
    “Jim Butcher – Storyteller. Let’s leave it at that.”

    I guess it stands out when the name and the surrounding material are so high-level, but for the rest of us it’s still a missed opportunity. And I’ll bet even those two could have picked a juicy one-liner that would show off their style more than those.

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  20. says

    Excellent article. I have a very diverse background that includes being a limousine driver, house painter, school teacher, and professional fly-fishing guide, among other occupations. I believe readers like to know that the person whose work they are reading lives on the same planet, eats the same food, and has the same range of emotions as they do.
    In short, I think an honest, nothing-to-hide type biography endears an author to his or her readers.

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  21. says

    Great article, Jane. I’ve always promoted taking the idea of a variety of bios and packaging them with online press kits. Here’s mine, as an example: http://www.calebjross.com/bio/press-page/

    You’ll see not only a variety of bios but also links to author photos, book covers, and banners. I try to make it easy for reviewers and interviewers to get whatever information they might need.

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  22. says

    It’s been an interesting process creating my own bio, especially before I started to gain a few writing credits. I started out with what I called my “wishful thinking” bio, which basically pointed out that I’m not there yet, but hope to be. Every other bio before that felt stilted and awkward, but with that one I just started to play with it and the process became fun. I like it so much I still have it up. :)

    Twitter bios are interesting, because the are such a small space. A lot of people will try to list all their accomplishments without any personality and there are a few phrases that make me wary as soon as I see them (“social media guru” is one) and it makes me think I’m going to be sold something. I know that’s not always true, but I’m probably not the only one who makes those kinda of judgements.

    For twitter, I almost prefer the bios that are playful/entertaining over being informative.

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  23. says

    I love your tip on point of view or voice, Jane. I used it today while writing my profile for the Editors’ Association of Canada’s online directory of editors. It started out sounding dull and dry, so I personalized it a little with some style and my own voice. Much improved! Your tips couldn’t have come at a better time.

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  24. says

    Such great advice as always! Those mysterious bios always make me giggle a bit. I mean, even Secretary Clinton has a kick-ass bio. Maybe the best ever! And she does NOT need to tell us her credentials.

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  25. says

    I think a lot of writers probably think, “Oh, no one ever visits the ‘About me’ page.” And I know I’ve thought that myself, and then realized that I do visit them. Often. I love knowing details about authors that interest me, getting an inside look into the life that surrounds them as they write.

    Of course, I also know that no one will care if I have a statue of Doc from Snow White and a popcorn bowl filled with pinecones on my desk. But I think knowing the right details to share depends on what you write, how you write and WHY you love to write.

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  26. says

    Personally, I think that writing a short and sweet bio is the best approach. I know many type “A” personality types that can never get through the first paragraph let alone several paragraphs of an exhausting bio.

    In the end, all a client really wants to know is if you are able to write their content.

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  27. says

    I had the hardest time doing my bio and do not look forward to the next one. I believe the bio has almost as much draw as the cover. When I’m getting a book, I look for things about the author that might make their book worthwhile. The cover and title entice me, the brief explanation about the book adds significant interest, but the author bio plays a vital role in my decision.
    Your column gives me the much needed help to do a better one. Thank you.

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  28. Sam Lieberman says

    What do you think of making a bio that doesn’t really convey helpful information, but is more a vehicle for expression and personality, like this one:

    A self-professed romantic, Sam Lieberman is in love not with writing, and certainly not with a woman, but with an ideal of a woman, a perfect girl who looks much like a real one, but no so much as to ruin her perfection. He spends his free time dreaming about Her, writing about Her, writing for Her, and wallowing in self loathing. If you’d like to contact him about his writing, or are interested in two hour long lecture on Her perfection, contact him at example@examplemail.com.

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  29. says

    I think it’s so important to make sure the bio fits with what you are using for. I use a different bio if I’m guest blogging on another site than I use for my own website, Twitter, Redroom, etc. I also change up my bio for my own sites, depending upon the tone of the site.

    My only problem with my bio is that I was a prosecutor and am now an appellate public defender. I tend to want to put the former prosecutor designation first, because I think people don’t like public defenders. My protag in my novel series is a prosecutor, so it kind of makes sense to put that I was a prosecutor first, but for clarity and organization, the fact that I’m a public defender really should be in the bio before my former occupation. It’s a constant dilemma, because I don’t consider myself working for the dark side, but I know that’s how a lot of people view it and I kind of want to soften the impact for readers. Is that nuts or what?

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