Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bios and Street Cred

The coin of the literary realm is not money but status. Status, however, correlates with money. Every literary writer wants to be published in hardback by the ritziest, best-known publishers, secure the fattest prizes and grants, and get paying gigs (readings or teaching) at prestigious venues. Thus, the writer’s bio recipe for intermediate and advanced writers, ingredients listed in order of importance:

1. Publications. Books first, then periodicals, the most prestigious listed first. Chapbooks count. If you won a chapbook contest, double points; triple points if a famous writer judged the contest, and do mention his or her name. List forthcoming books, but only if you have a contract. To say you're shopping around for an agent for your first novel is lame. Self-published books count, but always include the name of the press. Here’s how I credit myself: Fierce Consent and Other Poems (Wingspan, 2005). Omit the press and folks will think you're hiding, like, "Lightning Source" or "Xlibris" because they embarrass you.

2. Prizes and honors. Do not include those given locally unless bestowed by educational institutions.

3. Jobs related to the literary world, such as being a writer-in-residence, or editor of something, or a teacher in an ESL program. You lose status by listing other types of jobs.

4. Degrees, writing-related only. Top-level writers such as George Saunders may get mileage out of having graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. You will not.

If you have the above, they go into your writer’s bio in that order. Skip those you don’t have and don’t make stuff up. At the intermediate level your bio is scrutinized by people who know scrutiny! If you haven’t got good publications, work at getting them. If an editor asks for a “three-line bio,” it is acceptable to give three lines of publications, because publication is currently the ultimate in street cred.

But note: I sense that because writers now can and often do publish their own works, “publications” are losing value. Gaining value are prizes and honors, because your friends and mother cannot bestow them.

So, writers: Go out and win some prizes today!

Next: Writer’s Bio No-nos


  1. Thanks for this. In my bio, I'd been boasting my (local/regional) Writer's Guild awards, as they were given by famous poets and writers--and I don't have anything better just yet. Do you think there's a middle ground, when I can say "awarded first and second place by Richard Beban," for example?

  2. I would not do it. It is truly if cynically said, and well known, that literary competition for locals is never very rough -- even in big cities. That's regardless of judge. Even statewide competition can be denigrated as "too local," although if the judge was an elite like Billy Collins or Ellen Bryant Voight, that is worth mentioning.