March 3, 2013

Five Lessons Learned While Writing

Thinking about writing a family history story? I took the plunge, and am here to tell you the water’s fine.

In February, encouraged by Harold Henderson's article, "Why We Don't Write, and How We Can" and Lynn Palermo's Family History Writing Challenge, I wrote two blog posts and one full-length article about my ancestors. All told, that came to about 4600 words, plus at least half that much again in endnotes. Yes, it took a lot of time, but I’m glad I did it. The act of writing the article, especially, drove home a few points that I thought I’d share with you.

Five thoughts on the value and process of writing family history:

1. Getting started is (almost) half the battle
Although I knew I wanted to write an article in February, I hadn’t settled on what it was going to be about. It took me several days to determine a subject, narrow the focus and scope, develop an approach, and write the introduction. I tossed out two outlines, tried mind-mapping, and cut the beginnings of several drafts in the process. Finally I came up with a rough framework—just a list of subheadings and points, really—that worked. The lesson, for me at least, is not to get discouraged early. It takes a certain amount of perseverance just to get through the starting gate.

2. Writing exposes any holes in your research
Even when you’ve already done the research, analyzed and correlated it, and formed your conclusions, chances are you’re going to find some gaps when you sit down to write it up in narrative form. Writing forces you to see those holes and find ways to fill them. In this case, I realized I hadn’t fully explored all the siblings of my ancestors (one guy alone had ten of them). And there was one instance where I felt I needed additional proof of the relationship between generations. There’s nothing like the thought that your work might be put into print to make you double-check your findings for flaws. In the end, I visited a courthouse, three libraries in different counties, a cemetery, and the state archives after I started writing the article. Just to fill those gaps and make sure I had it right. The lesson? Be prepared to do more research while you’re writing, to strengthen and solidify your work.

3. Creating broader appeal means thinking about your reader
Why should total strangers want to read about your family history? I can think of two main reasons: (1) they’re interested in the methods and resources you used to solve your genealogical questions, and (2) they’re absorbed by the way you tell your story. Ideally, you want to satisfy readers on both these accounts. Since I wanted to write an article that appealed to a wide audience, I tried to incorporate bits of history, geography, and social history into my account. And I tried to illustrate how I pulled information from multiple sources together to frame my ancestors’ lives. I took care with the endnotes, to help people who might be interested in using the same or similar sources. Of course, I’m not sure how well I accomplished those goals, since the article hasn’t yet been accepted for publication. Still, I think the take-away is a valid one: give your reader a reason to keep reading.

4. Editing is just as important as writing
Well, this point probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. A lot of my paragraphs—including the first one—looked very different in the end than they did at the beginning. Some writers save all the editing and rewriting until last, and that’s fine. But I did part of it as I went along, spending some time each day cleaning up what I had previously written, followed by more extensive revisions after it was mostly finished. Before I sent in my final draft, I printed it out and read it out loud, slowly, to myself. Believe me, you can catch a lot of errors that way, and you can also see where things sound awkward or unclear. The unavoidable bottom line is that editing takes time and thought.

5. Focusing on the goal will see you through
Writing, for me, demands total focus. Some people might be able to multi-task while writing, but I’m not one of them. While I was working on the article, I fell asleep thinking about the family. When I woke up, they were in my head again within moments. That kind of intensity means that not a whole lot else gets done, to be honest. But it feels good to have created something that hopefully will be published, preserving the work that I’ve done on the family. And that, above all, was my goal: to move the research out of my files and synthesize it into a format that could be accessed, used, and hopefully enjoyed by others. There’s a feeling of satisfaction from knowing it will be preserved, come what may. The end result is worth the time it takes.

If you’ve considered writing a family history article or submitting a story for publication, I’d love to know if you found these thoughts helpful. I’d also welcome any other tips or insights you might have. What inspires you to write, and what are the take-away lessons of writing for you?


  1. Shelley,
    I did the same thing! I know you have submitted articles for the OGS Writing Challenge. Did you do that again this year?

