Why We Don't Write, and How We Can

by Harold Henderson | Dec 18, 2012

I've done it, and you have too. After a wonderful day of discoveries on line or at the library or archive, we emerge triumphant. The evidence of our triumph takes many forms: photocopies, printouts, notes and images on the laptop, and a story or two to entertain the family.

Then what? The next morning we face all the people and projects we neglected the day before. We may add a few pertinent facts to our database; soon the papers and images migrate into a labeled binder or cloud-resident folder.

And that's it. Another research trip is coming up; a friend finds a new lead on another branch of the family; our favorite website adds a database right where we need it. And we're off to a wonderful day of discoveries . . . again.


Buffalo Hunters?

When we do this, are we perhaps a bit like the worst kind of buffalo hunters? The kind that shot fast, cut out the delectable tongues, and left the meat to rot while they rode off after another herd over the hill? The analogy is unkind and imperfect, but it startled me into one thought (in which I recognized the teaching of Elizabeth Shown Mills): we have to slow down if we want to reach our destination.

We want to produce stories of our families that anyone will enjoy reading, hearing, or seeing. Writing is one way to do that. (If you opt to do an audio or video presentation of your family history, many of the same thought processes apply.)

Genealogy Pen and Paper

Writing is the way for us to accomplish the Three P's of genealogy:

  • Prove our conclusions
  • Propagate our findings
  • Preserve our information

A database can store information, but it can't tell a story. Without writing, those wonderful days in the library or in front of the computer will have been wasted.

So what can we do differently?


Take The Time

First, we need to go beyond just finding stuff. We need to set aside an equal amount of time to contemplate, digest, enter, sort, evaluate, and write. In other words, do not pile project upon project until even the notes have vanished. Just don't.

We have good reasons to work on more than one project at a time, because most have down time while we wait for remote repositories to respond. Just how many more than one is hard to say, but most of the time most of us are juggling too many.


Recognize That Research And Writing Belong Together

This is not quickly learned. I have been writing for a living for more than three decades and I still feel a wrench in my poorly-synchronized mental transmission when I move from taking notes to writing them up. One solution: shift early and often. When an idea dawns, pause to sketch it out. In a week or two it may seem golden.

If we build the thought, the words will come. And vice versa; don't ask me why. In real life, research and writing correct each other. Research provides raw material; writing forces us to think through what we have done, and sends us back to fill the gaps in our information and logic. That's one reason why the Board for the Certification of Genealogists insists that no genealogical statement can be considered proven without "a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion." Having it all in your head doesn't count.

A key part of this process is captured in the familiar phrase I first heard from Elissa Powell, "Write as you go." The more we can do while we still have the record in hand or on screen, the better off we'll be - especially in citing it for future reference.


Read The Best

If we want to tell great stories, then we need to read great storytellers, such as Martha Hodes (The Sea Captain's Wife) or Ian Frazier (Family). If our goal is logical brick-wall demolition, then we need to read any issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly published over the past two decades. If we want to succeed at both, then we will note that John P. Colletta (Only a Few Bones) is among the elite few who have done so.


Know The Goal

What's the result of our work going to be? A video for the kids? A scholarly article for the state quarterly? A chapter in a book for all the cousins? It helps to know! As non-genealogist Joel Gascoigne writes at Lifehacker, "When there is a strong connection between writing and my higher level goals and purpose, it's easy to write."

The more ambitious among us will plan to use the same material in different ways: a lecture illustration, a how-to article, a chapter in a family genealogy, an indirect-evidence case study for national publication. Chances are that each adaptation will reveal new aspects of a subject that had almost become routine.


Un-learn Bad Lessons

Most of us have experienced two undesirable extremes in the teaching of writing. One extreme emphasizes mechanics: grammar, spelling, and punctuation (as well as bogus rules like not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions). The other extreme says that whatever we put down is just fine as long as it comes from the heart.

Both approaches contain elements of truth, but either one by itself is stifling. I can never decide which is worse. We need to preserve the spirit and understand the mechanics.

In other realms this is obvious. Even the most inept auto mechanic knows that the big round black thing under the hood is the air filter. Knowing that fact, and all that it implies, does not limit the mechanic's pleasure in the work; quite the opposite. Similarly, writers need to be able to tell the subject and verb in each sentence. If someone says, "This has too many adverbs and too much passive voice," we need to be able to understand them.

We don't need to second-guess ourselves every few words. Get it out there, then fix it. In my own experience, the spirit takes precedence in writing a first draft, and the mechanics take precedence when revising.


Get Help

Don't fall for the stereotype of the lone writer. Writing is both solitary and social. Talk the topic over with a sympathetic person before starting. Have a true friend read a reasonable draft later on. Anyone can say, "I read it and it's fine." We need a friend who will say, "Fix the spelling . . . Did you consider starting out this way instead? . . . I couldn't follow that last paragraph at all." A writer's group can do this even better.

Don't underestimate the value of taking a top-notch writing class. No matter how experienced we may be, we don't know what we don't know, and chances are a good teacher with writing and editing experience can explain it to us.

Another good way to get feedback is to submit our work for publication to the sort of editor who will edit, question, and test it. Not enough genealogy editors do this. Find those who do. May their tribe increase.


Practice, Revise, Repeat

The more we work at writing the better we will get, the more our own inimitable personal voices will come through, and the more we will be able to pass along the findings from that wonderful research day. Good luck!


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