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How to write a biography essay

The complete guide on biographical storytelling

Quick AnswerVideo

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
  • samples/examples
  • 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 essayNarrative essay
PurposeTo describe the life arc of a selected subjectTo 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 publicationshistory journals, full-length bookssome columns in political and cultural magazines
Stylethird-person, objective, scholarly, rationalfirst-person, subjective, informal, imaginative
ReferencingMLA or Chicago style citations requiredscholarly 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.
 BiographyLegend
Sources of informationWritten records, objective recorded facts, contemporary documentsOral tradition, subjective impressions and hearsay, cultural beliefs
ToneRational, scholarlyImaginative, heroic
Conception of timeMore secular and linearMore mythic and cyclical
View of the supernaturalGenerally not allowed, unless events have been strongly corroboratedThe supernatural is often taken for granted as a normal part of reality
ExampleSøren Kierkegaard: A Biographythe 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.
 FeaturesExample
linear structurethe story starts at a specific point in time, and it moves forward by following the subject's experiences over timeLaurus, a novel by Eugene Vodolazkhin
The Idiot, a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky
non-linear structurethe story may include flashbacks, reversed order of events, and other devices that fragment the narrativeMemento, a film by Christopher Nolan
Westworld, a TV show by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy
Infinite Jest, a novel by David Foster Wallace
thematic structurethere may be not even be a story per se, and various ideas may be introduced on the basis of key themesConcluding 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.
 EventRationale
BirthKierkegaard is born on the 5th of May, 1813.Logical starting point for the biography essay.
Broken engagementKierkegaard 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 affairKierkegaard gets into a bitter public dispute with a tabloid called the Corsair.This renewed his creativity in the later part of his life.
DeathKierkegaard dies on the 11th of November, 1855.Logical ending point for the biography essay.

Source:

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.

Samples/examples

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:

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.

Additional information

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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