The complete guide on biographical storytelling
Anyone can learn how to write a perfect biography essay about someone else’s life by making sure to focus on true, objective facts about a specific person. First, determine the scope of the person’s life (years), pick a central theme, and write out the biography using the classic narrative arc.
Many college courses include an essay writing component, and a biography essay is one of the types of essays that you may encounter, especially if you are taking courses in liberal arts disciplines such as history or cultural studies. This guide from Ultius will provide you with a thorough overview of how to write an effective biography essay. The guide will include the following sections:
- purpose of a biography essay
- biography and culture
- elements of a good biography essay
- how to write a great biography essay
- additional information
After reading this guide, you should feel confident in your ability to write a strong biography essay, or at least in your ability to find the right kind of help to write such an essay.
Purpose of a biography essay
"Biography" literally means the story of a life. So, when you write a biography essay, what you are trying to do is to write the story of someone's life. (Autobiography is a related concept that refers to the story of your own life.) If your biography essay is successful, then by the end of reading it, the reader should have a clear idea of what your subject did in his/her life and why his/her life was interesting and/or important enough to be the subject of a biography essay.
Overview of ‘biography’ genre
According to the Ultius glossary, a biography is a detailed descriptions of a famous person’s life and accomplishments (as a genre). Biographies typically contain intricate details of the subject’s personal life and sometimes include an analysis of the person’s personality and attributes.
A biography essay is similar to other forms of essays, such as the narrative essay, insofar as it involves telling a story. A biography essay, however, is supposed to be rooted in historical fact, and it should describe your subject using objective tone and language.
Narrative essay how-to guide. Click here is you are interested in learning how to write a narrative essay instead.
Biography essay vs. narrative essay
While biography essays require documentation and objective storytelling, narrative essays are more informal and can be about ad-hoc events.
|Biography essay||Narrative essay|
|Purpose||To describe the life arc of a selected subject||To tell a story about something you experienced|
|Example of a claim||"Søren Kierkegaard was born in the year 1813 in the nation of Denmark."||"Last weekend, my friends and I went to the water park."|
|Example of publications||history journals, full-length books||some columns in political and cultural magazines|
|Style||third-person, objective, scholarly, rational||first-person, subjective, informal, imaginative|
|Referencing||MLA or Chicago style citations required||scholarly citations are generally not required|
There are two important things to remember about a biography essay.
1. It is a true story that describes the life of your subject. You are not allowed to just make things up, and there should be scholarly documentation confirming that what you are writing is valid.
2. It is a story about someone else, generally a famous historical figure. If you were writing about yourself, that would be a memoir, which for present purposes should be considered as different from a biographical essay.
Don’t embellish facts or details
Only use details and facts that can be verified through documents or existing sources. An important hallmark of biography essays is that they are true.
The importance of biography essays
The English writer Samuel Johnson had this to say about biographies:
"No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.”
The main idea here is that my reading biographies, people can gain insight into the lives of other people who have done amazing things. This can be enchanting in its own right, and it can also provide the reader with inspiration for his own life and help the reader look at his own life with fresh eyes.
Stuck with writing? Essay services from Ultius can help with biography writing.
For example, are you interested in doing philosophy? If so, you may find it inspiring to read biographies such as:
- Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk
- Albert Camus: A Life, by Olivier Todd
- Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, by Joakim Garff
A nice thing about the genre of biography is also that biographies are written about a huge range of different figures in different disciplines, meaning that you can find biographical subject that may specifically interest you or move your heart.
Biography and culture
Biographies play an important role in preserving human cultural memory: it is like history, except focused on the life of one person. People have been telling stories about heroes and other admirable figures since the beginning of the human species.
Biography and heroism
Heroes, like Alexander the Great, were written about endlessly because of the deeds they did during their lifetimes.
Modern biography, though, is somewhat different from the old heroic stories, in that modern biography is supposed to be objective and scholarly, and it is generally rooted in a secular view of time and history. In other words, modern biographies are based in reason more than imagination, and they are not supposed to include magical and/or irrational events.
Biography vs. legend
Biography is a modern scholarly discipline that has some similarities to the much older genre of the legend, but it is also different in some important ways.