    I also wanted to write an article I've been "threatening" to write ever since I heard Don Rightmyer speak at the NGS Conference last year. I had to write it for Kentucky Ancestors, as these ancestors were not from Ohio. I had to do a presentation on "Using Historical Newspapers" for our local library in January. It took me days to organize that powerpoint, complete with endnotes, going through much of the process you described above. But that work paid off -- I literally wrote and submitted a 2200 word article with endnotes that I wrote in about six hours total. It looks like it's going to be published in July. I've had wonderful feedback that bolstered my confidence.

    Would you like to exchange articles?

    1. Congratulations, Kathy, on getting your article written and on the way to being published! And in six hours--wow! (I realize you had a lot of hours in the PowerPoint that led up to it, but still.) It sounds very interesting, and yes, I'd love to read it. Could you email it to me? That's great that they gave you feedback on it. Won't it be awesome to see it in print in a few months?

  2. Hi Shelley,

    I couldn't agree more with your post. I, too, took the plunge in February to start writing things down. I found that once I got the ball rolling and the juices flowing, the stories came to me. It also helped me to reevaluate the research that I had done and I did further research, like you, to make sure that I had any gaps covered.

    It was very rewarding and I plan to continue writing the family stories and information done.

    Wonderful post!


    1. Wendy, I noticed the same thing you described--that once the ball was rolling, a lot of things fell into place. And I actually think the extra evaluation and research is one of the most valuable parts of the writing process. Good for you for making that plan to continue writing the family stories. Are you working on a book? Sounds like you're off to a great start!

  3. Excellent post and very nice 5 thoughts.

  4. Thanks, Shelley, for this post. I will file your five thoughts away for when I am brave enough to take the plunge.

    1. Ah, Jill, it really doesn't take that much bravery :) For me, it helped to have a deadline to motivate me into just sitting down and doing it. And one neat thing is that now I have a real feeling of affinity for the ancestors I wrote about. If I can do it, I know you can too!

  5. Aptly expressed, Shelley! I especially agree with you on the level of intensity I've found in going through the process of writing--of capturing that creation, then pinning it down for that carving process of editing.

    It will certainly be rewarding when you do polish up that final product and get it into print. When your article does find its published home, please be sure to give everyone here a heads-up!

    1. Jacqi, it's good to know I'm not the only one who experiences that sort of intensity. Fortunately it's short-lived! And it is rewarding, like you say. If and when I receive any indication of my article being published, I'll let you know. Thanks!

  6. Shelley, your advice is forceful, concise, and right on target. What especially struck me was lesson #5, with which I entirely agree. Writing take you over when you're doing it seriously. Your mind has room for writing and resting, and that's about all.

    I approach editing the same way you do. As long as I don't spend my entire set-aside-for-writing time editing, it's a good "limbering-up" exercise to streamline a few sentences and change a few awkward phrases from yesterday or the day before. And reading out loud? Yes! That's always best, also with pencil in hand, to make sure I'm seeing what's actually on the page.

    And getting started takes so much energy and courage. It always feels so daring to me, even presumptuous, to map out what I'm going to say "to the world" and see how (and if) all the ideas fit together. The biggest hurdle of all.

    Thank you for distilling your wisdom for us!

    1. Mariann, I'm not sure how much of it is wisdom, and how much of it is just finding a way to do it that works for me! But I'm glad to know you've found some of the same things to be true. I completely agree that it takes energy and courage to get started, and that figuring out how to put the ideas together is one of the biggest hurdles. Thanks for sharing YOUR wisdom during the Family History Writing Challenge!

  7. Shelley, thank you for sharing these five wonderful lessons you've learned about writing your family history. As Jacqi requested, please do let us know when your article is published.

    1. Thanks, Jana, for letting me know that my experiences struck a chord with you. And yes, if the article makes it into print, I'll write about it here. I really appreciate your support and interest.

    2. I just want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

      Have a great weekend!


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