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How to Write a Biography
At some point in their academic careers, all students will be required to write a biography. In this guide, learn how to write a biography with tips for every phase of the process, from planning to research and writing. And because a biography is only as good as the author’s research, find links below to the best sources of biographical information on the Web, including interviews and obituaries.
Get advice on how to write a biography from those who have done it before. The following resources range from brief lists to comprehensives tutorials on biography writing.
Time for Kids
provides young students with a simple bulleted list of ideas to consider when writing biographies.
offers advice on biography writing based on her experience as a children’s book author. Here she gives her top 10 tips for writing a biography.
provides a detailed tutorial on biography writing compiled by British journalist Midge Gilles. The information is geared toward an advanced, ambitious audience, but many of the lessons are broadly applicable, and apply to all aspects of the writing process.
Encyclopedias, newsmagazines and history Web sites are good places to begin your research. Many long-lived newspapers and magazines have made their story archives available online. Some require fees to access content, but many provide free content. If possible, search for contemporary articles on your person of interest. These will provide a perspective not available in a historical retelling.
offers access to free content from its collection through the search feature on the magazine’s homepage. The premium archive offers access on a pay-per-view basis. For $2.95, readers can access one document from the period between the magazine’s founding in 1857 and the present.
has an article on the top 10 sites for researching history. These sites are indispensible for any research about a historical person, or events in that person’s life. Included are links to the National Archives and George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media.
is the quintessential encyclopedia, and its Web site is a good stop for an introduction to a historical topic.
provides users with access to its impressive article archive dating back to 1923. Searching the archive is straightforward and user-friendly.
is dedicated to archiving American speeches, lectures, sermons, interviews and “other important media events.” Its “Online Speech Bank” contains full text, audio and video for more than 5,000 speeches.
The Radio Hall of Fame
offers short biographies for its inductees, who are pioneers, innovators and contemporary talents in the area of broadcast radio.
has been honoring excellence in sports through its Sportsman of the Year award since 1954, when Roger Bannister was recognized for breaking the 4-minute mile. This page offers links to stories for each recipient through Michael Phelps in 2008.
is a biography program that counted down the top North American athletes of the last century. On the SportsCentury Web site readers will find biographies of these 100 athletes, who include Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus and Joe DiMaggio.
hosts the NCAA's list of the 100 most influential student athletes, compiled as part of its centennial celebration.
offers short bios and career statistics for nearly all Baseball Hall of Fame inductees.
Pro Football Hall of Fame
has an alphabetical listing of all its members. For each player it provides a biography, stats, career highlights and more.
Researching U.S. presidents and first ladies:
is the official Web site of the White House. On its “About” students will find links to biography pages for the presidents and first ladies who have lived there.
Researching Nobel Prize winners:
offers a complete list of Nobel Laureates, sortable by year, category and name. Click on a name to find specific information about that person’s prize-winning work, along with the press release announcing their selection and the presentation speech.
Interviews have the potential to offer writers an intimate window into a person’s world, and their firsthand accounts can lend useful substance to a biography.
- When searching for biographical information, don’t forget to search for interviews. Add the term “interview” to a person’s name when doing a Web search. Chances are if they’ve done an interview, you’ll find record of it online.
has interviewed hundreds of “America’s best thinkers, writers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, business leaders, scientists and other newsmakers” since his show first aired in 1991. Browse interview subjects alphabetically, or use the search field.
The Mike Wallace Interview
was a series of prime-time television interviews conducted between 1957 and 1960. Wallace donated 65 interviews conducted between 1957 and 1958 to the University of Texas, which hosts video and transcripts of the conversations. His guests are an impressive array of artists, politicians, war heroes, athletes, businessmen, actors and more. Wallace owns the copyright to these selected videos, though many of his other interviews can be found on YouTube.
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is probably the most well-known site for inspiring, amusing and cool talks with innovative thinkers and leaders. Learn about emerging technologies, the fashion world, religion, medicine and much more from the Web site of the TED Prize and annual TED Conference.
The Paris Review
has conducted more than 300 interviews with important authors since the 1950s. An archive of Paris Review interviews is available on the magazine’s Web site. Full interviews are available as PDF downloads. Browse the archive alphabetically or by date, or search for a specific figure.
is the online archive of C-Span’s author interviews by C-Span CEO Brian Lamb. Find interviews with 800 authors from 1989 to 2004. All interviews are available in streaming video with full transcript.
a British broadcaster, hosted the chat show “Parkinson” from 1971-1982 and 1998-2007, interviewing many of the world’s most famous actors, musicians, athletes and other celebrities. His Web site currently features videos conducted during the end of his show’s run, though it promises to soon expand its archive.
Archive of American Television
comprises more than 600 interviews with television actors, presenters, writers, directors, producers and other broadcasting pioneers.
features dozens of audio interviews conducted over the last 50 years with people from the world of arts and entertainment, politics and philosophy.
Obituaries are a useful source of biographical information for deceased persons. Found in all major newspapers, obituaries contain details of a person’s life and work, and describe their relevance and cultural impact.
- Rather than go directly to one specific paper for an obituary, try getting a broad cross-section by using a search engine. For example, if you’re looking for obits on British Author J.G. Ballard, enter “jg ballard obituary” into your favorite search engine. Such a search will pull up obits written on the author from the top British and American newspapers.
The New York Times
has an extensive obituaries section. To find an obituary, search The New York Times archive. Be sure to select the option for “All Results Since 1851.”
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