An Ethical Starter Kit for Writing About People/Biography — Questions to Ask Yourself Along the Way

When you write about other people, you make ethical decisions from beginning to end.  Here’s a starter kit for making those decisions, in the form of questions to ask at each step along the way:


  1. Choosing a subject: Why does this subject appeal to you? Is it someone you can approach fairly and open-mindedly? Do you have a bias already for or against the subject?  If you know the person, are you able to get enough distance from her to go beyond your own preconceived notions of her?  Are you able to be objective even if you find information that counters or even destroys your image of the person?  Are you willing to disclose your bias for or against in some way to your reader?


  1. Collecting facts: Do you have access to enough material to feel comfortable creating an image of your subject for an audience? If not, how might you mitigate this problem by the use of other contextual material? Do you have enough time and other resources (money, ability to travel to archives, contacts, etc.) to do a thorough job?  Are you open to whatever material you find?  Are you willing to keep researching, especially interviewing, even when your interest in your subject has flagged?  What are you willing to do to secure potentially important material in the hands of someone skeptical of your project?


  1. Interviewing: How will you select those you interview about your subject? How thorough are you willing to be? Will you include people who might have a view of that person different than yours?  What are you willing to do to convince skeptical interviewees to talk to you?  How far are you willing to go with flattery or intimations of friendship?  Can you be honest with interviewees about your views of your subject?  Are you willing to prepare thoroughly for all interviews?  How will you differentiate between interview material that comes from someone you like or agree with vs. someone you don’t like or whose opinion might conflict with yours?


  1. Gaps: How will you deal with the inevitable gaps in the story you find? Are you willing to delay moving to publication to try to find more material? Will you disclose them to your reader or try to elide them?  Are you willing to be more provisional in your writing or do you feel the need to write with total conviction?  How comfortable are you with using your imagination to fill some gaps?  How do you decide when you have truly made a good-faith effort to fill gaps?  Are you willing to abandon the project if you encounter too many gaps?


  1. Choosing themes: How will you ensure that the themes you choose are truly demonstrable from your subject’s life? If you have a theme in mind when you start, are you flexible enough to let it go or even have it upended? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into your themes or even counters them?  How will you make sure your themes aren’t too restrictive or prescriptive?  How will you determine whether your themes are fair and not the result of trendy ideas or what you think will sell?


  1. Creating a narrative: Are you able to establish and sustain a narrative that is capacious enough to encompass all of your research? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into story form or the sequence of stories you want to tell? How can you ensure that the pictures you create on the page comes from facts only and don’t distort the subject’s viewpoint or experience if they come from sources outside his life?  How will you use stories or juicy material that comes from a single source, particularly if that source is questionable?  How will you convey to your reader what sources you’ve used to construct your narrative (in-text clues, endnotes, bibliography, etc.)?


  1. Making claims: How can you keep potentially controversial claims from being libelous? Is everything you claim about your subject based on thorough research? How will you decided what to do with material that might seem an invasion of privacy but seems important to the claims you’re making about your subject?  Are you willing to be less-definitive in your claims to indicate to your reader that the claims are provisional or based on thin evidence?  Have you had enough people of different viewpoints read your work to be sure your claims are broadly valid?  Are your claims based on more than a single source?  Are you able to get outside your own social and cultural context and evaluate your claims from a different viewpoint?


  1. Fact checking: Have you asked those with knowledge of particular facts to read them in the context of your work? Have you had enough people read your manuscript to catch errors you might have stopped seeing? Have you checked out questionable “facts” with other sources?  Have you been honest in evaluating your sources?   Have you double-checked later versions of your manuscript against original sources?  Have you been thorough in matching what interviewees tell you against all possible written sources (letters, diaries, official documents, published works, etc.)?


  1. Revision and editing: Have you made sure you haven’t introduced errors by taking things out or adding things in? In making your writing more concise or trying to fit a word count, have you been careful not to be reductive or create an unintended connection through juxtapositioning? Have you been careful not to introduce gaps that weren’t there before?  Have you absolutely, thoroughly and repeatedly checked and rechecked every name, place and other type of information that identifies any individual?  Have you checked the work of editors and proofreaders yourself?


