Peter Coleman attended primary and secondary schools in Melbourne and Sydney. He completed a BA at the University of Sydney in 1949 and an MSc Econ at the London School of Economics in 1952. After teaching in Sudan for several years, he returned to Australia and took up an academic position at the Australian National University in Canberra. But, in 1958, his restlessness drew him back to Sydney where he took a job on Donald Horne's Observer.
When the Observer merged with the Bulletin in 1961, he worked for some time as a journalist and later qualified as a barrister. In 1964, he was appointed editor of the Bulletin, holding that position until 1967 when he was elected MLA for the NSW seat of Fuller. Coleman then pursued a thirty-year political career with the Liberal Party, becoming leader of the NSW opposition in 1977 and the federal member for Wentworth in 1981.
Throughout his political career, Coleman maintained a strong editorial presence with the conservative literary magazine Quadrant, serving two terms as chief editor (1977-78 and 1983-88). In 1982, he was a co-editor on the celabratory volume Quadrant Twenty-Five Years.
Coleman's first book, a history of censorship in Australia called Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition, was published in 1961. He added to this with many reviews, articles and books, including biographies of James McAuley, Barry Humphries and Bruce Beresford. He also wrote a memoir of his life before politics, Memoirs of a Slow Learner (1994).
In June 2008, the University of Sydney conferred on Coleman the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) citing his contribution 'to the intellectual life of Australia and to its world of letters for more than fifty years'.