Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How to Write an Academic Literary Bio

[Writer Name] is the author of [Novel/Short Story Collection/Chapbook Title] ([Name of Small Press]).  [His/Her] work has appeared or is forthcoming in [Insert list of other journals where the writer’s work has appeared, in order of most to least prominent].  The recipient of [Insert list of awards and fellowships received, in order of most to least prominent], [he/she] teaches in the [program name] at [name of university]. 

Literary bios are a common sight in creative writing journals where writers get published primarily as a way of getting or keeping a job as a tenured professor.  “Bio” here is different from “biography” in that a biography is usually the story of someone’s life, whereas a bio is primarily a tool for highlighting important things the person has done.  The goal of a literary bio isn’t to tell an interesting story (“He moved to the Yukon at the age of six and learned to clean and gut fish with only a butter knife”) or to reveal unique information (“She’s ambidextrous and teaches fine woodworking courses on weekends”), but instead to portray the writer as an established, competent, and esteemed individual whose writing should be viewed as important.

Literary bios usually consist of four parts:

  1. The Lead. This should be a larger work that the writer has published.  (If no larger work is available, the Works List can serve as the Lead.)  Including the press name is a plus, since a higher-status press carries more weight than a lesser-known one, and mentioning the press name is good publicity. 
  2. The Works List.  This is a list of places the writer has been published, starting with the most well-known.  (The Holy Grail for writers is to begin this list with The New Yorker.)  The names of the stories or poems aren’t important, since the focus is really on the status of the journals that have selected the writer’s work.  (This is especially evident when mentioning places where the writer’s work is forthcoming, since such unreleased work cannot by definition be appreciated by anyone—it is only necessary to mention the new outlet as soon as possible.)
  3. The Awards List.  Fellowships, prizes (especially the Pushcart Prize!), shortlists, residencies, and the occasional artist grant all denote the writer’s work as worthy of such commendation, further establishing the writer as an important person.  Announcing the writer as the “recipient” of an award also sounds more prestigious than saying that the writer merely “received” it!
  4. The Current Position.  Most bios mention the writer’s university and job title at the end almost as an afterthought, thus implying that the writer’s (usually academic) day job is less important than the writing itself, when in reality the writer’s procuring such a position is a large (even primary) motivator behind publishing in creative writing journals at all.  It is especially necessary here to mention the job title of “professor” or “assistant professor,” since saying that the writer “teaches in the creative writing program at X University” is often code for “works as an adjunct.”

In short, the secret to an effective bio lies in its predictability: bios are a tool for conveying information, measuring a writer’s achievements, and establishing a reputation, and thus serve the same purpose as the ingredients list on a box of fruit pies.