A piece from Artsy regarding what they had learned writing 7000 bios for visual artists came across my radar a few weeks ago and I quickly tagged it as something I to which wanted to circle back. Now that I have done so, I realize it was written about 3 years ago.
The basic observations they make about artists’ bios are worth the attention of anyone in any arts discipline to when it comes to writing promotional copy for websites, brochures, etc.
They found that the sweet spot is between 80 and 140 words with the ideal being 120. Any more than 150 and people’s attention starts to waver. While they have observed this in relation to gallery labels, it is probably all the more true for websites. They go further to say that a tightly written 80 word bio is better than a 120 word one with repetitive or filler content.
Some of the points to consider when writing an artist’s bio are specific to visual arts but are relatively simple to transfer to any arts discipline. As I mentioned earlier, these rules are just as applicable to describing a performance involving 40 people as it is for one person.
As with most things, the most important element is a strong opening:
The bio should open with a first line that encapsulates, as far as possible, what is most significant about the artist and his or her work, rather than opening with biographical tidbits, such as where the artist went to school, grew up, etc. For example: John Chamberlain is best known for his twisting sculptures made from scrap metal and banged up, discarded automobile parts and other industrial detritus.
Though in the case of promoting a performance or other event, I would start with a sense of why people will enjoy themselves rather than any sort of biographical information. Even if they know the show, no one is going to get excited about seeing Phantom of the Opera if it opens with “Written by the man who revolutionized the musical theatre form with shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita, Starlight Express….”
Among the mistakes they say are the biggest people make when writing bios are some familiar faces: hyperbole, laundry list of accomplishments and “artspeak”:
It can be tempting to sing your artists’ praises. We’ve noticed, however, that readers do not respond positively to unsubstantiated claims about an artist’s import (e.g. “Artist X is considered one of the most important artists of the post-war period,” or, “Artist Y is widely regarded for her beautiful work”). Most readers will see right through trumped-up language …The best way to maximize the power of a good bio is to try to educate, not “hard-sell,” your reader. Numerous studies have shown that the hard sell doesn’t work, especially for younger audiences (read: tech-savvy collectors), who respond most positively to simple and authentic messages.
Impressive as these may be, these laundry lists are tedious to read in prose format. They also take up precious real estate, which you could otherwise devote to a real discussion of your artist’s practice.
There are certainly instances where it makes sense to include one particularly outstanding prize or exhibition, for example, an artist’s inclusion in the Venice Biennale. In this case, try to find a way to naturally include mention of the distinction in the normal flow of the text.
Instead of trying to impress other curators, academics, and galleries, focus on your audience of new collectors who may be completely unfamiliar with your artists. Readers want to glean information from your writing, and the best way to do that is to use simple language. A good rule of thumb is to impart one idea per sentence.
Obviously that last point should be applied to new attendees rather than new collectors. I would doubly apply the caution about artspeak to the injunction about laundry lists. As insiders, there are a lot of prizes, associations, and accomplishments we might deem particularly outstanding that means nothing to a newer attendee.
Trevor O’Donnell often invokes the “person in Starbucks test” where you recite your promotional copy conversationally to someone in a Starbucks. (or any other random casual encounter.) If they look back at your uncomfortably, he says your text needs a rewrite. Before you even get to that point, you might want to ask a person in Starbucks if a particular accolade means anything to them and leave it out of the description if they look at you cross-eyed or clearly as pretending it sounds familiar.