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How to Write a Winning Bio and Story/Essay Blurb for Literary Journals

Updated: Sep 16


Usually literary journals ask writers for a third-person bio. And a few ask for a story or essay “blurb” (generally optional) that briefly describes the piece. Writers often get both wrong.


And how do I know this? Because Submitit asks each client to send us these two items before we submit their story, so that we’re ready to roll when it comes time to send out cover letters to literary journals on their behalf.


There’s no one-size-fits-all to bios and blurbs, but the following, I hope, will give you an idea of where writers go wrong, and what literary journals are (probably) looking for.


Bios should be succinct, relevant, and well-ordered.

Your bio, which is required (by most journals, and, thus, by us), should be relatively short. Many journals have word limits: some as few as twenty-five. We’ll cut down a bio if we have to, but anything over fifty words is too long, so consider this our official limit.


You have several options for what you might include in your bio. I’ll put these roughly in order of importance:

  • publishing history

  • writing awards

  • anything interesting having to do with writing

  • a quirk or two

  • place of residence

  • education

  • birth place (especially if off the beaten path)

  • past or current occupation


Importantly, no bio should include all of these things. You’ll never get it under fifty words. Instead, shoot for using up to three of them.


No Publishing History? No problem.

Let’s say you have no publishing history, which is fine (we writers must start somewhere). Here are a few sample bios, grabbing from the list above:


Bob Presley was a botanist for most of his life. Now he writes. He lives in Bakersfield, CA, with his wife, two dogs, five cats, and eleven fish. This would be his first published short story. (36 words)


In this one, Bob (who is not real, by the way) covers a past occupation, a place of residence, and a little quirk (mentioning all the animals). Also note the very important last sentence:


This would be his first published short story.


Many journal editors say they love discovering new writers. So, if you’ve never been published in a literary journal, definitely include this last sentence (if you don’t, we will). Enjoy this while you can, because hopefully, with the help of Submitit, it won’t be for long!


Here’s another example of a bio (again, with no publishing history):


Bob Presley received his MFA from Fresno State. He designs websites by day and writes by night. He currently runs the Flash Fiction Jam at Pedro’s Tacos in downtown Bakersfield on Tuesday nights (and he hopes to see you there). (40 words)


Mentioning your education is fine (although I suspect it’s not worth a ton). Bob also includes his current occupation and an interesting literary-related activity (with a bit of levity/humor). (Are there such things as Flash Fiction Jams? If so, count me in.)


Finally, feel free to get quirky:


When Bob Presley was in junior high school, he built a life-size whale out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. It was amazing! Now he writes. He lives in Bakersfield, California, with one human and several cats (but no whales). (39 words)


This kind of bio works well if you don’t really have much to say about your writing history. (Note: the author of this post (Erik Harper Klass) really did build a life-size whale out of chicken wire and papier-mâché in junior high school. And it really was amazing!)


If you have a long publishing history, be selective about what you share.

If you’re lucky enough to have a publishing history, include at least the best parts in your bio. Much depends on the quantity and quality of your publishings. Here are a few examples:


For most writers, if you’ve been published in many journals, then pick your best three or four:


Bob Presley has been published in a variety of journals, including Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. He lives in Bakersfield, CA, with his wife, two dogs, and five cats. (33 words)


First of all, good going Bob! For the second part of the bio, I chose two items from the list above (place of residence and a little quirkiness with the animals, sans fish).


Here’s another option (just changing the verbiage and the order):


Bob Presley lives in Bakersfield, CA, where he teaches creative writing at Taft College. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. (29 words)


Take note of these two common ways to introduce some of your publishings: “a variety of journals, including . . .” followed by a short list of journals; and, after a short list of journals, “. . . and elsewhere.”


And here’s what to do if you’ve only been published a few times:

If you’ve only been published in a few journals (three or fewer), then you can mention all of them. Or, if one or two of these journals happen to be spectacular (compared to the other(s)), you could always write something like this:


Bob Presley is a guitarist turned accountant turned lawyer turned writer. He was born in a little house in the Mojave Desert and now lives over the Sierras in Bakersfield. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere. (39 words)


No reason to sully the strong journal with two tiny journals no one’s heard of.


Finally, I’ve noticed that some writers can’t resist mentioning more than four journals. You’ll see this in one of the examples below. This is fine, but my advice: make sure they’re really good (that is, familiar to most connoisseurs of literary journals). Otherwise, it’s probably better to leave the lesser ones to the reader’s imagination.


Behold some examples of real bios (from anthologies):

The examples below are from a few recent anthologies—The Best American Short Stories: 2021, Pushcart Prize XLV (2021), and The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize—that happen to be sitting on my desk. These writers, not surprisingly, usually have very strong bios—better than average, it’s safe to say—but I still think they provide some good ideas, even for us mortals. And in some cases, I’ll mention what I don’t like about them.


