Don’t Write Your Bio, Write a “Why Me?”

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, writers who were pitching their articles or books to editors and agents included in the query or proposal a “bio” paragraph. These writers would include such things as their education, previous publishing credits, and whatever other claims to fame they could cite.

Some still do that, but for many years now my recommendation has been not to write a “bio” paragraph for your pitch, but a “why me” paragraph. What’s the difference?

It’s right there in the name. A “bio” tells the story of your life—in a few sentences, of course. But a “why me” paragraph answers the question, “Why am I the perfect person to write this?”

This “why me” paragraph may include your degree in Medieval German…if your degree pertains to the project you’re pitching. It may include previous publication credits, but it may not. It’s more important that this paragraph—like your whole pitch—be extremely well written and compelling enough to close the sale.

How are you supposed to do that? I suggest four ways:

  1. Leave out the wrong words.

Mark Twain famously said, “Writing is easy. You just write down all the words you know and cross out the wrong ones.” Many writers inexplicably fail to do this. They say things like, “I don’t really like fiction, but—” or “I’ve never published before” or “God gave me this.” Those are the wrong words. They don’t create a positive, professional impression.

  1. Tailor your “why me” to the pitch it accompanies.

If your novel involves Amish vampires, don’t forget to reference your childhood in the Amish vampire community. Are you pitching a parenting book? If so, the fact that you raised ten children to adulthood without any of them doing jail time might merit a mention, while your ten years in the aeronautics industry might not.

  1. Be strategic with publishing credits.

Having a few articles or books under your belt isn’t a bad thing if you’re pitching a new idea, but it’s not everything. And many aspiring authors shoot themselves in the foot by how they refer to their past publishing successes. And others feel defeated because they never published in The New Yorker. But you’re a writer, aren’t you? So put as much effort into crafting the “why me” paragraph as you invest in the rest of your pitch. And if you really want to write that Quilting Your Way to Mental Health book, think through what sort of credits would make your pitch more compelling, and then start querying those markets so that in six months or a year you’ll have a more persuasive answer to the “why me” question.

  1. Don’t be boastful, but don’t be falsely humble, either. Be professional.

Many of us struggle to write a great “why me” paragraph because, well, we don’t want to brag. But your choice as a writer isn’t between “prideful” or “modest” but between professional and unprofessional. And a well-written “why me” paragraph can leave the impression that “I could say more, but modesty prevents me.”

So let’s try it. This is how some of us might write a “bio” paragraph:

I’ve been a pastor’s wife, mother, and homemaker for forty years and though I’ve never published a book, my husband read my manuscript and gave it to a pastor friend who also loved it. He said it should definitely be published. The group of pastors’ wives I meet with every Tuesday and my weekly Bible study said the same thing. I was even asked to share some of my experiences at my mother-in-law’s church in Poughkeepsie. I earned a bachelor’s degree in German from McTavish Bible College while also working as a waitress to help my husband earn a seminary degree. The only writing I’ve done has been for my church newsletter over the last seventeen years. However, I once had a letter to the editor appear in the newspaper and sold a devotion to The Upper Room in 1985 for $7.

That’s not the worst I’ve seen as an editor and an agent, but it could definitely be improved, using my suggestions above. How would you change it? Here’s one possibility:

Forty years of heartache and happiness—from seminary days to senior pastor’s wife—have supplied the hard-earned wisdom I share in Don’t Get the Paper in Your Nightgown (And More Wisdom for Pastor’s Wives). The book’s insights have already entertained and helped pastors, wives, churches and Bible study audiences as I’ve spoken on this topic around the country. In addition to being a long-time columnist for The Bell Tower, my writing has also appeared in The Upper Room and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

That’s just one possible approach. It uses much of the same information as the first example, and doesn’t even include what that writer could add in six or nine months after strategically selling an article to one or two targeted markets that would make it even better with just a little more patience.

What about you? Would you suggest other changes? How would you make it better?

 

15 Responses to Don’t Write Your Bio, Write a “Why Me?”

  1. Bob Hostetler
    Bob Hostetler August 8, 2018 at 6:20 am #

    I should also have mentioned that the tone of the “why me” should match the tone of the proposed book. So if you’re pitching humor, make me smile with the “why me”–but not if you’re pitching a suspense novel.

  2. Judith Robl August 8, 2018 at 6:27 am #

    Great insight, Bob! Thanks for the change of perspective. I’ll be putting it to use very soon.

