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Pay Proper Attention to Your Bio

author bio notes [1]
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 [2], 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.

[pullquote]If you don’t tell your story, who will?[/pullquote]

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 [3].)

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:

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

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 [4]:

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 [5]:

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?

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

Glenn Fleishman, @glennf [6], is the editor and publisher of The Magazine [7], a fortnightly electronic periodical for curious people with a technical bent. Glenn hosts The New Disruptors [8], a podcast about connecting creators and makers to their audiences, and writes as “G.F.” at the Economist’s Babbage blog [9]. He is a regular panel member on the geeky media podcast The Incomparable [10]. 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:

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.

About Jane Friedman [11]

Jane Friedman [12] has more than 20 years in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She's the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet [13], the essential industry newsletter for authors. You can find out more about her consulting services and online classes at her website, JaneFriedman.com [12].