How to Write a Better Bio: Advice for Artists and Musicians
When writing their own biography, some artists remove any trace of individuality from their bios with boring, generic language, while others exaggerate. For example, if you find yourself saying things like you’re “the voice of a generation,” then I’d suggest you find more objective language. I’ll explain how below.
Your bio should show off your accomplishments as an artist, but it also shows what you are like as a person and a professional, so be sure you devote some real effort and thought to the task, and hire an experienced writer to help you.
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 professional 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. Do it again. Then do it again.
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, or opinions 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:
- Writing in the third person is appropriate for most settings.
- Keep your bio up-to-date. Annual edits are probably plenty, the key is just to avoid highlighting work that no longer represents your current practice as an artist.
- Your bio needs to be easily accessible to anyone who might be curious about you. You should have a website where the bio is copy-and-pastable. If you want to provide your bio as a pdf or Word doc downloads, you can do this, but only in addition to the plain text version.
- Offer a long and short version. 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.
Your bio is your chance to talk about yourself and your work on your own terms. If you dont have one, or worse yet, forcing them to write one for you or to leave it out entirely.