Pursued By A Bear: “I’m trying to write my biog and it sucks”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I haven’t done loads, at least in my opinion, but more and more I’m doing things where people ask me for my biog. I really, really hate writing this. I feel like I’m bigging myself up, but if I try to underplay things then I look like an inexperienced idiot. I’m terrible at self-promotion. Any biog tips for people who hate talking about themselves?”

I know exactly how you feel. Writing your own biography feels like an impossible task; if you undercook it you’ll look like an amateur but if you overdo it people will think you’re a self-serving blowhard or assume you’re lying.

It’s especially difficult at the beginning of your career because you don’t have a lot of options. If you only put in the really impressive stuff your biog will be nothing more than a snappy one-liner. You’re forced to put in every little project you’ve done, which means trying to make that primary school nativity play sound like a professional job. Which it definitely wasn’t.

It’s cliched advice, but I’ve always thought honesty is the best policy when it comes to biogs. As a playwright on the upward trajectory of a fledgling career, people aren’t expecting you to have lit up the West End or written a monologue for Dame Judy Dench.

The key point to remember when writing your biog is that the vast majority of playwrights started out without a credit to their name. There are very few shortcuts; careers are built from nothing.

It’s okay to be inexperienced.

Don’t get caught up with struggling to pad out your biog or make every project look like The Phantom of the Opera. Depending on where you are, you may have some leeway to pick the best of the bunch from your past projects. In most cases you only need a couple of paragraphs or 100-150 words.

One rule I try to stick to is not putting in names of my plays. At this stage it’s likely the reader hasn’t heard of your play, so unless it was big enough to be easily googled you’re wasting words by including the title. Stick to the names of theatres you’ve performed at; “Laetitia Baines-Wolcroft has had her work performed at The Royal Court and Soho Theatre.”

If you’ve had work on in theatres people will have heard of it’s definitely worth mentioning these. However, a full run in a less-known theatre is probably more significant than a rehearsed reading of that ten minute monologue you wrote for writers’ night at the Old Vic. Use your own judgment to decide which projects to include and prioritise.

Another useful tip is to keep it factual. Write in the third person and simply list your accomplishments in straightforward language. Most people reading your biog will be sitting in the audience at one of your shows or a writers’ night and reading it from the programme solely to find out if you’ve done anything they might have heard of. If they don’t recognise any of your work it doesn’t really matter because they’re about to watch your new show.

You’ll sometimes come across a jokey, comedic or self-effacing biog from a writer. Although I have occasionally got a laugh out of one of these, I wouldn’t recommend writing one because typically they don’t serve the purpose of a real biog; to let readers know what you’ve actually done. In my opinion it’s best to save the jokes for the play and keep the biog factual.

Writing a self-effacing biog which pokes fun at your achievements can seem like a way to get around your self-consciousness at bragging. Don’t be tempted to take this route though because it can often be more transparent than you’d think. You run the risk of belittling what you’ve accomplished, and while it may not feel that impressive to you at this stage, to another aspiring writer in the audience you might be a superstar. Secondly, joking about your past work can sometimes come across as flippant, or worse, arrogant. You don’t want to alienate your audience with a misunderstood biog joke.

If you’re really cringing at the prospect of blowing your own trumpet in biog form, consider outsourcing. Hopefully most of you have other friends who write, or at the very least know someone with a GCSE in English. Why not make a you-write-mine-and-I’ll-write-yours deal with another playwright? You’ll often find your friends are more eager to talk about your work than you are, let them do it in biog form. Asking someone who enjoys your work to write a couple of paragraphs about it isn’t unreasonable as favours go.

This is a no-brainer but the absolute bare minimum you should do is have someone proof your biography. I don’t think readers will be judging your worth as a playwright by the projects you’ve done in the past, but people can be really fickle when it comes to typos. Don’t rely on whoever’s putting together the programme to proof your work because for all you know this person is an intern working two jobs on top of handling admin, social media, laundry and script-reading for the theatre. Ask someone you trust to glance through your biog before sending it off. If anything, you’ll look like an idiot if you spell the name of a theatre wrong.

Once you’ve written that first biography it becomes a matter of maintenance. Each time you do something new remember to update your biog. Weigh up your new project against what’s already in there and make a choice as to whether you bump something else off to make room. Sometimes this will be a difficult decision but don’t be tempted to keep adding projects. You don’t want your biog to snowball into a lengthy essay because it will inevitably be too long when you do need to submit it somewhere.

If you keep the biog around the same length and make regular updates you’ll find it becomes a much easier task. When someone asks for your biog you’ll have it ready. Just give it a quick once-over to be sure it’s still doing you justice and send it off. It’s a good idea to always save a new version when updating because you never know when you might want to revert to a previous one.

In the digital age it’s also possible to keep multiple versions. Say you write tense dramas and musical comedies, why not have a separate biog for each genre? This way you can tailor your profile to each audience. People interested in musical theatre may well be more interested in other musicals you’ve written than they are in your dramas. I realise I’m telling you to write multiple biographies when you’re struggling to write one but, as with most things, practice makes perfect.

The best piece of advice I can give is not to big yourself up or try to underplay things. Just be honest. Keep it factual, and remember most people reading your biog will be curious more than anything. Don’t think of the biog as a piece of evidence on which your value will be judged, it’s more of a signpost pointing to your work. The work is the part on which your reputation rests.

Keep the biog simple, don’t overthink it. Let your work speak for you.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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