Greenlaw was born in London into a family of doctors and scientists, but spent much of her childhood in a small village in Essex. She began her working life in publishing and arts administration before embarking upon a career as a freelance artist, critic and radio broadcaster. She lives in London and currently works as professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia and as a part-time tutor for the MA Creative and Life Writing Programme at Goldsmiths, University of London. She was a judge for the 2010 Manchester Poetry Prize.
Her work is heavily informed by her interest in science and scientific enquiry, and by themes of displacement, loss and belonging. Critics have noted that her poetry is remarkable in its precision, and that her best poems contain a complexity and elusiveness that lead them to 'appreciate with each re-reading'.
Lavinia Greenlaw has been shortlisted for a number of literary awards, including the Whitbread Book Award (now known as the Costa Book Awards) and the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She won the French Prix du Premier Roman for her first novel, Mary George of Allnorthover and, most notably, the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for 'A World Where News Travelled Slowly', the title poem from her second major collection.