Bio Hazard

Not every artist will apply for a grant in his or her career, but every artist needs to know how to write his or her own bio. This is the one task about which all artists can agree: writing a bio is cruel and unusual punishment. Cleaning the bathroom would be more fun, and most of us will distract ourselves with tasks like this rather than actually sitting down to write. Some artists will remove any trace of individuality from their bios with boring, generic language, while others will call themselves “the voice of a generation” when “I am a saxophone player” would have sufficed. Your bio should show off your accomplishments as an artist, but it also shows what  you are like as a person, so be sure you devote some real effort and thought to the task.

Bio Basics

A bio answers these basic questions: “Who are you?” and “What do you do?” and that’s really it. A good bio can say more, and it should, but there is a right way and wrong way to do this. Your bio may not seem important, but every chance you have to communicate about your work is valuable. If your bio bores readers or makes you seem like a jerk then you are making your life harder, and we all know that for artists life is hard enough. Here are a few points to keep in mind as you write your bio for the first time, or edit one that you’ve already written.

Answer the basic questions, and then answer follow-up questions

When someone asks you about your work, what do you say? Think about the most basic questions that you might get: What’s your name? What do you do? Who do you perform with and where? Where is your art shown? You should answer these questions clearly within a few sentences. The more important part of the bio, where you can add personality to the language, comes with the questions that follow: So, your band performs music exclusively by Tom Waits, why? You make massive sculptures using discarded umbrellas, how did that start? Answers to these questions will begin to draw a vivid and individual portrait of you as an artist.

Pay attention to how you talk about yourself, and use those words

My advice on How to Write An Artist Statement holds true for your bio as well. I encourage everyone to record themselves verbally answering the basic questions, and then actually use those words. If you don’t like what you said, try again until you do, and then just write it down in complete sentences. Not only will this process liven up your writing, it will help you hone your elevator pitch to help you talk more easily about your work with new acquaintances.

Turn on your recorder and start talking

The first time you might say “I do sculpture,” and that’s a good start. Perhaps the next time around you’ll say “I make funny people sculptures with clay” and this is better still. Try again and you might say “I shape clay into whimsical human forms,” and you are now really getting somewhere. The verb “shape” is far more specific and powerful than “do” or “make,” both of which could mean pretty much anything. You could go one step further and say “I sculpt whimsical human forms from clay” and get a much more streamlined and powerful sentence. You might find the word “sculpt” to be a bit obvious, so you could be more evocative and say that you “bring to life” or “animate” clay, but these words, while more colorful, also obscure the actual meaning. You might use them later in the bio, after you’ve clearly established the fundamental work that you do. The point is that you can see just in this paragraph how many choices there are, and how packed with meaning a single sentence can be.

Just the facts, ma’am

I recommend using simple, direct language that describes what you do and have done, rather than trying to compare yourself to others. In other words, let your activities speak for themselves by using objective, rather than subjective, language. Avoid words like “best,” “greatest,” or “well-known,” which are opinions, and stick to factual phrases like “Joe has performed in concert halls large and small throughout the Midwest and in New York.” A subjective statement like an artist claiming to be a “rapidly rising star” begs the reader to ask whether this is really true. The only subjective language in your bio should be in the form of press quotes.

Be truthful, but positive

Its ok to say if you are a student, new to a particular field or if you consider yourself a “hobbyist” or an “amateur” artist. However, there’s no need to say anything anything negative, like “Joe isn’t a real bass player, but he tries hard.” I really have read bios like that, and they aren’t humble, they’re just awkward.

Avoid cliche phrases

You have probably read enough bios and talked with enough colleagues to know what the cliched phrases are when people talk about work in your field. Since I know jazz music the best, I’ll use it as an example. “This jazz quartet leaves room for the unique personalities of its members to shine through” is a statement that is true about any jazz group. Instead you could describe the personalities that you say are shining through: “drummer Joe and bassist Alice play together like a well-oiled, ass-kicking machine.” This line wouldn’t be appropriate in every situation, but it would definitely portray this group as having a lot of attitude, and this can be very valuable.

Don’t forget the nuts and bolts

I started with language-focused advice because I find that this is where most artists struggle, but it is important to also remember a few technical guidelines. Here is a laundry list of basic requirements:

  1. Write in the third person.

  2. Keep your bio up-to-date.

  3. Your bio needs to be easily accessible to anyone who might be curious about you. If you have a website it should be copy-and-pastable, so no flash and no pdf downloads.

  4. Write a long version of 500-700 words and short version from one sentence to 250 words. A good rule of thumb is to post the long version on your website but to make sure that the first paragraph would be acceptable on its own as a short bio. In work I’ve done as a curator and administrator, I always appreciated artists who have well-written bios that are easily accessible. It is good to have these people as friends, rather than making them email you repeatedly asking for your bio, or worse yet, forcing them to write one for you or to leave it out entirely.

I offer biography consultations for just $75 — a one-hour session via video chat with one additional round of feedback via email.