Is a biography a primary source? Good question.
When writing for an audience, adding relevant quotes, excerpts, and data provides credibility to your work. Primary sources reign supreme because information that comes from the original source leaves little room for error. In our digital age, where so much information is repeated from website to website, it's easy for data to be mistyped, quotes to be misattributed, and information to just be wrong.
It's similar to the group game, Telephone, that kids play. One person starts the game by whispering a phrase into the person's ear next to them. The phrase is repeated until it gets to the last person who says the phrase out loud to see if the message changed. When I played it as a little girl, the phrase hardly ever came out like the original. We run the same risk when we copy statistics or information from random websites that aren't the primary or original source.
In the first half of this article, we'll answer the question, “Is a biography a primary source?” define what the answer means, and then take a closer look at why biographies are categorized as such. In the second part, we’ll look at what to consider before writing one.
Table of Contents
So, is a Biography a Primary Source?
The short answer is no. In most cases, a biography is considered a secondary source; however, there’s a little more to it than that.
A primary source is a first-person account (e.g., direct quote, diary entry) or the original source of information (e.g., a research organization that creates original data for an industry.).
A secondary source is a third-party account where the person or company sharing the information, got it from somewhere else. As I mentioned in the Telephone example, the problem with secondary sources is that since they aren't the first hands to touch the information, there's no guarantee that it's correct. Primary sources aren't always available, but if you have a choice between the two, do the extra research to find the primary source. It will pay off in the long run.
A biography is a third-person account of another person’s life, written by a biographer whose name appears on the cover. The subject of the biography can be living or deceased and the work can be authorized or unauthorized. For these reasons, biographies are classified as secondary sources.
The rare occasion when a biography can be used as a primary source is when the biographer is the subject of the content being written. For example, if one were to write an article that analyzed the works of the American biographer Jean Strouse, her biographies, Alice James: A Biography or Morgan: American Financier would be considered primary sources. The source status of her biographies changes from secondary to primary because it is her writing that's being analyzed not the personal knowledge of what she wrote (unless that was part of the review).
What’s the Difference Between an Authorized and an Unauthorized Biography?
With an authorized biography, the subject of the work is either involved in the writing process or they’ve given permission for the biographer to write the book. The biographer works with the person to ensure that the information included is correct and approved. This can include talking to close family members and friends to get a more well-rounded, objective view of the person's life.
Unauthorized biographies are not approved by the subject. Anyone can write an unauthorized biography about anyone they’d like. You don’t need permission, and the final book doesn’t have to be approved to be published; however, unauthorized biographies can be seen as less reliable than approved ones. Content presented as fact may come into question exposing the work to libel, invasion of privacy claims, and other legal issues. To be clear, biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs can all be vulnerable to legal claims, so tread lightly when writing them.
According to the Writer’s GPS: A guide for navigating the legal landscape of publishing by intellectual property attorney Matt Knight, securing life story rights is key to protecting yourself and your book from legal claims. Regarding life story rights, he says the following:
Life story rights are a collection of legal rights held by an individual regarding a story about someone's life. The purpose for securing these rights or the permission to use the facts of someone's life is to protect the writer and publisher from being sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, or the misappropriation of the right to publicity. Life story rights agreements, depending on the breadth of the contract language, allows the writer to use and potentially change or dramatize the life story for entertainment purposes (whether in print or on screen).Knight, M. (2020). The Writer’s Legal GPS: A Guide for Navigating the Legal Landscape of Publishing (A Sidebar Saturdays Desktop Reference). Sidebar Saturdays Desk Referen.
If you're considering writing a biography (authorized or unauthorized), it's important to understand potential liability issues and how they can impact you as the writer.
It's interesting that for every authorized biography, it is not uncommon to find many unauthorized ones. For actress Elizabeth Taylor, the book on the left (below) was released in December 2022 and listed as “the first ever authorized biography of the most famous movie star of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Taylor“; however, I found many biographies listed for her over the years (I stopped counting at 20).
Is it Possible to Write a Biography about Yourself?
No. If you write a biography about yourself it is called an autobiography (different from a memoir). If you get a ghostwriter to write it, it is still an autobiography. Autobiographies are primary sources because they are first-hand accounts based on the subjects' memories and recall of past experiences.
Unlike a biography, the subject of the autobiography is viewed as the author, whether they wrote it or used a ghostwriter. Autobiographies are considered subjective compared to biographies since they are a single person's account of events (not friends, family, or other third-party references like with a biography.)
How do You Write a Biography About Someone Who Has Passed?
As previously mentioned, if you can get permission to write the biography, do so. If the person is deceased, look for a representative, like a family member, or an executor of their estate. It’s important to share with them your plan for writing the person’s life story and hopefully get the green light to move forward. Getting approval can open the door to accessing archives and other personal details about the person to create a more in-depth work. This can include personal photos, diaries, and other information. Compare this to an unauthorized biography where you may only have access to what has already been talked about or uncovered.
If the person passed a long time ago, getting permission might be a challenge, but you can still write the biography. Just do your research, save your notes, and try to write a biography that is thorough, objective, and professional. Prioritize primary sources over secondary and cite all of your sources to add credibility. It may be tempting to try to rush through the process, especially when you've been staring at the same information day after day, but doing a thorough job can pay big dividends.
In the writing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Trajedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, it took author, Martin J. Sherwin, 25 years to complete the work. The first 20 years were spent doing interviews and collecting over fifty boxes of archives (some received through the Freedom of Information Act). The last five years he partnered with author Kai Bird to complete the work. While it doesn't take every biographer that long to write a biography, it does add a weighty perspective to what writing an in-depth book about someone's life could entail.
Whether you write an authorized or unauthorized biography, the quality and objectivity of your writing are what matter most. Although biographies are considered secondary sources, it doesn’t mean that they can’t make a significant contribution to the tapestry of a person’s public life record.
Seek out the permission of the person you want to write about if they are living or their family or representative if they are incapacitated or deceased. People’s life stories are personal, so the best advice from one writer to another is to write their stories with the same respect you’d want someone to write yours. This will add a strong entry to your book portfolio, save you a lot of headaches in the long run, and help keep you out of a courtroom.
Note: In this article, we touched on nonfiction life stories, but there are also biographical novels (fictitious) and autobiographical fiction that are not within the scope of this article. For more information on creative nonfiction, start here.