Write It Sideways

How to Write Your Bio for a Byline or Query

A few weeks ago, I had a short story accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of Grist: The Journal for Writers.

I just received the contract, and am now agonizing over my short author bio. Although I’ve written several versions in the past, none of them seem wholly appropriate for this particular journal.

A short bio usually appears at the end of a piece of writing (be it fiction or nonfiction), with the purpose of identifying the author and giving some key information about them. If you’re writing a query letter, you’ll also have to include a biographical paragraph to tell the editor or agent about yourself.

You don’t always have to use the same byline or bio, and in some cases you shouldn’t.

Before deciding what to put in your bio, consider:

  1. The length of the bio. Sometimes you’ll be given a word or sentence limit. A ‘short’ bio can be anywhere from one sentence long, to one paragraph long—or even a few paragraphs in some rare cases. If you’re not sure of the expected length, check the publication to see what other writers have done. In a query letter, stick to one short paragraph.
  2. The expected tone. Is the prevailing tone of the publication lighthearted and humorous, or spiritual and thoughtful, or serious and professional? Write your bio accordingly. For query letters, write a professional-sounding bio free of gimmicks.
  3. The readership. Who will be reading your piece—and subsequently your bio? Is it an editor or literary agent? A casual blog audience? Readers of literary short stories? Picture your readership and write what feels appropriate for them.

Should an Author Bio Be Written in First or Third-Person?

When writing a query, keep the biographical paragraph of your letter in first-person (unless you are asked to provide a separate bio, in which case you would write in third person).

Example: I am a graduate of the MFA program at Respected University. My short fiction has appeared in MyWritingRocks Magazine, The Awesome Writer Review, and PleaseSignMe Journal. In 2010, I was granted the Award for Emerging Writers from Well-Known Writing Organization.

When writing a short author bio for an online or print byline, write in third person.

Example: Joe Schmo is a graduate of the MFA program at Respected University. His short fiction has appeared in MyWritingRocks Magazine, The Awesome Writer Review, and PleaseSignMe Journal. In 2010, he was granted the Award for Emerging Writers from Well-Known Writing Organization.

Of course, first-person vs. third-person can get a bit fuzzy when it comes to blogging. I, for example, have a first-person bio on my About page, but I always write in third-person when submitting bylines to other blogs.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes his blog bio in first-person:

My name is Leo Babauta, and I’m the creator and writer here. I’m married with six kids, I live in San Francisco (just moved here from Guam), I’m a writer and a runner and a vegan.

But, Copyblogger creator Brian Clark presents himself in third-person:

Copyblogger was founded in January of 2006 by Brian Clark. Brian is CEO of Copyblogger Media, a serial entrepreneur, and a recovering attorney.

Both have amazingly successful blogs with huge readerships, so what’s the difference?

It comes down to image.

Leo Babauta wants to present himself as down-to-earth and very much just a regular guy. He writes most of his own content, and can afford to seem laid-back and approachable.

On the other hand, Brian Clark wants people to see him for the authority he is in his field. Although the blog is technically ‘his,’ he has a large stable of guest writers and regular contributors who write most of the content for him.

When writing your personal blog bio, take into account how you want to come across to your readers. There’s no right or wrong here, but one image may be more appropriate than the other for your particular blog.

Information to Include in Your Author Bio

When writing your bio, you’ll want to include some (not all) of these pieces of information:

What NOT to Include in an Author Bio

If you have no previous publications, education, or professional writing experience, it can be tempting to pad your bio with other stuff. Resist the urge! Here are some things to leave out of your byline:

How to Write a Bio with No Previous Publications

You don’t need previous publications to write an effective byline. If you really don’t have much to say, short and sweet is best.

For query letters, some literary agents say that if you have nothing relevant to say, you can omit the bio paragraph. This obviously tells the agent you have no previous writing experience or pertinent education, but it also avoids you trying to sound like you have qualifications that you really don’t.

If you choose to include a bio paragraph in your query letter when you have little to say, keep it extremely short so as not to take up valuable space and time.

  • Example: I am a graduate of the English Literature program at Respected University, and a member of the TWAA.
  • Example: I recently completed the Advanced Fiction Writing course from Well-Known Writing Organization, and blog about writing at SuccessfulWritingBlog.com.
While these examples probably won’t do much for you, they’re also short enough to not act as an annoyance, either.

Examples of Different Author Bios

Most of us here are beginning or emerging writers, so we won’t all have impressive credits to list. Here are some of my author bios from different venues, which may look similar to your own bio:

Bio A (Short story magazine, no other credits).

Suzannah Windsor was born and raised in the unforgiving Canadian north, but currently lives with her husband and children on a semi-tropical coast in Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of Windsor, and a Bachelor of Education from Lakehead University. Suzannah is the editor of Write It Sideways, an online community dedicated to helping aspiring writers hone their skills. She has contributed to other sites such as Writer Unboxed, Write to Done, Women on Writing, Men with Pens, and Storyfixand she is currently working on her first novel.

*Note: This one was a bit on the longish side. If I had it to do over, I’d shorten it.

Bio B (Short story magazine, one other credit). 

Suzannah Windsor is a Canadian writer currently living on the Australian coast with her husband and young children. Her short fiction appeared in the 2011 issue of The Sand Hill Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of Windsor, and a Bachelor of Education from Lakehead University.

Bio C (Blog contributor bio).

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a K-12 teacher, and a writer of mainstream and literary fiction. She lives with her husband and two sons on the sunny shores of Australia, but dearly misses her home in the cold Canadian north. Check out her blog, Write It Sideways, for articles on writing and editing, productivity and publishing.

Bio D (Online freelance interview assignment).

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is the founder of Write It Sideways, a blog dedicated to helping aspiring authors learn new skills, define their goals, and write more productively. Her articles have been featured on Writer Unboxed, Write to Done, Men with Pens, Storyfix, and many others. Join the free 31-Day Better Writing Habits Challenge, or download a complimentary copy of Suzannah’s Read Better, Write Better Novel Study Workbook.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, you might wonder if you really need to worry about writing an author bio at the moment. After all, it’s not like you’re querying a novel or having pieces published in magazines.

But consider, a short bio can be used in social media such as Twitter or a Facebook fan page where you promote your writing. It can be added to the About page of your own blog or used when you start guest posting for other blogs.

Further Resources on Writing Author Bios

Need more information? Check out the following articles on writing short author bios or biographical paragraphs for query letters:

What information do you include in your author bio? Do you have any other suggestions for writers who have no publishing credits or professional writing experience?