Writing family history from A to Z

Penny at podium_croppedWhen writing your family history, it’s important to decide what to omit. This almost sounds like perverse advice, doesn’t it? And yet, when I read a recent New Yorker article on that topic by John McPhee,[1] I realized that omission is an essential part of the process of all writing: whether it’s a letter, a memo, an essay . . . or a family history.

McPhee describes the process of writing as selection. You begin, he says, by choosing “one word and only one from more than a million in the language,” and then you choose the next. It reminded me of author Neil Gaiman’s advice, which I quoted in an earlier blog post: “You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” But McPhee also points out that, in choosing what you write, you also need to “decide what stays out.”

How does that apply to writing your family history? You’ve got all that data to include! In the broadest sense, it means that you don’t need to write about all your ancestors in your book. You might select to cover only a certain number of generations, or you might select to trace only your direct line of ancestors from one early immigrant. Here’s where it’s helpful to draw up a table of contents to serve as your outline, and also to title your publication. One of my favorite Newbury Street Press titles is Some Descendants of Roger Billings, with its emphasis on the word some. The author, Helen Schatvet Ullmann, made a conscious choice to write about some descendants, but also to exclude many others.

Once you have narrowed your focus, make further choices of what to include and what to omit. For example, for each person, you needn’t include every single piece of data from each census, but rather report on patterns the census records show. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited family letters and diaries, pick the most telling or poignant or informative passages; you needn’t transcribe and include them all (unless that is the specific purpose of your book).

Many family historians like to include historic and geographic context in their works, to make their ancestors come to life. Here again, you need to be prudent in electing what to omit. If your ancestor fought in the Civil War, for example, you needn’t give the entire history of the war. Summarize as necessary, focusing on your ancestor’s participation. Leave the telling of the broader story to Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote or Ken Burns.

Remember, by choosing what to include (and what, therefore, to exclude), you are guiding your reader through the story. Be as expansive as you like, but provide your audience with everything they need (and nothing they don’t) to follow your path from A to Z.


[1] “Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out,” The New Yorker, 14 September 2015, 42-49.

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.

2 thoughts on “Writing family history from A to Z

  1. I think it’s worthwhile to try to tease out and articulate the choices that people made. I think asking “why did they do that?” (had children, got married, bought property, moved to a new territory, sold their land, leave a marriage, named their children as they did) leads you to research a bit more deeply and try to enter into the character of the specific time and place. I hope it makes a more interesting read.

    1. It’s always a issue when I think about leaving something out. Why was Mom’s first marriage so young and so short? She was pregnant and lost the baby. Why did three marriages in the ancestry end up in divorce? Spousal abuse – one involving an axe. So, do you leave these out for the sake of civility or keep them in for the sake of “why did they do that?” Difficult questions.

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