Writing family history

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.”[1]

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


[1] 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/.

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.

12 thoughts on “Writing family history

  1. Good advice. I used to work for a company that produced marketing materials for print. Our team of two or three people would sit together and read the text out loud to each other to assure it was correct and understandable. It was extremely useful.

  2. A few years ago, I found a wonderful book, “On Writing” by Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King. This is really two books in one. First is sort of an autobiography. Second, he explores the mechanics of writing. I bought a couple of copies and gave them to my youngest daughter and her best friend, a high school English teacher. I highly recommend it if you want to write a story, be it fiction, as in King’s case or hopefully non-fiction (although sometimes the line between fiction and non-fiction can get blurry) as in the case of our family histories. One comment he made was to have a “first reader,” not you, who reads your manuscript and looks for various issues.

  3. Penny, I used to write in my work, technical stuff, very dull. I learned to write it, edit it, set it aside, and read it again the next day. No matter how good it looked at first, I usually found improvements on the second reading. And the third day, etc. It also helped to have someone knowledgeable read it and give feedback.

  4. Thank you for linking to my infographic here, and I’m thrilled that you found it applicable to your own writing. Best of luck with your manuscript, Penny, and if The Threepenny Editor can be helpful at any point in your process, I’d love to hear from you.

  5. Reading their work out loud is what I have taught my high school-aged grandchildren….why don’t their teachers suggest it??? They are amazed at how helpful it can be.

  6. Perfect advise for our Writing Group, part of our Columbine Genealogical Historical Society out here in Colorado.

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