Proofing your family history

Penny at podium_croppedThe Grammarly blog ( recently had a post on proofreading your own writing. Among the suggestions it makes are two that I’ve made myself over the years:

  • Read it multiple times.
  • Read it tomorrow.

These recommendations are particularly apt for family histories, which are chock full of names, dates, place names, abbreviations, and special formatting that just cry out for at least several thorough reads. When I am editing or proofing a family history – mine or someone else’s – I often read through it once for sense and grammar, and then skim through once each for the following:

  • Generational numbers: Have you used them consistently? In consecutive order?
  • Dates: Have you applied a consistent style (day-month-year or month day, year)? Have you double-dated where appropriate?
  • Check of child lists: Are numbers consecutive? Surnames given consistently? Abbreviated style used consistently throughout?
  • Typography: Are all key names styled consistently?
  • Place names: Have you given county names where necessary or appropriate?
  • Citations: Have you cited each fact? And does each citation follow the standard style?
  • Numbers and abbreviations: Have you spelled numbers, or used numerals, according to a standard scheme? Have you styled inclusive numbers consistently?

If I don’t do a separate pass for each of these items – and sometimes more – I miss things. My brain simply cannot focus on all of them at once. I can check for citations and then look at the styling of the note, but I might miss that a generational number is missing, or that a county name is missing, or that something significant is misspelled.

Waiting and reading the work tomorrow, or another day, also helps. Give yourself a breather and go back to a work with a fresh mind, perhaps first thing in the morning or whenever your most productive time is.

The Grammarly blog says, “It’s not cheating to ask a friend to lend a hand.” I’d go one step farther and say it’s essential to ask someone else to read your family history. It’s almost impossible to see every error in your own work. You become so familiar with the content that your brain keeps you from seeing misspellings, missing words, and the like. Ask a friend to read it, or a fellow genealogist, or a professional editor.

Your work will be the better for it, and your readers will thank you!

Penny Stratton

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.View all posts by Penny Stratton