How to write an author bio if you’ve never been published

by: Jaime Dill, Co-Editorial Director of Cardigan Press

Do you ever feel like you’re not accomplished enough to matter?

Insecurity is among the top emotions felt when tasked with writing an author bio. Talking about oneself is difficult enough. Imagine the panic of having nothing brag-worthy to say.

Or maybe you don’t have to imagine because this is you, right now.

I want to shoo some of those fears away by giving you a behind-the-scenes perspective on how I perceive bios as an editor here are Cardigan Press, followed by a few tips on what to write when you’re feeling imposter syndrome.

Does an impressive “previously published” list make a difference?

No. Straight up—no.

I can’t speak for publishers who care more about associated clout—taking someone’s work solely because it was also featured by a peer publisher or competing brand. Those do exist, and if you want to play that game, then you have to go into it accepting that your reputation matters more than your writing.

But here at Cardigan, we care about the words. If your bio states you’re a regular in The Atlantic or even a Booker Prize recipient, it won’t matter if your writing isn’t what we’re looking for.

Ironically, the majority of the submissions we receive that are completely off theme for the call include bios chock full of previously published titles. It always baffles me how someone can completely ignore submission requirements and believe they will get in based on success alone.

In the end, your writing has to deliver. One of the most exciting things for me is how many of our favorites turn out to be from authors who have never published before AT ALL. (Or even have a social media account, but that’s a chat for another day.)

You don’t have to “be somebody” to get your first yes. You just have to be your beautiful, creative self.

Are there any exceptions to this?

Let’s say you do have previous work. You can list them all in your bio, if you so wish, but I can guarantee you I am not looking them all up to check you out. Cue: ain’t nobody got time for that GIF

The only time a title catches our eye is when we recognize the publication. I don’t mean “heard of”, like The New York Times. I’m talking about indie presses we know from our social sphere, whether they’re editors we know or places we’ve published with. This recognition still doesn’t give you an automatic in, but it does give me more excitement for the sub I’m about to read if someone I respect has already enjoyed publishing your work.

Of course, the opposite is also possible—recognizing a press with a negative reputation can put us on high alert.

Thankfully, taste is subjective, and preference shifts from one piece of your writing to the next. Networking is incredibly valuable, but we don’t publish simply on the basis of who you know, where you’ve been, and what happened to you in the past.

So, what do I write in my bio?

Hopefully, I’ve brought you some relief regarding your newbie situation. With the performance pressure off a bit, let’s jump into FOUR tips for bulking up your bio.

  1. Tell us where you’re from (1-2 sentences)

Example: Jaime Dill is a born and raised North Carolinian who loves the mountains too much to leave.

We want so much to get to know you. Stating where you’re from and where you’ve been is a great way to start a bond with someone you’ve just met. These places shape us into who we are. Sharing a little about them is more personal and insightful than you may think. Western North Carolina is my home; the mountains are my inspiration and therapy. Telling you this is the start to opening up and letting you into my most inner, creative self.

  1. Tell us about your writing journey (2-3 sentences)

Example: Jaime Dill is a born and raised North Carolinian who loves the mountains too much to leave. She learned to read much earlier than most and hasn’t put a book down since. Being the middle child among brothers, Jaime quickly took to writing as a means for self-expression and emotional processing.

Pinpointing the exact moment you began to write might be impossible. So many of us have done it since forever. But I’m sure you can find a moment when writing started to mean something very specific to you. Reflect on what pushes you to write, why it feels necessary, and paint us a picture of how it fits into your life.

Note, this is a great place to add career supporting details like a creative writing degree, workshop participation, or anything else that reads like a writing related achievement. I purposefully left this out of my example in support of those with zero background. As for whether education matters…ehhhh, I would mostly give it the same response as I did for the “previously published” discussion above.

  1. Tell us about your writing and mission (1-2 sentences)

Example: Jaime Dill is a born and raised North Carolinian who loves the mountains too much to leave. She learned to read much earlier than most and hasn’t put a book down since. Being the middle child among brothers, Jaime quickly took to writing as a means for self-expression and emotional processing. As such, her work is tonally reflective and internal, an inward examination that outwardly impacts readers looking for a representation of the universal struggles we too often hide.

This is my favorite part. You’ll find a lot of information out there that says your motives and vision have no place in a sub or query setting. I agree, in so far as pitching. That’s the time and place for your story to shine, not you.

But the bio is the one place where the focus is entirely on you, and I love nothing more than hearing why writing gets you jazzed and why sharing it with others matters. If any part of the bio has an impact on me choosing a piece of writing, it’s this one. You see, the job of a good editor is to understand the relationship between a writer and their writing, and then assist that writer in making their writing achieve its goals. It’s my responsibility to see your intention and determine what needs to be done, if anything, to make that intention work.

That’s why I love this part of the bio — it helps me see your intention. Let’s say you submit a story that features grief, but the emotional beats are a little shallow and the ending has no hopeful resolution for the reader. Knowing nothing about you, I’ll likely decide that the execution isn’t strong enough and pass.

Now, let’s add a bio to this scenario, one that tells me you turned to writing after the passing of a parent and now use your creativity as a means to support others in their grief so they too can get through such a difficult time. This has power because now I can guess that your shallow emotional beats are evidence of your residual pain. Maybe opening up is still hard for you. You want to make a difference and start telling the world about your experience, but it’s new and terrifying. And maybe your resolution isn’t as hopeful as it should be because even though you want to support others, you haven’t quite figured out the words to do it.

Suddenly, a pass turns into an opportunity to come alongside you and help shape the submission into everything you want it to be.

  1. Tell us how to join you (1 sentence)

Example: Jaime Dill is a born and raised North Carolinian who loves the mountains too much to leave. She learned to read much earlier than most and hasn’t put a book down since. Being the middle child among brothers, Jaime quickly took to writing as a means for self-expression and emotional processing. As such, her work is tonally reflective and internal, an inward examination that outwardly impacts readers looking for a representation of the universal struggles we too often hide. Samplings of Jaime’s work can be spotted on Instagram (@dill.jaimedrawstoo) and supported at jaimedillauthor.com

Never miss the chance to tell someone how to stay connected with you! This sounds simple, but I know there are a ton of questions here, starting with, “What if I don’t have a website or social media?”

Though both of these things are helpful to have, they may not be something you established before you started submitting. I’m not about to begin an argument for why you need a social platform, but I am asking you to consider how readers are supposed to stay in touch with what you’re doing. If you’re submitting your work, I’m assuming you want people to look at it and remember you, and you can’t expect readers to know how to find your work without establishing a means of communication.

Figure out how you want readers to get in touch, even if it’s just an email address. I suggest limiting your list to your two main places, one being your central platform (site, blog, or newsletter) and the other being your main hangout (Twitter, Instagram, wherever you’re most active). Ideally, your central platform features links that connect people to your other socials, so stating them all here would look crowded and tacky.

Pro tip: When deciding between spelling out your profile names and providing hyperlinks, do both. I like to spell everything out in the bio so it can easily be copied over for print, which obviously doesn’t have link capabilities. I then add a social section in another part of my submission with all the hyperlinks so the publisher doesn’t have to manually hunt me down. The application of this advice may vary if you’re submitting via a form service like Submittable.

There you have it!

I genuinely hope this article has inspired you and added a boost of confidence to your bio writing. We would love to see your likes, comments, and questions below!

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