Become a Biographer: Education and Career Roadmap

Mar 05, 2020

Find out how to become a biographer. Research the training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in writing biographies.

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Should I Become a Biographer?

Biographers are writers who use research and journalistic skills to gather information on people of interest and translate it into an intriguing work of creative nonfiction. They gather information about their subjects from primary and secondary sources in order to accurately represent the individuals they're writing about. The majority of writers are self-employed and work from home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This career offers a good deal of autonomy, but it is difficult to break into and many writers face strong competition for work.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's or master's degree
Degree Field English, journalism, communications
Experience Experience can be gained through a variety of different jobs or internships
Key Skills Determination, writing ability, excellent command of the English language
Median Salary (2018) $62,170 per year (for all writers and authors)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Become a Biographer

There is some flexibility in the career path towards becoming a biographer.

Step 1: Determine Career Goals

Whether or not a writer intends to exclusively write biographies will have an impact on the educational path needed for a writing career. If writing biographies will be only one aspect of a writer's career, a creative writing or journalism program would likely be beneficial. Career biographers, however, can prepare for their profession by studying other fields that are relevant to the types of books they plan to write. For instance, historical biographers may wish to major in history. Alternatively, some writers choose not to pursue a formal education, but rather gain work experience on a job directly out of high school.

Step 2: Earn a College Degree

English degree programs focus on literary theory, rhetoric, and composition and are common choices for people interested in writing as a career. These programs help students develop a broad knowledge base, which allows them to work on different types of writing projects, as freelancers often do. A Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program is a typical educational choice for people aspiring to work as novelists or poets.

Journalism may be a more appropriate major for students planning to be biographers. Journalism programs train students in writing mechanics and style but, unlike creative writing programs, they focus on non-fiction writing and reporting. Journalism majors also have an opportunity to gain experience by working on campus publications.

Those who are interested in writing biographies of historical figures or current world leaders should consider majoring in history or political science. These programs will give aspiring biographers the proper context for understanding and conveying their subject's motivations, making their writing more effective. Regardless of the degree program chosen, a solid understanding of English grammar and syntax is essential, as is a familiarity with the writing styles used in the intended field of specialization.

Complete an internship. Many colleges and universities offer internships to their undergraduate students. These internships, especially in the field of journalism, may take place at newspapers or magazines and teach valuable reporting skills.

Step 3: Obtain a Writing Job

According to the BLS, real-world experience is the best way to enter the writing industry. Many people begin their careers writing for college newspapers or magazines. Advanced job placement or pay is typically commensurate with experience, so it is important to build a portfolio to showcase previous work and skills.

Work online. Many writers are now getting their start on the Internet. Blogging or other Internet writing can help writers land paid opportunities and can supplement a formal education.

Step 4: Develop and Maintain a Reputation for Quality

Since successful freelancing requires obtaining work, it is important for writers to set and adhere to high standards of work so that they develop a reputation for quality. This includes working closely with editors and contract managers, and always meeting deadlines. Biographers and other niche writers in particular need to be known for their reliable research and marketable writing style. A reliable reputation and high quality work essentially leads to more work opportunities and further portfolio building.

Biographers often hold a college degree in a field relevant to their career goals, such as English, journalism, or history. Experience in writing for college newspapers and online can help biographers develop skills and a reputation for high quality work that can lead to more opportunities, as many biographers are self-employed.

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