Last week, I read nearly 180 short bios for the LCC 2011 program book. My job wasn’t to edit what other people wrote; it was merely to proofread before we went to press.
Sounds easy, right?
What struck me too often in those reads was how writers frequently do themselves a disservice with these pint-sized self sketches.
IMHO: A short bio — 25-100 words – should serve as a how-do-you-do. It’s the conversation starter at a nice party, the intro at a friendly table in the bar or at a lovely tea. Its main purpose is to interest the listener just enough to want to continue the interaction.
Trying to cram every detail about the story line of your book into that short space
This tactic rarely works. There’s no way to avoid non sequiturs and the text becomes choppy and harsh. It’s like hearing someone’s elevator speech after he’s stayed up for two days and only eaten pork rinds.
Message to reader: Bad breath and boorish.
Trying too hard to be funny
Several of the bios I read seemed like they were auditioning for America’s Next Comic. Some relied heavily on shock value. But comedy is a touchy thing. Most jokes require a bit of set up and when you don’t have time – or print space – to do that, they fall flat.
This isn’t to say that humor should be avoided. Au contraire! But forcing it, squeezing it into every sentence, just doesn’t work.
Message to reader: Bad breath, boorish and obnoxious.
Losing track of the narrative
It’s useful to know what you’re going for when you write a bio. Do you write funny books? Well, then a little humor might be good in those 25-100 words. Do you want people to be intrigued with you as a person? Maybe putting out a fact that stuns the reader (in a good way) is the ticket. Do you want to convey warmth, aloofness, mystery, allure? You can do any of this, if you think about it ahead of time.
Often a bio starts off with one tone or note and then quickly veers into a completely different scale – I’m not talking octaves here, I’m referring to pentatonic as opposed to atonal scales. And even though the tune might be short, it still hurts the ears.
Message to reader: Ditzy, unprepared, unprofessional, cacophonous.
I’ve read bios that are close to 75 words long and are only one or two sentences. Unless you aspire to be Proust, I wouldn’t recommend this strategy.
Message to reader: Hunh?
I readily admit that I’m not the Queen of Bio Writing. I’ve stumbled and scraped my knees just like everyone else. But I did get that crash course and it was plenty instructive.
There are certainly more pitfalls than I’ve discussed here. I hope you’ll mention the ones that you’ve noticed in the Comments today.
A note: I’ll be around this morning for the conversation, but come this afternoon I’m out of pocket for the next week.
Wish me luck with LCC 2011.
I can’t wait to see those of you who are coming.
(And I pity those of you who aren’t.)