Rules of engagement

Like Alicia Crane Williams, I have been inspired by the fifth anniversary of Vita Brevis to think about the writing of essays. When I first began contributing to this blog, I wasn’t sure if I really had anything to say – and, if I did, whether I could say it within the allotted word count.

As it turned out, I have come to relish the discipline of writing to the suggested 400- to 500-word count. I now recommend it to anyone who wants to get started in family history writing: pick some aspect of your family history and write 400–500 words on the topic. It’s only about a page to a page and a half of text.

In the course of my work for NEHGS, I have given webinars and seminars on how to get started writing your family history. Step 1 is to stop thinking of your family history as a research project and to start thinking of it as a writing project; that is, something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Writing an essay the length of this blog post is a good way to dip your toe into the water. Just use whatever font and format your word-processing program opens to, and begin typing. The writer Neil Gaiman has offered eight steps for writing, and numbers 1 through 3 are pertinent here:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.[1]

As Alicia points out, this writing is fun “when the topic is near and dear to one’s heart.” You could write about a particular favorite ancestor, or something else: a research problem, an object that has been passed down in your family, an issue you’ve encountered, or even the process of research or writing. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing about writing and publishing, but even more than that I’ve enjoyed writing about things relating to my own family: family naming traditions; family heirlooms, most recently a ring and earlier a coffeepot; a connection to Abraham Lincoln; and my father.

Writing an essay the length of this blog post is a good way to dip your toe into the water.

If you’re thinking about writing a family history and haven’t started yet, I suggest you sit down with Vita Brevis and scroll through some of the essays for inspiration. (Thanks to Scott Steward’s excellent editorship, the blog has a wide variety of excellent essays to read: 1,254 of them, and counting!) Then look at your research and decide what portion of it you can turn into a small writing project: something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just remember Neil Gaiman’s number 1: “Write.”


[1] “Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing,” at

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.

4 thoughts on “Rules of engagement

  1. It was in a beginning class of genealogy that I first heard that phrase, “Just Write”, and I began to do that. So now i have a number of articles and books to share with family. It is so worth it.

  2. Terrific and sage advice. I had high hopes of writing a book about the family, but came to the more realistic conclusion that writing something brief about an ancestor was more manageable. I wrote about our Mayflower ancestor, George Soule; an American Revolutionary Patriot and his father, the Loyalist; a Civil War Veteran; a 3rd great Aunt who traveled from Germany to Pennsylvania and finally to Nebraska in the 19th century, and because I found an old unidentified photo of three boys, who they were and why they were dressed in their Sunday best. I often include some recommendations for reading and videos in case anyone wants to learn more about an ancestor or specific events. I can even go back and re-write if I learn of something new or have something to add. It’s been a good solution to what was hanging over my head.

  3. I agree and am trying to write things like this for my family. In fact, a bit beyond essay length, I recently wrote a story about my great-grandfather for a local genealogical society (6 pages) and won their writing contest. I wonder if there might be another outlet for it? Also I am considering turning his story into a book but do find that a bit intimidating …

  4. I started writing as a way of organizing my research notes into something useful and not a stack of papers with random facts.

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