You are probably familiar with a handful of biography examples. You’ve seen biopics like Invictus about Nelson Mandela, or documentaries like King in the Wilderness about Martin Luther King or Marley about Bob Marley. Maybe when you had a free minute to spend, you browsed through the Biographies section in the bookstore with novelized lives of politicians and pop stars. However, can you write a good biography in a 5 paragraph essay? After all, aren’t biographies supposed to be long and detailed? The answer is: it depends on what you are trying to say with this biography.
You’ve seen short biographies in your textbooks, for example, William Shakespeare biography put in a couple of sentences in your English Literature course book or a few words about the life of Isaac Newton when you studied Newton's law of universal gravitation in your Science class. These short bylines were biographies too! Therefore, an essay format is quite suitable. Let’s look at it in detail.
Before You Start Writing a Biography Essay
- Biography comes from Greek words meaning “life description”. However, it’s more than a simple statement of facts about someone in chronological order. A biography should tell a story of its subject, focusing on significant events and experiences and analyzing personality of a subject or their contribution to history and culture.
- Your subject can be a historical figure, a modern-day celebrity, or just a person you know – however, they must be real, not fictional. A biography has a place for sentiment and interpretation, but it doesn’t tolerate fantasies and speculation. Only real facts about a real person.
- When choosing your subject, keep in mind the availability of information. You can hardly write a biography about someone whose life is only represented by two dates.
- Choose someone you find fascinating, whose character or impact you believe to be significant. This way you will enjoy looking for additional information about your subject and will be genuinely enthusiastic while writing, which is always good for the tone and flow of your essay.
- When you have all the facts about your subject, try to find a focus of your essay. Will you concentrate on how childhood experiences shaped their character? Will you show which character trait was essential for their success? Select facts that are most relevant to your narrative.
Writing a Biography Essay Outline
When you’ve done your research and have all the facts, it’s time to lay them out to make them into a coherent story. The simplest way to do it is to follow a chronological order, looking in each rubric at the key points in your subject’s life:
- Parents, place of birth, family background
- Significant childhood experiences
- Education, coming of age
- Key relationships
- Career, achievements
- Death and legacy (if the person no longer lives)
- Your subject’s current situation and impact they had
However, you can get creative with the composition:
- - start with the person’s greatest achievement and then show their way to this triumph
- - use archetypical Hero’s Journey template: your hero ventures out to get something they lack or crave, faces conflict, and ultimately triumphs over adversity
- - show the life of your subject through the conflict (with circumstances, rivals, inner conflict) with classical story arc composition: Exposition -> Rising action -> Climax -> Falling action -> Resolution
- - use parallel stories structure where you compare past with the present; however, keep in mind that if you skip from one time to another, you should make it very clear in the text, so as not to confuse your audience.
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How to Start a Biography Essay
If it’s a biography, it doesn’t mean it must start with “He was born in…” or “Her parents were…” That’s the most common mistake students make and it bodes lackluster experience for the audience. It’s an essay, not an encyclopedia entry – you can start off with a great hook sentence! Use a quote by the person you write about or an interesting fact about them that the audience will find relatable. This is particularly important when you write about great personalities of the past, whom we tend to idealize. A fun fact or an intimate detail that humanizes them can go a long way in winning the attention of your readers.
After that, you can carry on with your usual introduction where you present your topic and make a thesis statement. For a biography, a thesis statement might include a claim about the person’s impact or character trait that wasn’t explored before.
Keep in mind that the outline you’ve put together before should work towards proving this claim: present facts and events of your subject’s life, or testimonies of other people about the subject as arguments in favor of your vision. Be careful not to twist or cherry-pick the facts! It’s still a biography and it must be complete and factual.
In the conclusion, instead of restating your thesis, reflect on the person’s impact or legacy. Think of the impression you want to leave in your reader’s mind. Should they be inspired, enlightened, moved, humbled, outraged?
What if I Have to Write a Biography Essay About Myself?
Autobiography is an account of a person’s life where the author writes about self. Autobiographies present a unique insight into the personal lives of people and are treated as valuable historical documents.
Writing about yourself can feel awkward but don’t let it put you off. You will be required to write a personal biography many times in your life for job applications, research grants, or who knows – you might become famous so people would want to read your memoirs! Who else but you has the experience and understanding of your life to tell about it? Anyway, looking at your own life from a third-person perspective and analyzing it critically is a useful skill.
To write your autobiography you will have to go through all the steps involved in writing a usual essay. Conduct research: look through your old diaries, documents, mementos. You may also want to interview your friends and family – they will remember some interesting things that you forgot or never noticed.
How to Write a Biography Essay about Someone Else
If you are writing about someone who lived long ago, like Clara Barton or Edgar Allan Poe, for example, the whole thing is relatively straightforward – you just stick to the facts you can find in literature, compare opposing opinions, etc. Basically, you do what you would do with any subject of research, only this time your subject is a story of a human’s life.
However, in Social Studies, they often ask students to write about a contemporary. For example, a political figure like Abdul Kalam or Barack Obama biography essay, a famous athlete like LeBron James or Michael Jordan, or a celebrity, like Michael Jackson.
If you are writing about someone who lives or is recently deceased, try to be sensitive not to offend friends and relatives of this person. Write as if you knew that someone close to your subject would be among your readers.
When it comes to writing about someone you know personally, for example, your topic is “My mother: biography”, you might want to interview her and ask for permission to write about her life. Letting her see the text of your essay for approval is another good practice.
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