Skillbuilding: Good Genealogical Writing
- Newsletter of the BCG
Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Good Genealogical
Writing," OnBoard 4 (May 1998): 16.
Research is pure exhilaration. Writing is sheer drudgery.
Most genealogists hate writing. Most people hate it. A sage
once described the chore as 5 percent inspiration and 95
Yet, to be genealogists, we must write. We must know the
mechanics of writing, as well as a lot of irksome rules
we tried to ignore in school. And, no. We cannot avoid them
now by investing in those electronic marvels (or should
I say advertising marvels?) that promise to automatically
write our genealogy from whatever names, dates, and places
we feed into its data base. Machines don't write prose that
humans want to read.
As genealogists, our writing has two objectives: to convey
facts accurately and clearly; and to convey them interestingly,
so that our families will enjoy and appreciate the work
we have done.
Toward that end, this column's focus is not on those rules
we can glean from any self-help book but on a few particulars
peculiar to our field.
The point should be obvious, but publishers offer several
attractive manuals that lead us into grave sins against
truth and reality. One "teaches" us how to invent drama
and characters that bear our ancestral names, dates and
places - how to "recreate" thoughts and conversations those
people surely had, even though they left no record saying
so. Another encourages us to read social history and revise
our ancestors' documentary record to make those forebears
fit aberrations that are currently faddish in controversial
To the contrary, we genealogists have an obligation to
treat our ancestors with respect. We cannot charge them
with sins or foibles their records do not support.
Don't exaggerate, inflate, or hide.
When our family cannot be traced out of the mountains of
Vermont, we fool no intelligent person by adorning our book
with a coat of arms. We add nothing to its value by reciting
a list of ancient heroes who bore a surname of similar spelling.
(A surname does not a family make.) If we yield to the temptation
and hide records or situations that embarrass us, we may
make it impossible for descendants to find the truth in
later eras when different attitudes prevail.
(You have noticed, haven't you, that situations perfectly
acceptable - even desirable - in some societies are scandalous
in others. Pendulums swing. Let's don't bury truths our
offspring may need for reasons we cannot anticipate.)
Avoid clichés like the plague!
We see them everywhere, especially these:
- We know that . . . . Oh? How do "we" "know" it?
In utter laziness, authors use this cliché to avoid
having to document what they want to believe but have
found no evidence for.
- The Smith family . . . . Which Smith family?
Surely the author is not implying that all individuals
of the surname Smith belong to a single family.
- Records state that. . . . What records state
this - specifically? Where can we find them? Are they
original and primary? Derivative? Hearsay? The details
make a tremendous difference.
- On the 1880 census, John said . . . . He did?
How do we even know that John was at home the day the
census taker visited? The data could have been provided
by any household resident or even a neighbor.
Introduce quotes properly.
If someone's words are important enough to repeat them
exactly, with quotation marks around them, then that somebody
is important enough to be properly identified - right there
in the text. Our readers need this perspective. How can
they judge the validity of what is said, if they do not
know who said it? Good writers preface a quote with such
identifiers as "According to John Smith, a fellow soldier
of our ancestor who later wrote a history of their unit,
. . . "
Observe the natural order of things.
When a new person is introduced in the text, identify him
or her on the first reference - not the second or the tenth.
When one conclusion rests upon the reader's acceptance of
another conclusion, the underlying conclusion has to be
established first. We cannot ask readers to believe an undocumented
relationship on page 2, on the basis that it is proved by
an argument not presented until page 37. Our documentation
for note 13 should not ask readers to skip ahead and find
our explanations at note 111.
Follow basic rules of expository writing.
Paragraphs need topic sentences. All material in a given
paragraph should relate to the same subject covered by that
topic sentence. Pronouns must have clear antecedents. Active
verbs and nouns make text much more interesting than passive
Edit, edit, edit.
Especially do we edit the mechanical text produced by clicking
the "report" button of our genealogical software. What we
put into print should show our non-genealogist relatives
the excitement of our search - not the barely grammatical,
robotic drone of a verbalized database.
We spend a fortune and a lifetime on our research. Let's
create a legacy our descendants will actually treasure.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright.
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