The Art of Writing Bios & Acknowledgments

I don’t know if you’re like me but before I start reading a book, I love reading the author’s bio and acknowledgments. I think you can tell a lot about writers by what they include in their bios, who they thank and how they do it. Sometimes, I know right away if I’m going to like an author just from these things alone. It’s part of the reason I first became a fan of Harlan Coben and David Rosenfelt—they write hilarious acknowledgments.

But some authors barely include any details in their bios and their acknowledgments are nothing but a laundry list of names, resembling an acceptance speech an Oscar winner is reading from without any passion or enthusiasm. I think, Come on, these people contributed something so significant that you needed to mention them but couldn’t drum up the energy to say why? Would you send a thank-you note without mentioning what it’s for? And while you’re at it, isn’t there something interesting you’d like to say about yourself besides where you live?

To be fair, privacy could be a factor. Perhaps someone gave the author insight on living with venereal disease and would prefer that fact not be broadcast. Or maybe the writer would like to thank someone for bailing him out of jail but doesn’t want to include too many details about that rough time before he became a published author. Or it could be the reason he’s grateful to someone is so precious he doesn’t want to share it with the world (and shouldn’t have to).

Too much information is a turn-off, too. I once picked up a book with four pages of breathless acknowledgments of everyone the author had ever met since exiting the womb. By the time I got to top of page three and the mention of third cousin Jody’s brother-in-law’s unbelievable generosity in once giving the author a glass of water, I was considering seppuku. I never made it to the rest of the book.

I say all this knowing that being on the flip side isn’t easy. I’ve had to write bios and struggled with how to strike the right tone and how much detail to include without sounding like a pompous windbag or hermit with no life. I usually ended up with something random like, “Elyse likes soup and the Bee Gees, not necessarily in that order. Due to a childhood incident, she’s scared of walking over manholes, even when covered, and was once propositioned by a prostitute in Berlin.” (All true.) I hoped these personal details were more interesting than a dry list of accomplishments but it’s possible people just thought I’m a moron.

So I pose the following questions to you: As a reader, how much do you like to know? If you’re on the fence about trying a new author, is there something that person can reveal in a bio or acknowledgment that would push you over the edge? That s/he loves dogs? Knitting? Is an Ultimate Fighting champion? Knows Oprah? Conversely, could they turn you off by telling too much?

Am I the only nerd sitting around thinking about this stuff?

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19 responses to “The Art of Writing Bios & Acknowledgments

  1. Dear pop culture nerd, no, you are not alone. I always read the bios and acknowledgements too, both in scientific and fiction books. In scientific books, authors use the ackknowledgements to show how very special they are and how many important people they know (a very good example is Niall Ferguson’s latest book). In fiction books from my point of view women especially often try to semble ‘normal’ and also non-professional. They like their dogs, families and husbands, knitting, cooking, going to Italy, how they have written books ever since they left college. Their husband is most supportive the editor always wonderfull… This is all very boring and in my opinion reveals more about the publishing industry then about the author. They are interesting if you want to find out how writers are meant to represent themselves within certain genres.

    But I think the only biographical informations I really want are those related to the book I am reading. That nobel prize winner Herta Mueller is of Rumanian origin is quite a useful thing to know but who cares if she loves her 7 cats and plants elderflowers in her gardens?

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Birte, you make an interesting point about how authors are supposed to represent themselves within certain genres. Do you mean crime fiction authors should be serious and comedic writers can be funny? Would it be jarring if the woman who writes really dark stuff has a great sense of humor?

  2. You come up with great questions, Elyse ~ no wonder your interviews have zing. I usually only give the bio a cursory look and pay more attention afterwards if I enjoyed the book. Except for your bio, of course ~ your bio would definitely make me buy your book!! 🙂

  3. Oh, I admit I’m a sucker for someone who loves his/her dog(s). But I, like you, really appreciate the funny bios and acknowledgements. I just love to laugh and appreciate a sense of humor. However, I also understand that everyone isn’t gifted with that talent (*ahem* yours truly), so it isn’t a requirement. But I do appreciate something more than “John Doe now lives in Timbukto and is working on his next novel.”

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      I don’t expect every bio & acknowledgment to be witty, just with some personality and not mind-numbingly dull. It’s kind of like the receptionist at the front desk of a company—s/he has to make a good first impression to guests entering the facility.

  4. No, PCN, you are not the only one … I just sent a message 30 seconds ago on this very topic to my publisher, so your words are very timely and top of mind with me today.

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Oh, have you done your bio/acknowledgments for Brush with Death? If it’s not too rude of me to ask—what did your publisher say?

