Writing Lessons

The Best Advice for Biographers

By Witold Rybczynski | October 28, 2013


It was 1995. I had written eight books of essayistic nonfiction, and I decided to try my hand at a biography. I’d considered several architectural subjects, but had settled on the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. I was intimately acquainted with his Mount Royal Park in Montreal, and I was intrigued that he had had an early career as a journalist, had written an influential book about slavery in the antebellum South, and had an important role in the Civil War.

I was a bit nervous venturing into this new literary territory, however, so before starting I thought I should ask the advice of a real biographer. I turned to my friend Stacy Schiff, who a decade earlier had been my editor for the book Home and had just published a well-regarded life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and aviator. She recommended that I read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Henri Troyat’s Catherine the Great, and Richard Holmes’s Footsteps. She mentioned the biographer’s risk of getting halfway through a book and discovering you no longer liked your subject but admitted that there wasn’t much you could do about that danger.

Stacy also gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since. It’s very important, she said, that I know as much as possible about my subject, no matter how trivial. It was important for me, but not for the reader; I should resist the urge to include all my research in the book. I think that this is a sound rule for all nonfiction writing. Learn all you can, then edit, edit, edit.

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