29 September 2020

Who Are You?

Though our bios are important,
what do our photos tell
readers about us?
Author bios can be some of the trickiest bits of writing we do. We want a reader to know something of our personality and something of our accomplishments, all within a tightly constrained word count and sometimes following special instructions from an editor.

During the course of our writing careers, our bios take at least three forms—some more stressful to produce than others—and, if we’re lucky, can take a fourth.


The first form is the bio we write early in our career, the one accompanying our first few publications when we have no career of note.

It will be simple, and likely filled with information not writing related:
A. Writer eats broccoli, likes cats, and lives in his mother’s basement. This is his first sale.

The second bio we write after we establish a modest career, and it is likely filled with info about our publications and, maybe, a personal note:
A. Writer is the author of Really Cool Novel (Small Press Publisher, 2016), and more than a dozen short stories published in Magazine A, Magazine B, and others. He still lives in his mother’s basement.

Several years later, after we’ve established ourselves, we have so many accomplishments we could mention that we find ourselves torn. Which do we mention? How much can we say without sounding like an ego-inflated ass? And, so, even though we know it doesn’t include everything we’ve accomplished, our bio looks something like:
A. Writer is the author of several novels, including Really Cool Novel (Small Press Publisher, 2016), Really Cool Novel 2 (Small Press Publisher, 2017), Really Cool Novel 3 (Small Press Publisher, 2018), and the stand-alone My Agent Made Me Write This (Almost a Big Five Publisher, 2020), as well as several hundred short stories published or forthcoming in Major Magazine A, Major Magazine B, Magazine A, Magazine B, Magazine C, Magazine D, Anthology A, and Anthology B. His stories have been short-listed for half-a-dozen awards, some of which you’ve never heard of, and he’s twice had stories good enough to be included in the “Other Distinguished Stories” list at the back of The Best of Year Anthology. He edited Broccoli & Cats, an anthology of food-related cat stories. He finally has his own apartment.

This one may be the easiest bio of all but is one few of us ever get to write. This is the point in our career when we have become so famous that our byline is all the bio we need. Think:
  • Stephen King
  • James Patterson
If forced to provide more than a byline, we can add just a touch of personal information:
A. Writer. His mother lives in his basement.

Some editors (me, for example) prefer professional bios. That is, they want bios heavy on writing accomplishments and light on personal details. They want to know what awards you’ve received and where your work has been published.

Other editors prefer personal bios. They want to know about your veggie preferences, your cats, your kids, your spouse, your education, your hobbies, and any intimate details of your life you care to reveal.

Still other editors want a combination bio that includes a bit of both.

And, sometimes, an editor wants a specific bit of information included in your bio, regardless of which type (professional or personal) they prefer. For example, I asked contributors to The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods to include something about their connection to Texas, and through the author bios, readers learn which contributors were born in Texas and still live here, which were born here but moved away, who worked on a cattle ranch, who is descended from the first Secretary of War to the Republic of Texas, and so on.


Editors often have space limitations, so we must be creative within whatever limitations we’re given. Twenty-five words? Fifty words? One hundred words? It varies from publication to publication.

So, pay attention to your editor’s bio guidelines. Pay attention to your word count, your editor’s bio style preferences, and any special requests. Then pack as much information as possible within the word count you’re given.

What you should never do is ignore the editor’s guidelines and send the editor your one-size-fits-all (but doesn’t really) prepackaged bio and ask the editor to revise it to meet her needs or cut it to fit within her publication’s space limitations.


I’m at the Bio Level 3 ego-inflated ass stage of my career—one doesn’t write for forty-plus years without acquiring several accomplishments—and, because I try to write bios that meet each editor’s specific guidelines, I constantly struggle with what information to include.

I’m not complaining about my current bio level, but it certainly would be nice to advance to Bio Level 4.

My past as the King of Confessions rises to the surface. Eight of my confessions have been reprinted in these four anthologies.


  1. Fun piece, Michael, but with a lot of good info. I have a whole folder in Word called Bios 'cause they change for virtually everything I need to provide a bio for. I might build on previous bios, but I'm always tweaking per whatever requirements there are. And now back to the biohazard of my mother's basement...only we don't have many basements in CA. What's a writer to do?

  2. Great! Michael, you just stole that example of the first bio level from my bio. I'm stuffed with broccoli at the moment, and the cat's meowing for my attention, otherwise I would call my lawyer for your blatant copyright infringement! My mother, however, begs me to be mercyful... saying you look so cute on that picture. I'll never understand her (nor she me. I will move on to level 2, mom!)

  3. This is a subject I haven’t seen addressed before, and as usual Michael nails it. (Full disclosure: I’m the one who worked on a Texas cattle ranch. No offense, but: Worst. Job. Ever.)

  4. Good one, Michael, and as Josh said, I haven't seen anyone cover this topic before. I now await your post on author photos and what they mean. My current conference photo is about 17 years old, whereas my SleuthSayers photo is one taken for a non-fiction book I wrote under an alias (for good reasons).

  5. Hilarious, Michael. I was very proud of a bio I wrote last year, I can't remember for what. It ended: "His hobby is writing bio notes in the third person."

  6. Michael, you get feminist brownie points for acknowledging the proprietor of the basement as the writer's mom rather than the writer's dad. We know who picks up the dirty socks, changes the sheets, and does the laundry when she can't stand it any more. As for the bios, I rewrite from scratch every time, even if it comes out pretty much the same except for length. It gives the result a certain freshness.

  7. Good advice. My bio went through stages. My current one has number of books and awards but I don't list magazine publications anymore. Maybe I should.

  8. I'm bio level 2 edging towards 3. It would go up if I wrote novels, but I don't. Meanwhile, it does beat level 1!

  9. I have two questions:

    What awards did Broccoli & Cats receive?

    How often do you let your mother upstairs?

    Enjoyed your piece.


  10. Paula, Broccoli & Cats received the prestigious Purrfect Veggie Award from the Cooking Cats Association.

    Robert: Follow your dreams. You might be able to monetize that hobby!

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Bios are hard to write well, few of us are good at it, and no writing conferences seem to offer workshops in bio writing. But they should. Bios and cover letters.

  11. Funny, Michael. I admit as a reader, I seldom paid much attention to particular authors, but yours was one name I've known for a long time. You've been doing something right for decades.


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