Writing for Artists is a series of posts that cover the basics of marketing your art through writing. Stay tuned for upcoming advice on artist statements and putting together an unconventional C.V.
This week we’re going to switch gears and talk words, not images. We can already hear some of you groaning, but not to worry. There won’t be any 18-page term papers due at the end of this post, we promise.
We would, however, like to give you some friendly advice on the bits and pieces of writing you’ll need to market yourself, and your art.
This week we’re covering the basics of how to write your own biography. You could of course hire someone to do it for you, but with patience and a little help from PatronArt, writing a bio that enhances your art (instead of getting in its way) doesn’t have to be a big deal. Here are five tried-and-true rules.
1. Make a list
The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written. —Joyce Carol Oates
Writing a bio without everything you need on hand is like shopping for Thanksgiving dinner without a grocery list. You’ll probably make it home with most of the stuff you need, but at the eleventh hour you’ll realize you’ve forgotten the cranberry sauce and stuffed the turkey backward.
Joyce Carol Oates’ quip is a good reminder to start with the end in mind. That means considering all the pieces of information going into your bio before you even start writing. Here’s some basic stuff artists put in their bios to get you started:
- Name, date and place of birth
- Current residence and any additional info about spouses, children, and/or pets
- Awards, grants, and/or accolades you’ve received
- Medium, style, and technique
- Artists you’ve worked with or under
- Publications or media recognition
- Notable exhibitions (solo, group, or juried)
- Collections that include your work (they can be public or private)
- Artistic influences and inspirations
- Degrees, residencies, workshops, or certificates (If it’s not art-related, don’t put it in)
Don’t worry if you don’t have all of these yet. Few artists in their early or even mid-level careers will have enough experience to fill out all of these categories. Just collect the information you do have, and consider adding in a few non-traditional entries if your list is still looking a little thin. For example, say you have a degree in communications, but you’ve learned to paint incredibly detailed landscapes in your downtime. Leave the unrelated degree out of your bio and instead add that summer you spent sketching outdoors in Maine.
2. Relevant info only
Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life. —Hunter S. Thompson
Once you’ve got a good size list, it’s time to start chopping. Cross out any repetitious, irrelevant or out-of-date items, and leave only the most basic, important information. A small show at a coffee house 10 years ago isn’t going to carry the same weight as that solo exhibit you had at a downtown gallery last year. Turn a critical eye toward your list, and keep only what’s necessary.
3. Keep it short
I do not over-intellectualise the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story. —Tom Clancy
You’ve heard the stats. Thanks to our increasingly digitized brains, human attention spans are down from nine seconds to eight, less than that of a goldfish. Even if you don’t buy into the interpretation of that particular stat (and there are plenty who don’t), there’s no denying that getting readers’ attention is a battleground these days, online and off.
Bios are actually meant to be short, much shorter than you’re probably thinking. Some professionals will eventually acquire two bios, a long one and a short one for different purposes, but the short one is what you should start with. Plan on landing somewhere between 80-150 words. Attention spans start to fade after that.
A smaller word count probably sounds like good news to those of you who groaned over your writing assignment earlier, but keep in mind that creating something short and good is a hard thing to do; you don’t have a lot of room for mistakes.
4. Murder your darlings
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done. —Stephen King
Before you run screaming in the opposite direction, we’re not actually suggesting you murder your closest friends and family. That’s probably not going to help your writing anyway. The phrase “murder your darlings” is an old bit of writing advice, and it just means you sometimes have to sacrifice your favorite words, phrases, and sentences for the greater good of your writing.
For instance, say you’ve written a bio with a beautiful passage about how your dog inspires your work. That’s important stuff for your patrons to know, but it’s the kind of specific information that should go into an artist statement instead. If it’s really crucial to all of your work, you can chop that paragraph down to a sentence and work it into your bio.
5. Get an editor
Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts. —Larry L. King
If you don’t know any writers or editors personally, ask a trusted friend or family member (preferably one who’s a grammar nerd) to look over your writing. Even the best writers need an extra set of eyes on their work from time to time. It’s easy to miss little things like typos when you work on something for too long. You might be surprised what other people will catch.