Polly Duff Kertis co-founded the Moby Dick Marathon in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, No Tokens, Brooklyn Rail, Literary Mama and elsewhere. (27 words)


This is from Pushcart. Skimming this anthology, I’ve noticed that the bios tend to be very short; it’s clear Pushcart encourages brevity from its winners, which makes this anthology, in a sense, a good source of examples (since most writers, it must be said, seem to overwrite their bios). For the bio above, by the way, I would have said “Tin House and elsewhere.”


Here’s one more from the Pushcart anthology:


Aamina Ahmad’s first novel is out soon form Riverhead Books. She holds an MFA from Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (18 words)


If you went to an especially prestigious writing program like Iowa, I guess it can’t hurt to mention it. I’ll also note that Ahmad didn’t mention the name of her novel. Naming past books doesn’t hurt, but, unless you think people have heard of the work, it probably doesn’t help much. Consider it optional. I usually prefer something like the following: “He is the author of two novels and three story collections.” But mentioning the publisher is a good idea because it clarifies that you’re not self-publishing. For the record, I think Ahmad’s bio could have used one more sentence; it’s a little short and kind of boring, as is.


Here’s one from the O. Henry Prize anthology:


Ben Hinshaw is a British-American writer, born on the island of Guernsey in 1981. His first book, Exactly What You Mean, will be published in the United Kingdom by Viking in 2022. (32 words)


I included this one because it mentions an interesting place of birth. Born on an island somewhere? Why not—go ahead and mention it. (Although I don’t know why Hinshaw—wee pup, he—mentioned his birth year. Perhaps to make me (Erik) feel old.)


Here’s another O. Henry Prize winner:


Adachioma Ezeano’s work was recently included in The Best Small Fictions 2020. She is an MFA student at the University of Kentucky. In 2018, she made Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Yes folder” for Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop. (36 words)


If you’ve won a literary award, definitely mention it. If you’re currently a student, consider mentioning it (but I wouldn’t). If your work has been selected for an anthology guest edited by someone named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and you have a personal relationship (of one kind or another) with someone named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, uhm, well, maybe don’t mention it (!).


Here’s one more, this one from the Best American Short Stories:


Vanessa Cuti’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, West Branch, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus and others. She received her MFA from Stony Brook University and lives in the suburbs of New York. (40 words)


Show off! As I mentioned above, if you’ve been published in many top-notch journals, what the hell—go ahead and brag a little. I’m also always happy to know where a writer lives, even if it’s not particularly interesting (“suburbs of New York”).


Write a compelling and (more importantly) short story/essay blurb, if you’re so inclined.

Once you’re done with your bio, it’s time to consider writing a “blurb.” The blurb should be a one- or two-sentence hook about your story or essay. It hopefully will get the reader’s attention, and it may act as a setup for the larger work. As mentioned above, these are optional.


The key word here is short. These are not summaries or synopses of your work. Just little hooks that will grab your reader and invite them to read more. Below, I’ll present a few examples of blurbs I’ve used for my own work over the years (I’ll use stories of mine that were published in literary journals).


I used the blurb below for my short story “The New City” (published in Slippery Elm in 2021):


The new city exists in a liminal place, beyond space and time, until history intervenes. (15 words)


As you can see: short and sweet. Just a sentence that hopefully enticed someone to read about this new city. Note: We use the blurb as part of the first paragraph of a cover letter. If you’re curious, below is a sample of this first paragraph (with the blurb in bold):


“The New City” (approx. 7,400 words) is a work of fiction. The new city exists in a liminal place, beyond space and time, until history intervenes. Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoy it. [Or sometimes we write: Thank you for your consideration.]


Here’s the blurb I used for “The Hills of Ojców When I Was Small” (published in Maryland Literary Review in 2019):


On the eve of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1927 visit to Warsaw, a Polish poet lies in bed with his lover and contemplates revolution (always a kind of loss). (27 words)


Again, just a sentence, in this case one that sets the scene. My hope, of course, was that everyone would want to read about a Polish poet in bed with his lover (I mean, who wouldn’t?).


Here’s one more, this one from “The Pilgrim of Łódź” (published in the New England Review in 2019):


A solitary man walks the streets of Łódź, Poland, contemplating Polish orthography, among other things. (15 words)


(Why all the Poland stuff? I’m working on a novel set in Łódź, Poland, and sending out excerpts, something you, fellow novelists, should be doing, too!) There’s not really much to this last blurb, but it’s enough. There’s something romantic, I think, about anyone walking alone in a foreign city.


I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how important the blurb really is. If you’d rather not take a stab at one, that’s fine. (Imagine the sample first paragraph above without the blurb, and you’ll see how we handle blurb-less cover letters.)


And for that matter, don’t worry too much about the bio, either. I know that many journals don’t even read bios unless they decide to accept a work (this is especially true for journals that read “blind”—that is, that require manuscripts to be scrubbed of identifying information). But you may as well get your bio and (optional) blurb as strong as you can. I can safely say that a good bio and blurb won’t hurt your chances of getting published. And who knows?—for some journals, they just might help.

 

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.


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