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“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

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When writers send us their short stories, one part of the submission form that often seems to present problems is the field asking for a brief author bio. This is the line or two designed to tell us who the writer is, what kind of publications they’ve had in the past, and sometimes, what credentials they have relating to the story they’re sending. It works exactly like the biographical paragraph in a cover letter. (In effect, all our form does is arrange the information into a digital cover letter and forward it to us.)

People often feel uncomfortable when called upon to describe themselves like this, and the bio section of the form is often one of the weak points of a submission, where writers come across badly, or miss opportunities to come across well. Having gone through several thousand submissions over the last year, I thought it might be worth sharing some tips on writing a good author bio. Although these are written very much from The Fiction Desk’s perspective, they should be helpful when preparing to send your short fiction anywhere.

If you have no previous publications

  1. Don’t be embarrassed about being unpublished. Everybody has to make their debut sooner or later. Many editors love to discover new authors, and personally I’m always keen to have more debuts in our anthologies. On the other hand…
  2. Don’t make a big deal about being unpublished. Writing may be your lifelong passion, and seeing your work in print may be your life’s ambition, but this is a professional communication, and pouring your heart out looks unprofessional. Don’t harp on about the years you’ve been writing without publication, as this won’t instil much confidence in the reader.

Good: I have no previous publications.

Bad: I have been writing for twenty-seven years, and love to write, but have never been published. It’s my lifelong dream. Mr Hedgehog, my stuffed and only friend, will give you a big kiss if you make my dream come true!!

Listing previous publications.

  1. Only list relevant publications. You may have worked on technical manuals in the 1990s, or have written greetings cards, or 2,000 search engine optimised descriptions of shoes, but none of that has any bearing on your abilities as a short story writer. You don’t want to give the impression that you can’t tell the difference between the forms of writing, so if you mention this kind of experience at all, do so in passing. Feature writing and journalism may be more relevant, so use your judgement.
  2. If you have a lot of publication credits, only list highlights. We sometimes receive submissions featuring great long lists of publications in all sorts of journals we’ve never heard of. After a while, this begins to inspire various unhelpful thoughts, like ‘Is the writer making some of these up?’, or ‘If they’ve had so many publications, how come I haven’t heard of them?’ Be proud of all (well, most) of your credits, but pick highlights when you’re trying to impress other people. Choose those highlights based on where you’re submitting; so in the examples below, you might mention Tin House and Postscripts to us, but point out Hippies with Inkjets and Flower Picker if you’re submitting work to a stapler-wielding hobo with mice living in his beard.

Good: My short stories have featured in several publications including Tin House and Postscripts.

Bad: I have been published in Tin House, Spatula Fun Magazine, Short Short Shorts, Photocopied Ineptitude, Staples Down the Side, Fictional Fiction, My Mate Alf’s Telescopic Love Machine, Hairy Tales for Frightened Youths, Flower Picker, Flower Picker II: More Stories we Received, Friends’ Tales, Spurious Journal, Postscripts, The Online Degree-Granting Unaccredited University Journal, Printouts in My Study, If Stories Were Horses, and Hippies with Inkjets.

Grinding an Axe

  1. Don’t do it. Writing – like publishing – is a personal business, and we all have things that frustrate us, or have disappointed us in the past. But your submission isn’t the place to air these grievances. Remember, you are a happy, flexible, laid-back person to work with.

Good: [nothing]

Bad: I DO NOT WANT TO PUBLISH THIS ONLINE, but in a real book because computer books are rubbish, and authors are always taken advantage OF because they think we’re thick. WE DON’T EVEN Need publishers anyway, but IF I let you use my story, I do not expect to be EDITED SEVERELY, especially by a foreigner.

Personal Experience & Credentials

  1. List anything relevant to the specific story under submission. For an editor who doesn’t know you from Adam, it’s reassuring to hear if you have credentials or experience relevant to the subject matter of the story. If the story is about a meteorologist, and you’re a weatherman, a pilot, or a sailor, say so. If the story is set in some remote African village, and you’ve worked in that area, that’s good to know. If it’s historical fiction, mentioning your credentials in that area will give the editor confidence. Don’t panic if there’s nothing relevant to mention, though: we’re dealing in fiction, after all.
  2. Say something about who you are. A few words (and no more) to say where you live and what you do can really make a good impression. If it’s not relevant to the story then don’t dwell on it, but it’s still worth a mention.
  3. Mention academic qualifications, but don’t dwell on them. If you have a writing qualification or certificate, again this is something that you should mention, but don’t give the impression that you think it’s all you need.

Good: (Especially when submitting a story about a farmer) I run a small holding in Devon.

Bad: I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Tinyborough University. [And nothing else to say about myself.]

