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!

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.

14 thoughts on “Proofing your family history

  1. Back in 2007 I had completed four family genealogies. Now, having found so much more information and citations for them, I’ve decided to revise them. In looking through my original work, I found errors I had missed before. It never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes.

  2. Yes, we sometimes fail to notice our own simple errors so it’s a big help to have other eyes editing as well . . .

    Ross W. McCurdy

  3. As a writer, I will add — Don’t just read on the computer monitor. Print it out and read it on paper. You miss things on the screen.

  4. We are in the era where newcomers feel that their English grammar skills, spelling and sentence structure included, no longer count.
    They refuse to study and learn basic methods when it comes to presenting their data.
    Reading posts to query sites and genealogy-based social media pages send chills up my spine.

  5. It is essential that you, as a writer, have a “first reader.” I get so involved with my writing that I make a lousy proofreader and so I have someone who isn’t in the loop read it to see if it makes any sense at all. But then my style of writing is to bring the reader into a story rather than all the little numbers and letters that come before each person.

    Essential reading for everyone

    “On Writing” by Steven King. Yes, THAT Steven King.

  6. Final tip is to read it out loud. It’s what I advise my grandchildren with their papers and essays. Amazing what you pick up when you hear it.

  7. I’m glad you mentioned having someone else read your writing. “You become so familiar with the content that your brain keeps you from seeing misspellings, missing words, and the like.” Their fresh perspective is also helpful in finding awkward wording, wording open to multiple interpretations, and open questions.

  8. I used to do technical and scientific writing in my profession, and while there are some similarities to genealogy and historical writing, there are differences too. I’ve had to adjust how I think about presenting information, and the kind of proofreading I might need at any phase of writing.

    I like your suggestion to proofread for one or two elements of the writing at a time. I always leave the nit-picky things til last, when I know what the overall shape of it will be. That is when I really need those folks who tend to ignore content and focus in on punctuation! One out-of-place comma can completely change the meaning. One other thing I do is mark out in some way a particular section that I think a particular reader can give useful feedback on, to help them focus their efforts. It’s fine for them to also look and comment on the rest, but that part is where I really need to hear from them! A long time ago, just in general reading, I noticed that most missed errors occurred near the end of a book or article. So I have a proofreader reserved just for that. (My eagle-eyed daughter.)

  9. I found the main problem to be that after multiple readings I just couldn’t “see” the mistakes. I asked my best friend to proof read my first draft and was quite surprised at the things she found that were grammatically incorrect, not just errors I didn’t catch from the spell checker — and I have a degree in English!

  10. I’d also suggest finding a collaborator. I’m fortunate to have a peer in the family line I’m researching who is critically reading my recent blogs. She identified some errors in my recent research blogs which I was able to quickly correct. I also appreciate the other commenter’s suggestion about reading one’s writing aloud and listening to what the words say.

  11. In addition to proofreading things myself, I find it is a good idea to have two proofreaders. The first catches the things I missed and then the second finds the new mistakes I made when correcting the original after the first proofreader. Funny how all three of us miss things until it is actually in print.

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