by Emma LaSaine
The word “bio” conjures up PTSD flashbacks of sitting in a room full of other fourteen year olds as a hairy man in sweatpants waves his wrestling coach arms at a whiteboard and bellows, “Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species!” It brings back memories of flicking chipped black nail polish off gray skinny jeans, of copying lab results from the friend who really should have been in Honors Freshman Biology, of contemplating the futility of life while scrawling Death Cab for Cutie lyrics in the margins of your notes—or was this just me?
In all seriousness, wrestling coaches should never be allowed to teach, but that’s a discussion for another time. Today we’re here to talk about the other meaning of “bio,” as in “biography” or “biographical statement.” What does “biography” make you think of? Dusty old books? Dead people? Two hours of hell as you try, desperately, to condense your accomplishments into twenty-five words that don’t sound like the product of a malfunctioning robot? Yeah, that last one, for sure.
But no matter how much you hate writing about yourself in the third person, or how difficult it is to trumpet your accomplishments while still maintaining some semblance of voice, you need a bio. That’s right, you in the corner wearing the hoodie and angsting over the use of that comma; you need a bio, motherfucker. Why? Simply because you will publish your work. You will have a website. You will do something at some point that you’ll be forced to take some freakin’ credit for. And when you do, the people in charge are going to hold out their hands and say, “Gimme!” because they sure as shit aren’t gonna write that bio for you. So you need some fifty- or hundred-word concoction that represents you, your work, and how goddamn snazzy both of those things are (i.e. your professional achievements).
Start off by making a list of all the stuff you’ve accomplished in your life—well, the stuff that’s pertinent to your career/industry/skillsets, at least. Did you win a poetry contest? Did you publish an interview with a cool novelist? Do you have a degree (or are you working on one)? Did you sell an essay to The New Yorker? If you answered, “Yes!” to that last one, I feel like you’ve got this bio thing all on your own, buddy. For the rest of you, let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns—in this instance the Huns represent your lack of a bio—does anyone else feel like singing?) and make those lists.
It might look something like this:
MFA from Columbia College Chicago
Intern at Graywolf Press
7th grade English teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School
Debut novel published by Random House
2013 recipient of the Young Educator Award
Universal Studios optioned film rights of debut novel
Acquisitions Editor for Hair Trigger
Now that you have your list, it’s time to MacGyver as many of those accomplishments into a coherent statement as possible. In order to determine which ones are most relevant, let’s apply this very scientific method of ranking:
Most recent to least recent accomplishment (unless you just started college, high school is definitely out)
Most relevant to what you would like to do with your life in the near future to least relevant
Special consideration given to: recent/big-name publications, anything that allows you to describe yourself/your writing/your related skills as “award-winning,” and degrees/jobs/internships you hold/have held in your desired industry
Anything that checks at least two of these three boxes better be in your bio when the dust clears and the tears have dissipated. Okay? Okay.
So, once you identify your most recent/relevant/impressive accomplishments, it’s time to whip those suckers into sentence-form and stick them all together. Don’t worry about word count right now; just get the ideas down on paper (or screen).
Once you rough something together, it might look a bit like the following:
Renaldo Faux is a writer and teacher from San Antonio, Texas. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia College Chicago where he was an Acquisitions Editor for Hair Trigger, an award-winning fiction anthology. He has also interned with Graywolf Press. His short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, Ninth Letter, and Front Porch . His debut novel, Insert Title Here, was published by Random House, and Universal Studios has optioned the film rights. Renaldo loves spending time with his cats, Beatrice and Theo, despite being largely subservient to their will.
Not a bad first go at all, though Renaldo may have a leg up on you in several areas (being a figment of my imagination, for starters). Regardless of how “big” your accomplishments are, your bio will follow some basic rules. First of all, Renaldo seems to have identified the majority of his strongest achievements off the list. However, his bio should reflect not only the work that he has done, but what he hopes to continue doing in the future. As a passionate middle school teacher, Renaldo should probably include his Young Educator Award as an accomplishment. If he is interesting in going into publishing, however, he will want to highlight his editorial experience with Hair Trigger and Graywolf Press.
Another aspect of the bio that Renaldo hasn’t quite nailed is the order in which he presents his achievements. People have short attention spans (and if you’re still reading this article by this point, you must really want to know about the art of writing bios, so it’s important to lead with the big guns. Let’s say Renaldo is looking to focus primarily on continuing publish writing while maintaining his teaching career, with editorial work as more of a secondary career interest. In that case, his bio should look something like this:
Renaldo Faux is a writer and award-winning teacher from San Antonio, Texas. His debut novel, Insert Title Here, is published by Random House and Universal Studios has optioned the film rights. His short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, Ninth Letter, and Front Porch . Recipient of the 2013 Young Educator Award, Renaldo also holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia College Chicago where he was an Acquisitions Editor for Hair Trigger, an award-winning fiction anthology. He has also interned with Graywolf Press. Renaldo loves spending time with his cats, Beatrice and Theo, despite being largely subservient to their will.
While this bio, which is about a hundred words, is suitable for his website, Renaldo (and you) will need a shorter version for publication credits in literary magazines and/or other professional uses. So how do you cut down a bio and still keep some semblance of voice? The answer, again, lies in your intent. If you only have twenty-five words to represent yourself, you won’t be able to give the full picture, so your shorter bios will likely end up changing based on their intended destination. Think of it as an exciting opportunity to tell the story of a character (yourself) and his/her achievements in a flash-fiction-meets-professional-voice shot of language. And if you’re gonna mention cats, know that you’re not alone but, particularly when it comes to a shorter bio, just don’t allocate too much real estate to the cats.
Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN Magazine, Slacktivist, The Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.