  5. Thank your for another interesting piece of yours, PCN!
    I also pay attention to these bios and acknowledgments and they often influence my buying, writing and/or enjoying a book!
    I recently read one with the most annoying details: the bio (at the beginning of the novel) included a few words about the story itself revealing the surprise ending of the plot + the acknowledgments (at the end) were a never-ending list of irrelevant names, exactly like the one you described. So yes, I read the book but hated it, partly because of these flaws (not to mention several misprints!)!

    PCN, your bio is the best one I’ve read in a long time!!! I would buy your book without a second thought! 😉
    I tried to write mine, here is the result:
    “Julien was born in the twentieth century. He likes words, wine and some other things than do not start with W. He has a twin sister and an expensive bed, which is nicer than an expensive sister and a twin bed. He can get you rid of hiccups. His favorite color remains unknown.”

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Julien, if an author’s bio reveals the novel’s surprise twist, that writer would probably end up on my blacklist forever.

      I’d buy your book, too, if I read that bio! I’m so glad your bed is more expensive than your sister. And I’ll put you on the list with Shell to get one of my books sometime in 2018.

  6. My answer to your questions:
    – some, but it’s the content I’m really curious about
    – it would be a sense of humor (which I find key in many things)
    – dog lovers are good, but not necessary in a good author
    – if I found out the crime writer knits, I’d wonder if he’s used the needles to kill someone in their books
    – UFC is getting so passé 😉
    – trying to get on the O book list?
    – since I listen to more audiobooks than book, the bios usually get missed, anyway. The content is what draws me.

    Great post, PCN. This was fun :-),

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      I’m bummed I can’t impress you with my UFC status. You’re a tough customer.

      I’d miss the bios in audiobooks. I think that’s another reason why I don’t do them even though people keep recommending them to me. That, and I’d need to get an mp3 or CD player in my car. They don’t make 8-track audiobooks, do they?

      I see a different screen than you when I log into this blog but I’ve been told by other readers that the comment subscription has always been there.

      • If you have a cassette deck in the car, you could use a cassette adapter (heck, I might still have one that I’d give ‘ya) to connect an MP3 or iPod and do audiobooks from that (meaning you can listen to them anywhere). Get the new Nano, and you can do video, as well.

  7. PCN, you’ve enabled a new comment subscription?

  8. PCN — Great topic. One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to be careful with your bios… because you never know where they end up. As an example (and sorry for the lengthy anecdote, but you asked for it…): Last winter my editor at St. Martin’s/Minotaur contacted me late on a Friday afternoon and asked if I was going on tour to promote my book. Of course I am, says I. Why do you ask? Oh, says she, we’re putting together the catalogue that we send to booksellers. Oh? Says I. Just out of curiosity, what all is going in the catalogue? Well, says she, just a description of your book and this bio:

    “Brad Parks is a former journalist who lives in Virginia.”

    Want to improve on it? Says she. Of course, says I, that’s boring as hell. By when do you need it? Oh… well… now.

    So, thinking that this is going to booksellers, I dash off something that would hopefully inspire a bookseller to invite me to their store and give a talk. It reads:

    “Brad Parks is an escaped journalist, having done time at The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger as a sportswriter and news feature writer. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth College, he is a washed up jock, a veteran of community theater and an experienced (and enthusiastic) public speaker. He lives in Virginia with an understanding wife and two adorable young children.”

    The next thing I knew, that bio was EVERYWHERE — Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc. etc. And, really, it’s not all THAT bad… except that when someone is buying a book on Amazon, do they really care that I sing pretty and enjoy public speaking? Doubt it. But there it is, out there forever on the big ol’ world wide web, and I am totally defenseless to halt its spread. Sort of like that amateur porn I did once… Ah, but that’s another story entirely.

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Brad!

      I’m laughing already. If you cough up that amateur porn, I’m sold. Professional porn just doesn’t have that raw emotion. (Note to readers: Brad has a book coming out next month called Faces of the Gone.)

      By the way, I’m in NoVa right now. Spent 15 years here (UVA grad) and come back often. Which bookstores will you be visiting on tour? Borders Bailey Crossroads?

      • My staff of underpaid, overwhelmed interns is still working on scheduling a Northern Virginia appearannce. They’re also busy watching YouTube videos of people trying to light their farts on fire, so it might take a minute.

        As for the porn, well, my publicist is waiting until the book releases on Dec. 8 to “accidentally” leak it to TMZ, et. al. I know, I know, another author using a sex tape to sell books… it’s shameful. But we do what we can.

        • Pop Culture Nerd

          If your interns are watching people light up their farts on YouTube, it’d take them more than a minute. By the time they’re done, you might be on your 23rd book with no bookstores left to tour, only Wal-Marts. I’ve heard the best place to set up is a table in the dog food aisle.

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