Biography vs. legend
While biographies are objective narratives of someone’s life, legends are subjective and based on mythical elements passed down through oral traditions.
|Sources of information||Written records, objective recorded facts, contemporary documents||Oral tradition, subjective impressions and hearsay, cultural beliefs|
|Tone||Rational, scholarly||Imaginative, heroic|
|Conception of time||More secular and linear||More mythic and cyclical|
|View of the supernatural||Generally not allowed, unless events have been strongly corroborated||The supernatural is often taken for granted as a normal part of reality|
|Example||Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography||the old stories about King Arthur and his knights|
So, the genre of biography carries on the old tradition of telling stories about the lives of admirable figures. But whereas the old legends were more imaginative and quasi-fictional in their tellings, modern biography is supposed to be based on reason and objective, verifiable facts about the life of the subject.
Elements of a good biography essay
In order to write a compelling biography essay, there are certain elements that you will have to include. Here are some of them.
Linear narrative arc
This may seem somewhat obvious, but a human life naturally resembles a story, starting with birth and ending in death, with various drama and events happening in between. This is the natural arc that you should follow when writing your biography essay. In general, you should begin your essay with the birth of your historical figure and then follow him/her through the events of his/her life until death.
The plot rainbow
A traditional plot rainbow consists of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Some biography essays might be able to get with innovations such as non-linear structure, but unless you really know what you are doing, that can get very confusing, and your biography essay would be difficult to follow. So, for all intent and purpose, we can say that following a linear narrative arc is a best practice for writing a biography essay.
Different types of narrative structures
These are some of the possible types of narrative structure. When writing a biography essay, you are strongly advised to stick to the linear structure.
Types of narrative structures in biography essays
Understanding and using time is an important concept in biography essays. Choose from a linear, non-linear or thematic structure based on the unique structure of your essay.
|linear structure||the story starts at a specific point in time, and it moves forward by following the subject's experiences over time||—Laurus, a novel by Eugene Vodolazkhin|
—The Idiot, a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky
|non-linear structure||the story may include flashbacks, reversed order of events, and other devices that fragment the narrative||—Memento, a film by Christopher Nolan|
—Westworld, a TV show by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy
—Infinite Jest, a novel by David Foster Wallace
|thematic structure||there may be not even be a story per se, and various ideas may be introduced on the basis of key themes||—Concluding Unscientific Postscript, a philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard|
The linear structure is the standard for most biographies; it starts at a specific point in the protagonist's life and moves forward in chronological order. Nonlinear structure is more complex as this style moves between time periods with time skips and flashbacks. Thematic structure strategically conveys given and new information to frame and insert specific themes.
Choose a compelling biography essay subject
For your biography essay, your subject will be the person whose life story you will be writing. In order for your biography essay to be effective, you will have to pick a subject who is interesting, important, or otherwise qualified to be the subject of a biography essay. You should ask yourself the question: why choose your subject, and what has your subject done that deserves to be recorded and remembered?
Of course, there's a sense in which every single human life is interesting and important. But for the purposes of your biography essay, you will want to dig deeper and consider why your subject is worthy of being remembered in the collective cultural memory.
An effective biography usually focuses on someone who has affected history, or someone who has achieved a high level of excellence within his/her discipline or field.
Søren Kierkegaard: A very important philosopher
Kierkegaard would be an example a good subject for a biography essay, because his works are generally considered a turning point in modern philosophy.
The subject of your biography essay does not necessarily need to be well-known. In fact, it can be a lot of fun to dig into the life of someone is not well known but should be. The important thing is that your subject must be compelling, and there must be a solid reason why his/her story should be told.
Also, when picking a subject, you may want to make sure that you actually like your subject. That can make writing a biography essay more fun, and your respect for the subject (or lack thereof) will also probably come across in your writing. If you want to convince others that your subject is compelling, then it would help if you find him/her compelling.
Choose biographical (life) events wisely
A lot can happen in a life, and it would probably be impossible for you to include everything there is to know about your subject within a single biography essay. So, you should choose the high point, or the most important points, and then focus on those.
Events in the life of Kierkegaard
These are key events that could be the focus of a biography essay on Kierkegaard.
Example events to use in a biographical essay
Choose only notable biographical events like a birth, major milestone, or notable detail.
|Birth||Kierkegaard is born on the 5th of May, 1813.||Logical starting point for the biography essay.|
|Broken engagement||Kierkegaard breaks his engagement with a girl named Regine Olsen on the 11th of August, 1841.||This is considered to be a turning point in his life and a major catalyst behind several of his works.|
|The Corsair affair||Kierkegaard gets into a bitter public dispute with a tabloid called the Corsair.||This renewed his creativity in the later part of his life.|
|Death||Kierkegaard dies on the 11th of November, 1855.||Logical ending point for the biography essay.|
Garff, Joakim. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2007.
