ICYMI: Rules of engagement

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 18 January 2019.]

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 https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/28/neil-gaiman-8-rules-of-writing/.

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 “ICYMI: Rules of engagement

  1. Like this so much, don’t worry about punctuation for awhile, or the actual right word. Get it done then go back and become your own Editor is no one else is around to help with that. Maybe another word will work with some of it. But Write is the main thing:)

  2. Excellent advice. For far too long I thought I had to write a book, but I’ve found writing short stories have been more effective in bringing our family history to my siblings and cousins.

    I’ve written stories on individuals (their journeys, how they lived, worked and played, etc.) and also write even shorter stories when an historical event is commemorated. For example, I recently wrote about visiting the grave of one of our Civil War Veterans and his unsolved drowning at 71 in the Buffalo River in Pennsylvania. A shorter story is about Thanksgiving, its origins and connection to the Mayflower passengers.

    Over time I’ve accumulated many stories that I’ll be able to leave for future generations. The biggest reward is that all the work I’ve done to uncover the story of our ancestors is now being received. A win-win for all.

  3. Good for you Elizabeth, Have found that typing of course is best for me, my handwriting is getting so awful. So now I don’t try to make corrections or change anything until am about finished, I think anyway. Making corrections as I go along interrupts the chain of thought, nothing gets done then:)

  4. A week from today I’ll have more time for research after settling into a cottage for few months. Search revealed my inbox held Vita Brevis posts I’d saved for inspiration. I want to write about my ancestors and my research. Your post have given me the road map to begin, finally. I then turned to Scott Stewart’s post ICYMI, research techniques and perseverance. Yes! Thank you both.

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