  1. Publication: Have you thought about the effects of publication on your subject and yourself? How will you deal with the inevitable errors others will find in the published work? What responsibility do you have to the work after it’s out in the world?  How will you deal with information that comes to you after the book or article is published?  Will your writing about your subject end with publication or will you continue to write, speak and blog about her?  How will you deal with the inevitable critics of your work—your researching, your interpretations, your claims, your writing or your integrity?


Again, this list is meant only to get you thinking about the many ethical decisions you’ll have to make along the way, with the hope that you’ll make them consciously and well.

© Michael N. McGregor 2018

Questioning Conventional Approaches To Writing About People

This posting comes from a journal entry I made on July 14, 2013, shortly after I began the final revision of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I had just read the second of two books by prominent biographers about their craft, part of my early research for the book I’m working on now: about the history, process and ethics of writing about people.  As you’ll see, I was already having doubts about conventional approaches to biography:

“What surprised me about the book was how fairly shallow the author’s thinking was.  There was plenty of researched detail but the conclusions were all conventional.  It’s as if those who think about biography are willing to explore only a limited range of thoughts, most of which deal with the practice of writing biography, not the larger questions the act of writing about others raises, such as:  Why do we write about others in the ways we do?  What does it mean to take responsibility for defining another person’s time on this earth?  What obligations do we bear when we appropriate the creation and presentation of another person’s identity?  What are we ethically bound to reveal about ourselves in the process?

“This latest (and I hope last) revision of the Lax book is bring my own thoughts on these questions to the surface.  I feel more comfortable now that I’ve brought myself into the story.  I tried to keep myself out, thinking I was somehow being truer to Lax’s story by not entangling it with mine.  I see now that by stepping more fully into the book, I’m giving the reader a better reason to be interested in Lax’s story and being more honest in a way, showing my biases.

“I’ve begun to look at the book quite differently.  Instead of a chronological movement through Lax’s life, I’ve begun to see my project as a pile of material drawn from the different parts of his life that I need to arrange in a way that will interest my reader.  Whereas I moved through his life in a straightforward fashion in my previous drafts, now I’m using the story of my interactions with him as the organizing element, pulling in information from the different periods of his life as it fits this scheme.  So my curiosity and developing understanding of him over the years propel the story forward, and elements such as his ancestry come in where they are necessary to satisfy that curiosity or further that understanding.

“Put another way: I didn’t learn about Lax’s ancestry until I’d known him quite a while, so it doesn’t need to be at the beginning of the story.  Putting it at the beginning means taking on a God-like role, suggesting that you can step back and impartially observe the sweep of a human life.  Letting that information come in at a more natural place and speaking of what I’ve learned about it more provisionally allows the story to feel more natural.  Isn’t that how we learn about people ordinarily in life?  We don’t learn someone’s ancestry when we first meet him.  Generally we learn the most interesting bits and pieces of his life, the stories he knows are good stories to tell, before our curiosity and a deepening trust allow us to delve deeper.  That’s more the way I’m trying to tell the story now.

“My models for this approach aren’t the biographies I’ve read (other than A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, perhaps, or maybe Boswell’s Life of Johnson) but novels such as The Great Gatsby, Zorba the Greek and maybe Lord Jim, in which an embodied narrator talks about a person he’s met and come to know better over time.

“Edmund Morris must have had a similar impulse when he created his fictional witness for Dutch.  It’s related, too, to what one of my students said after reading George Plimpton’s book about Capote, which is a pastiche of commentary on Capote from various people who knew him or had dealings with him.  She liked this approach to biography, she said, because it seemed less artificially mediated.  Instead of working to create a composed (and imposed) structure, the person compiling the biography allows those who knew the subject to give their testimony, their perspective, with the compiler only correcting errors and arranging the various commentaries into a natural progression.

“In using this more natural approach, I’m going back to the roots of writing about people, which is talking about people—gossip and then legend and then myth.  Myth or legend doesn’t have to be about someone great or powerful or even ancient.  It only has to be about someone interesting.”