How to write a great biography essay
Now that you know about the elements of a biography essay, you can follow these steps in order to ensure that your biography essay turns out to be a success.
Common best-practice steps for biography essays (infographic)
Follow the basic high-level steps provided to write your biography essay: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.
Next, integrate the specific biography related aspects listed below.
Determine the scope of your biographical essay
Again, your biography essay won't be able to include everything there is to know about your subject. So, you will want to map out the scope of your biography essay before you get started. The birth and death of your subject are the logical starting and ending points for your essay. Then, you will want to select a few events or accomplishments in the life of your subject that are worthy of remembrance.
You can develop a full-fledged outline, or you can use a table like the one developed above. Either way, though, you will have to have a clear idea of where you will begin, where you will end, and the path that you will take from the beginning to the end.
Compile credible sources
Your biography essay has to be rooted in verifiable facts about the life of your subject. This means that it is important that you identify and document the sources of your information. The essay sources should generally be scholarly in nature, and you should avoid using websites to the greatest extent possible. This is because it is often difficult to tell whether the content on websites have been drawn from credible sources.
Questions to ask when compiling sources
If there are references listed on a website about your subject, then you should trace those references back to the original academic sources. Those are the sources you should use for your biography essay.
Primary vs. secondary sources
Make sure to understand that primary sources are from the time period while secondary sources are not.
Write in a clear and compelling style
Remember: with your biography essay, you are at least partly trying to show your reader why your subject is interesting and why he/she deserves to have an essay written about him/her.
Your interest in your subject should come across in your writing style. After all, if you feel bored with your subject, then why should anyone else pay attention?
The language you use should be scholarly (but still filled with imagery), but you should also focus on varying sentence structure, using excellent word choice, and other writing techniques that tell the life story of your subject in a compelling way that does justice to the importance of your subject.
See the example biographical essay below for a clear example of how it needs to be written.
As the sample shows, it’s very important to be focused on true details. Please see the list of blog posts below for more examples of biography essays:
- Biography essay on Hillary Clinton
- Biography essay on Frank Rosolino
- Short essay on Edgar Allan Poe
If you need more help or would like something written for your own needs, consider buying custom essays from Ultius. Our talented writes can help you get something done in as fast as three hours.
That brings us to the close of this guide on the biography essay. Here is a recapitulation of some of the best practices that have been covered here.
Develop a focused arc
You should use a linear narrative structure, starting with the birth of your subject, ending with their death, and focusing on selected key events and accomplishments in the subject's life.
Write in the scholarly mode
Although a biography essay is a kind of "story," it should still be written in a rational, scholarly way, and referencing in MLA or Chicago style is usually required for this kind of essay.
Love your subject
If you get to choose your subject, then you should pick a subject that you personally admire. This will make the writing process more fun, and your interest will also show in your writing and make the biography essay more enjoyable for the reader.
Find help if you need it
Finally, Ultius has plenty of resources that can help you write a successful biography essay and hone your skills as a writer. Please feel free to lean on us.
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A biography should be based on interesting and compelling facts that are not well known about a famous person. The information that is required in a biography essay is- origin, education, relationships, career path, their first job and their accomplishments.What are the 5 elements of a biography? ›
- Name, date and place of birth of the individual.
- Personal life.
- Education and occupation.
- Important life events.
- Areas of achievement.
- Individual's significance to their field and impact on the world.
Biographies typically contain intricate details of the subject's personal life and sometimes include an analysis of the person's personality and attributes. A biography essay is similar to other forms of essays, such as the narrative essay, insofar as it involves telling a story.What are the three tips in writing a biography? ›
- Follow the rules. Most publishers, including websites, have guidelines for bio writing. ...
- Customize it. ...
- Start strong. ...
- Keep it concise. ...
- Choose carefully between first- or third-person voice. ...
- Establish credibility. ...
- Make sure your words complement your picture. ...
A good biography delves into what is really interesting about a person's life—noteworthy achievements, moments of adversity, and major turning points. The best biography can encapsulate a subject's entire life in an engaging way and provide enough personal details to give the reader an intimate look at their character.How do you stand out in a biography? ›
- Give an introduction. Start your personal biography with an introduction to who you are. ...
- Highlight your experience. ...
- Focus on achievements. ...
- Show your personality. ...
- Keep it short. ...
- Keep it relevant. ...