Bad: When I was sixteen I got a job part-time in a newsagent, but it was really full-time, because there was this guy who was supposed to work Thursdays and Tuesdays, only he couldn’t always come in, and so they’d call me, and that was fun but then later I moved for university, and I did some bar work, which I didn’t enjoy much although there were some good tips. After college I entered a graduate position at a local company specialising in IT analysis and visited businesses in the area giving information and advice on transitions from Windows to Mac, although Apple’s recent prioritising of the consumer market has led to…

Putting it together

  1. Make it brief and professional. The bio really just needs to be two or three lines. Stick to the point, don’t repeat yourself, and try to avoid any spelling mistakes (yes, even though this site is full of them). Remember this isn’t for publication, so it doesn’t have to be entertaining. You’re essentially just introducing yourself to a prospective business contact.
  2. Make it targeted. Although it’s good to have a couple of basic bios ready to go, on individual submissions take a few moments to make sure that they’re relevant to the publication you’re submitting to and the story you’re sending.

Good: For the last three years I’ve been living in Iceland with my family. The enclosed story draws on my own experiences driving a taxi in Reykjavík. I have had stories published in Ploughshares, Stinging Fly, and several other magazines.

Short, to the point, and shows that the writer is drawing on his personal experience for his writing.

Good: I recently completed a Creative Writing Master’s degree with Colborough University, and now live in Ohio where I keep chickens. I have no previous publications.

This may not be exciting, but it’s simple, to the point, and professional.

Bad: I prefer not to talk about myself.

That’s all very well, but talking about yourself is part of being a writer. Is this a sign that the author would be unprofessional or difficult to work with?

Ultimately, the author bio may be a small part of the submissions process, and I’ve certainly turned down work from authors with great bios, and accepted stories from authors with lousy ones. But if you get good at writing your bio, and tailoring it to each submission, it’s going to be one more thing in your favour, and might just help to put the editor in the right frame of mind when they turn to the story itself.

16 Comments on “Ten tips for writing an author bio”

  1. Kirsten McAleese Says:

    This seems hugely useful advice. Thanks for that, it makes me want to rationalise all the information I send along with any written submissions. Grow up a bit – if you will, in terms of my writing career at least.

  2. Matt Plass Says:

    This is great, thanks. I hate doing bios but you are right, it’s the first thing an editor sees and could sway their mood even before the read your first line. Good stuff.

  3. Tony Brown Says:

    It’s certainly a good idea to not list credits that are unknown to the editors, but how are authors supposed to know which ones, other than local publications, that they’re familiar with? The very one you leave off might be one the editor would want to see. I definitely will keep this advice for future use, though, and will apply it.

  4. Rob Says:

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your comment. The idea isn’t so much to guess an editor’s taste directly, as to list relevant credits – ie, publications similar in style and taste to the one you’re submitting to. The editor is likely to know those, as they’re the editor’s competition (or colleagues, depending on how you look at it).

  5. mick davidson Says:

    thanks, thanks and thanks again. Great advice. I hate writing bios and I believe I’ve pretty much done everything you’ve described as far as getting it wrong goes. I have read, absorbed and inwardly digested.
    Loved the bad in points 5 and 6. I’d never say anything against eBook etc as I’m right behind such things – and have my first eBook coming out this week.
    Thanks again for an excellent article, I shall tweet it at once! :)

  6. mick davidson Says:

    Sorry, I lied. My first novel is NOW available in eBook format from Amazon:
    Cheers! :)

  7. Gayle Beveridge Says:

    Thanks; this blog cuts to the chase and the examples are helpful. It is difficult to know what to include and exclude when only a couple of sentences will do.

  8. Nuala Ní Chonchúir Says:

    Great advice. I have an aversion to quirky bios. They are so unprofessional.

  9. Zybahn Says:

    HAHAHAHA!! Very well written, I’m grinning from ear to ear. Unfortunately for you this is inspiring me to write the most ludicrous cover letter.

    But out of respect I’ll promise to refrain.

  10. Haarlson Phillipps Says:

    Good stuff — very useful.
    Looking forward to receiving Maginot.

  11. Link Dump « acageinsearchofabird Says:

    […] nice people at The Fiction Desk cracked out a great little how-to guide for writing those pesky author bios which I highly recommend you have a gander at for some wholesome advice. The Fiction Desk – […]

  12. Rene' Danaube Says:

    Thanks for the tip. I am new at this, and I need all the help I can get.

  13. Steve Passey Says:

    Very useful. The Author Bio is the toughest part for me – I’d rather just talk about the story – but the bio is part of the “pitch” process in many cases and a decent bio can’t hurt.

  14. The Monday Five: Writing Life – The Author Bio (September 9) | The Daily Word Says:

    […] Ten Tips for Writing an Author Bio from The Fiction Desk […]

  15. Meeting 82 – Author bio’s | Madrid Writers' Club Says:

    […] Every author needs a clear and useful author bio. This is a daunting task for most, so we decided to work through the process from beginning to end in our weekly meeting on September 17th 2013. We found some great material at […]

  16. Julie Howard Says:

    Like Rene, I am also new at this. So many sites seem focused on previous publications that a first time writer can feel at a loss. I have just finished writing a bio for my website incorporating your advice and am very happy with it. Thank you.

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