  3. Carol Thigpen Moore August 8, 2018 at 6:37 am #

    So glad you wrote this helpful information. Thank you.

  4. Barbara Ellin Fox August 8, 2018 at 7:14 am #

    This is a good ‘light-bulb” post for me because it gives permission to leave out the boring details. But I find it exciting that you are writing the “why me” in first person as opposed to the distant third person. Are you suggesting that first person is okay? I’d love that because it seems more genuine and interesting. I may not have tons of publishing credentials, but I have the background that feeds my stories. This sounds like a terrific approach.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 8, 2018 at 7:26 am #

      Typically, you would use first person in a query/cover letter, and third person in a one-sheet or proposal.

  5. Kimberly Joy August 8, 2018 at 7:35 am #

    Your post lifted my spirits this morning! I now have permission to include my credentials when I pitch “Devotions from the Daycare: 30 Life Lessons Learned While Chasing Toddlers.” Previously, I doubted whether an agent or editor would care that I’ve taken care of children in my daycare for approximately 8,252 hours, 21 minutes, and 16 seconds.

    And since those hours rise daily, that can only help my chances of being published again when I pitch the sequels, “Coffee: Why I Can’t Survive Without It” and “Sanity: How I Lost Mine in 8,251 Hours.”

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to stop a child from climbing the fence. An escape won’t look good on my resume’–writing or otherwise.

    Thanks for a great post! 🙂

  6. Tim Shoemaker August 8, 2018 at 7:50 am #

    Great post, Bob! I love it!

  7. Tisha Martin August 8, 2018 at 7:51 am #

    Bob, this was a fun read. It’s always a little tricky to know what exactly to put in a bio; however, this tight little blog post puts it in perspective. Like Barbara, although not as many years as Barbara, I do have credentials for what I’m writing about, which makes it so enjoyable to write! And since I’ve been working on perfecting my bio, it’s even more exciting to see that I’m doing something right. 🙂 Thanks for all your encouragement!

    I’d really like to know if the pastor’s wife actually had an interesting experience getting the paper in her nightgown. She doesn’t mention it in her bio. Other than her “hard-earned wisdom,” it would be neat to see at least one illustration to support her book title or even her “heartache and happiness” credentials.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 8, 2018 at 8:26 am #

      Heh. I made up the pastor’s wife’s pitch, based on many such paragraphs I have seen over the years. But the book title, about getting the paper in your nightgown, is based on a friend’s hilarious account of going out to get the morning paper after her husband left for work and the kids left for school…and locking herself out of the house…and having to ask to use a neighbor’s phone to reach her husband to come and let her back into the house. 🙂 So funny.

      • Tisha Martin August 8, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

        Heh. I should have guessed. I’ve been locked out of my house before, with no phone, keys, or shoes, so I half understand that poor lady’s plight. Could not imagine what the neighbors thought . . . it really is quite an adventure.

  8. Jeanne Takenaka August 8, 2018 at 8:20 am #

    Great post, Bob. It’s helpful as I prepare for upcoming writer’s conferences. Your humor made me smile!

  9. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D August 8, 2018 at 9:05 am #

    Bob, I enjoyed her pitch so much, I almost checked for the book on Amazon. Thanks for your wisdom on how to get the job done with a pitch. Yours was better than mine….I have some re-writing to do!

  10. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 8, 2018 at 9:10 am #

    Y’all should certainly read my book
    ’cause it contains some down-home
    truth; like the time Grandpappy took
    a shine to a dark-eyed gal from Rome
    and G’mammy’s lack of humour shook
    field and homestead to the bone.
    I lived this, can’t make it up, but look,
    if y’all’s suspicious of a faux-rural tone
    then just remember that I’m trying to be funny
    so my grands can live again, and hey – I need the money.

  11. Marcia Laycock August 8, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    I see how this would be fairly easy to do for a non-fiction book but I’m struggling to figure out how to adapt it to a fantasy novel. Any tips?

  12. Roberta Sarver August 9, 2018 at 8:25 am #

    What great instructions–and to think they’re free!

    Thanks for the heads-up about writing bios. I think I may have done a few things right in my last pitch…but I’ll keep perfecting it.

    I have a few humorous incidents but the one about getting the paper in your nightgown rivals the one about our former pastor. They lived in a small town, and early one morning he heard the dog barking. He crept downstairs in his underwear to let the dog out…and found himself standing on the porch, locked out! His solution was to lie down on the porch glider and cover up with the cushions until his wife got up much later.

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