U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bleg: Biography?

I have a question for you all: How do I write about an unknown person without having it turn into a biography? Is recovery work still useful, or should I toss everything I’ve discovered that doesn’t serve the thesis?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If this is a problem for just one subject, an extended footnote or Appendix could do the trick.

    But if you have multiple subjects whose biography is interesting but not totally germane to the book (?) a web appendix might be a way to go.

  2. Hmmmmm. The book is about four black women who traveled abroad–a tourist, a communist fellow traveler, a Christian internationalist, and a Pan-Africanist. Two of the four have not been written about before, so I want to include their whole biographies, but the point of the book is exploring the significance of their international travel. Maybe I can find a journal to publish the biography in and keep the chapter centered on her international journeys.

  3. The answer may depend on how tightly you want to argue your thesis. The academic format calls for a closely structured argument but that is not necessarily the way you have to go. The other issue is space. If you have space for biographical information that does not directly relate to your argument, readers generally appreciate having some general background. People are curious about other people, the shape of their lives, the choices that lead them to unusual accomplishments.

  4. I would err on the side of including more information, as long as it is interesting and historically significant (even if not necessarily supportive of your thesis). My guess is that most editors would agree, as long as the additional info does not push your word count too high.

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