Hints for Success
I recently saw an interesting infographic about writing success. Although the focus is on writing novels, several of the hints apply to writing a family history:
- read more
- write, write, write
- read your work aloud
Let’s look at each one of these in turn.
Read more. When you undertake a family history, you’ll be drawing information from various records and notes and documents. But how do you write? How do you put one word in front of the other as you collate all the facts with family lore and contextual information from other sources?
Well, read more. The more family histories you read, the more you will absorb aspects of style and presentation that you will apply, perhaps subconsciously, to your own writing. Read not necessarily for information but for inspiration: not for data but for format and style. As one writing blogger has written, “What we learn as readers, we use as writers. . . . Over time, our writing becomes in some ways a compilation of all the things we’ve learned as readers, blended together in our own unique recipe.”
The more family histories you read, the more you will absorb aspects of style and presentation that you will apply, perhaps subconsciously, to your own writing.
Write, write, write. I love the simplicity of the infographic here: “Set goals. Produce pages. Repeat.” Perhaps you don’t want to focus on producing pages but on producing the story of a particular person or a particular generation.
The more you write, even if you write only half an hour a day, the easier it will become. It becomes what you do. It doesn’t have to be final copy – in fact, it shouldn’t be, because of course you will revise what you’ve written. Just put your fingers on the keys and get something down. That’s the advantage of writing a family history versus a novel: if nothing else, you can type a name and some vital data.
Read your work aloud. By reading aloud, you are “seeing” the information in a new way – and in the process you may see things you missed before. Thus, whereas it might not seem necessary to read aloud something like “Charles Edward Rohrbach was born at Salem, Monroe County, Ohio, 9 March 1878,” don’t skip over such data-rich sentences.
Reading aloud will not only help you identify typos, grammatical errors, and other minor mistakes, but will also give you a sense of the rest of your writing. Does the order of information make sense? Are relationships clear? When multiple family members have the same given name, is it clear which one you’re discussing? Are your transitions smooth and logical? If you are proving a genealogical argument, is it clear how your evidence solves the puzzle? You may need to reorganize your sentences or paragraphs or fill in gaps – or shorten your text because you’ve been repetitive.
The more you write, even if you write only half an hour a day, the easier it will become.
Listen also to your style: does it have the level of formality or informality you want? Is it at the right level for your desired audience? If you’re adding information from the census or other records, have you made it interesting, or is it as dry as dust? (Here’s where your reading of other family histories will help you.)
Certainly other steps in the the writing process are important with each project – shifting mental gears, from research gear to writing gear; identifying your audience; establishing your schedule; selecting a format; and writing an outline – but these three general hints will help you with all your writing projects.
For further resources at NEHGS, please review
- Our subject guide: Writing and Publishing Your Family History, https://www.americanancestors.org/education/learning-resources/read/writing-publishing.
- The archived webinar: Ten Steps to Writing & Publishing Your Family History.
- The NEHGS Guide to Genealogical Writing.
 Leo Babauta, “How to Use Reading to Become a Better Writer,” WritetoDone, at http://writetodone.com/how-to-use-reading-to-become-a-better-writer/.