How to Write Like a Professional (Part 3)

April 16, 2012

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This installment of writing like a professional will concentrate on biographies. Just as in other forms of writing, biographies have several types that are related. A good example of what could be described as a trans-generational biography is “The Arms of Krupp” by William Manchester. This book traces the life of a corporation through the several generations of the family who founded and ran it over close to 400 years. It is a true biography of the company with many mini-biographies of the individual players spread through the pages. What makes this particular biography so useful as a reference, is that it satisfies both the supporters and the critics of the subjects.

The Krupps were a family in the steel business. They made things from table wear to cannon. They typically supplied both sides of any European conflict with arms until World War II where the limited their efforts to supporting their native country, Germany. This book was embraced by the family as a magnificent testimony of the good that they had done over the centuries. People who wanted one of the last Krupps to be convicted and executed for his role in the Nazi regime also found what they wanted in this same work.

It could be said that Manchester had an easy time, since the people described had been historic figures in his lifetime and those that were not were very colorful. One of the leaders invented the precursor to post it notes by leaving messages on his engineer’s chairs overnight. One leader had his wife put into an insane asylum to hide his homosexual liaisons. The WWII leader convinced the Nuremberg tribunal that his senile father was the one who used the slave labor during the war. All of this is great fodder for writing the story. But Manchester had to do a lot of research to write the book and had to master story telling to be acceptable to both sides of a debate.

Biography is not just depicting a life. Biography is bringing that lifetime back to life for the reader. One of the more famous biographies is James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. This subject could be very interesting as Samuel Johnson is a significant figure in the development of English as a literary language. Johnson provided one of the first dictionaries and wrote essays and critiques that high school students across America still read. This is an example of a contemporary (Bosworth and Johnson were friends) writing the biography. In this case, the lifetime is exposed with intimate details, private conversations and confessions of fears.

Biographies of famous people are of course the most common, and are usually written well after the life has passed. These works very often carry the personal message of the writer portrayed in the structure of the life being addressed. An easy example of this is Thomas Jefferson. If you call up Thomas Jefferson Biographies on Amazon, there is a list of 454 paper back, 309 hardcover and 29 Kindle versions available. These books have titles such as “The Jefferson Lies”, “Undaunted Courage”, “American Sphinx”, “American Emperor”, and “The Real Thomas Jefferson”. How many of these works actually portray Jefferson accurately is up to the reader and the writer to determine.

There is yet another type of biography to consider. Fictional biography could be the most colorful form of biography available to a writer. In this style, the writer invents the person without having the annoying real person and documentation mucking up the story. “Emma” by Jane Austin is a good example of such a technique. The writer creates everything about the subject, knows all and presents what is most important to the story. It is not political, it is not judgmental, although judgments and political views can be conveyed. This is the best venue to write and not have critics say “it was not that way”. In some ways, any work of fiction includes fictional biography, as the writer must develop characters so that the reader can accept them as real persons.


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