- Break up the text. ...
- Tell a story.
- Your name.
- Your current job title.
- Your company name or personal brand statement.
- Your hometown.
- Your alma mater.
- Your personal and professional goals.
- A relevant achievement or accomplishment.
- Your hobbies.
COVER: childhood, upbringing, education, influences, accomplishments, relationships, etc. – everything that helps the reader to understand the person. CONCLUSION: Wrap your biography up with some details about what the subject is doing now if they are still alive.How do you structure a biography? ›
A biography typically starts with the subject's birth (it's surprising how many begin with a description of the weather) and continues in a roughly chronological order until their death. The advantage of this approach, which could equally apply to the history of a family, is that it is easy to follow.What should you not include in a biography? ›
Lying: A bio should never include fabricated accomplishments, awards, titles or positions. Besides the obvious moral issue, false claims are easy to disprove in the digital age and the potential fallout from getting caught in a lie far outweighs any benefits of exaggerating one's achievements.
The first sentence should include your name followed by a few important details you want to highlight, such as your education, certifications or achievements.What is the most important part of a biography? ›
A good biography presents the facts about a person's life including what the subject did and how he or she made a difference in the world. It should also tell the story in an interesting way, showing what the person was really like, how he or she acted, and how others responded.What is a biography example? ›
Popular biographies are life histories written for a general readership. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer are two popular examples.What are the 3 features of biography? ›
- Written in formal language.
- Use of compound and complex sentences, containing connectives.
- Written in the past tense and usually written in chronological order (in time order)
There are some key features, however, that all successful biographies include and are a good guide to writing one: Name, date and place of birth of the individual. Personal life. Education and occupation.How does an essay start? ›
Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order: An opening hook to catch the reader's attention. Relevant background information that the reader needs to know. A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.How do you start and end a biography? ›
Summarize the subject's most memorable actions.
The conclusion of a biography should remind the reader of the subject's achievements or actions. Briefly describe their greatest achievements so that the reader can remember why it is important or enlightening to learn about their life.
- Keep it brief. ...
- Use a third-person voice. ...
- Start with a one-liner. ...
- Sell yourself. ...
- List achievements sparingly. ...
- Include some personal tidbits. ...
- Use a professional photo. ...
- Hannah Lee, author of Bloom Where You're Planted.
Step 1: Choose a Subject
The first step in writing a biography is choosing your subject. Is that subject living or dead? For the most part, the process will be the same either way. You'll want to examine major life events, relationships, and the person's influence on society.
Among the numerous forms of biographical research in education, five types are often noted: scholarly chronicles, intellectual biography, life history writing, memoir biography, and narrative biography.
Good paragraphs begin with a topic sentence that briefly explains what the paragraph is about. Next come a few sentences for development and support, elaborating on the topic with more detail. Paragraphs end with a conclusion sentence that summarizes the topic or presents one final piece of support to wrap up.How many paragraphs is a biography? ›
So, how to write a biography essay outline? Unless otherwise specified by your professor, you should follow the standard five-paragraph essay structure.Should a bio be 1st or 3rd person? ›
The bio should be authoritative, and it should reflect a person's level of professional experience and achievements. The information should be written in the third person instead of the first person so that it is useful to the intended audience.Does a biography have a title? ›
The main title usually involves the words biography and the name of the person whose biography is being written; this is one of the simplest ways of knowing that someone wrote a biography about some other person.What is the main character in a biography called? ›
The protagonist is the character who drives the action--the character whose fate matters most. In other words, they are involved in —and often central to—the plot or conflict of the story, but are also usually the emotional heart of the narrative. Sometimes it's easy to pinpoint who the protagonist is in a story.What is an example of a biography? ›
Popular biographies are life histories written for a general readership. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer are two popular examples.What are the parts of a biography essay? ›
Your essay should follow the standard five paragraph format (Introduction, Body Paragraphs, Conclusion) unless otherwise instructed by your teacher. Your outline will help you organize the information you gathered during your research while you consider which ideas to include in each paragraph.What should I say in my biography? ›
Your bio should include important professional roles and achievements. It's also valuable to add passions, personal interests, and how you bring your values to your work. Finally, your bio should give your readers a chance to get to know you. So, it should reflect your personality.What should I include in my biography? ›
- Job title or workplace.
- University degree and other qualifications.
- Hometown or city of residence.
- Personal or professional goals.
- Mission statement and values.
- Skills and expertise.
- Interests and hobbies.