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Writing Biography & Autobiography 3


This is the third excerpt from Writing Biography & Autobiography by Brian D Osborne.

We are running three excerpts from this title from the A & C BlackClick for A & C Black Publishers Publishers References listing Writing Handbooks series, by kind permission of the publisher.


Planning – and finishing - the rest

When you do tackle a particular section or chapter it is tempting to sit down before a blank screen, or a blank sheet of paper, and simply start writing. However, a bit of pre-planning can make for a much more productive process – perhaps incorporating a list of topics to be covered, some indication of how you will link them, a conceptual map of how the various topics to be covered relate to each other or develop one from the other, notes on the sources to be used, and thoughts on the overall shape of the chapter.

Some people like making lists and tables; others swear by randomly noting the topics to be dealt with and then linking them with arrows and numbers. How your pre-planning is done is probably less important than the fact of doing it – and of course even the clearest and most detailed chapter plan is likely to be modified in execution. As you start to write you will find that ideas flow in different ways, and that previously unsuspected connections and conclusions come to you. If after thought and testing these seem valid then it is best to go with the flow and not be constrained by the chapter plan you wrote earlier.

However much you chose to depart from the chapter plan, it is essential to return to it again and again to make sure that you are not missing out any essential points. It is all too easy, when the words are flowing freely, to let your fingers run away with you and to find much later that some critical fact has been omitted. Mistakes and misprints are relatively easy to find and rectify; omissions are infinitely more difficult to spot, simply because unless you have a checklist of contents, it is hard to find the fact that is missing, the document that has not been referred to, the important comment that has not been made. This is always irritating but can at times be much worse – for example if you inadvertently omit a reference to a key document or fact in your chain of evidence. Just because you know something ‘inside out’, don’t assume that you have explained it to your audience.

If starting a biography can be problematical, then finishing it is equally difficult. You have tried to avoid being overly judgemental or editorial in the course of the book – but there does come a point at which the author might be expected to reach some conclusions. Of course, you could just stop: perhaps at your subject’s death, or at the end of their career, or at another obvious terminating point. Usually, however, some sort of summing-up is needed or at least a passage which puts your subject’s life into some sort of context.

While it may be undesirable for the authorial view to intrude in the course of the book, it is surely more acceptable for a writer to attempt to pass judgement on their subject in a concluding chapter or passage. After all, if the author has worked well, the reader will now be in possession of the relevant facts about the subject’s life and work, views, manners and morals, and can reach an informed conclusion that can be tested against the author’s judgement.

If you have written a historical biography, in particular, the final chapter is also an opportunity to refer to what might be called the ‘verdict of history’ – to look, for example, at your subject’s influence on the world, at people’s changing views of them, at the way in which other biographers have dealt with them, or to discuss any forms of commemoration of your subject, such as monuments, which might not have readily fitted into the previous text.

When I was finishing my biography of Henry Bell I was fortunate enough to be able to use material drawn from the 1912 celebrations of the centenary of Bell’s pioneering steamship Comet. A couple of pages describing the celebrations in Glasgow and on the River Clyde for this event neatly rounded-off my last chapter, and I felt that they gave the reader a valuable impression of the perceived significance of the man and his work to a generation almost equally remote from Bell’s and our own.

James Boswell ended his Life of Johnson with a one-paragraph summary description of Johnson’s physical appearance, and a very long paragraph outlining his personality and moral character. He prefaced these with a statement that will surely have resonances for other, less famous, biographers:


The character of SAMUEL JOHNSON has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him. As, however, it may be expected that I should collect into one view the capital and distinguishing features of this extraordinary man, I shall endeavour to acquit myself of that part of my biographical undertaking, however difficult it may be to do that which many of my readers will do better for themselves.

Boswell concluded his masterpiece with a very unambiguous statement of his view of his friend and mentor:

Such was SAMUEL JOHNSON, a man whose talents, acquirements, and virtues, were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered, the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence.

This is our final excerpt from Writing Biography and Autobiography by Brian D Osborne, which is published by A & C Black at £12.99.

First excerpt

Second excerpt


The next excerpt from Writing Biography and Autobiography will be published in the May Magazine.  It is published by A & C Black at £12.99

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© 2004 Brian D Osborne