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The Painless Guide to Writing Your Bio

December 3, 2015

By Erin Elaine Casey

Professional writer, editor, and writing coach

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Erin CaseyI Don’t Like to Brag, But I AM Amazing:
The Painless Guide to Writing Your Bio

(Results may vary.)

Like many folks who sell services, my job as a writer-for-hire is to take away your pain. How do I do that? Primarily by adopting your unloved writing challenges and raising them as my own. That neglected web copy, these dusty reports, even those awkward speeches – I love them all!

But sometimes, you have to tackle a writing job all by yourself, and nothing says “Oh no, not again” quite like receiving a request for a biography.

Yes, the ubiquitous bio. You’ll find it in conference and theatre programs, at awards ceremonies, on websites, and in grant applications.

What is it that makes the poor bio so reviled? It’s this: Most of us hate writing or talking about ourselves. We hate tooting our own horns, shining our own lights, and polishing our own reflections in the glass.

We don’t like to brag, but we are modest.

To help us overcome this unhelpful modesty, I leaned on a few Facebook friends and did a little informal research about what gets them through writing a bio. Mainly, it seems, a sense of humour.

So, while I would be delighted to help you with your bio, if you find yourself going it alone, here are a few tips to harness your inner magnificence and commit it to paper.

Survival Tips for Writing Your Bio or“How do I name drop without sounding like an arse?”

1. Know your audience. Yes, yes, you’ve heard this from me before. It might even be the first thing I said when we met. But it’s still true! The bio (and anything you write) must be of service to your audience. Ask yourself: Who will be reading this? What do they need to know about me? Why?

2. Set the tone. I call this part “facts vs. flake”. Once you understand your audience, add the context. Are you chairing the National Convention of Undertakers? Or are you starring in the Community Comedy Clown Revue? Your audience will always want facts, but the context (business, pleasure, charity, etc.) determines the quantity of flake in your bio. At least one personal detail is usually a good idea, no matter what the occasion, but the lighter the context the more latitude you have to describe your Boston terrier’s favourite outfit or your intense interest in ceramic frogs.

3. Empty your pockets. Figuratively, anyway. Map out who you are by considering both what you have done and what you’d like to do. Make lists and notes. My friend Christine says it’s like building an outfit for a particular occasion: Look for themes and categories and match them to the audience and tone. Accessorize as appropriate.

4. Understand the parameters. If you’re submitting the bio to someone else, ask questions. How long should it be? Can you tell me about the audience? Will the bio be printed, spoken aloud, or both? (More on this later, in point 6.) If the bio is for your own website, and you actually want people to read it, keep it short. Less is almost always more.

5. Use the buddy system. Ever think it would be fun to eavesdrop at your own wake and hear all the nice things people say about you? Here’s your chance! Find a friend or colleague who knows you well. Get them to interview you or draft a bio for you. You can even simply ask what they think and jot it down. Use this as raw material and pretend you’re writing about someone else. The point is that most of us are fairly amazing, but we can’t quite see it ourselves.

6. Try it on. Get feedback! The best feedback is from members of your audience (remember them?), but you can also get feedback from whoever’s asking for the bio. And don’t forget the most important person of all: You! To extend the outfit analogy, try it on. Read it out loud. Does it fit? Is it too big? Too tight? Too casual? Too sexy? Not sexy enough? Also: How does it sound? If the bio is going to be spoken aloud, it’s critical that it sounds like something a human being might actually SAY.

7. Proofread. Yes, please.

There is no one right way to do a bio. You want to keep it professional, but add just the right dash of personal. You want to capture your accomplishments without writing a book. And you want to be authentic.

I’ll give the final word to Nils, one of my unwitting research participants.

“I get that people don't like bragging. I don't mind it but I know it puts some readers off, so I try to balance making myself sound incredible and just dial it back to amazing.”

So go ahead: dial it back to amazing. I know you can do it.

With thanks to Christine, Nils, Jane, Lisa, Wanda, Henk, Lori, Krista, Heather, Lorelei, Kath, Kevin, Fiona, Tracie, and Kathy. 

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