Excellent writing doesn’t just happen – we write, edit, and rewrite until the finished product meets our standard. As genealogists, we write research reports, ancestor stories, proof arguments, and much more. Several tips can help us write clearly and concisely and make it more likely that we’ll engage our readers.
Tip 1: Write
We all get writer’s block; when that happens, the best solution is to start writing. Don’t worry about wordsmithing the perfect introduction. Write something from the middle of the piece. Write the conclusion. Getting words to flow will unstop your brain, and eventually, you can formulate an excellent way to begin the paper. Gradually the piece will take form. The beauty of writing with a word processor is the ability to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and entire sections of our paper.
Tip 2: Be Concise
If you tend to use many words where a few could suffice, consider printing out your paper and editing with a red pen – striking out extra words that add no meaning. You’ll be surprised at how that simple step can tighten a sentence. Examples are “just” or “actually.” If a word doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, perhaps it doesn’t belong in your writing.
Tip 3: Use the Active Voice
As much as possible, write in the active voice. Watch for passive verbs like “is” and “was” and rephrase the sentence. Instead of writing “John Smith was the head of household in the 1880 census,” write “John Smith headed the 1880 household.” You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how this helps move the narrative along.
Tip 4: Consider Topic Sentences
Each paragraph should open with a sentence that introduces the following discussion. Tell your reader what you’re going to discuss, then discuss it. When beginning a new idea, start a new paragraph. This practice sounds simple, but it does take effort when writing genealogically.
Tip 5: Vary Sentence Length
Use a variety of sentence structures. Mostly shorter sentences that get to the point are best when discussing complicated genealogical evidence. Still, some longer sentences are okay if they have a purpose and help the narrative flow.
Tip 6: Edit Extensively
Edit the paper multiple times, starting with a printed copy of the work. Editing on paper will point out glaring mistakes you didn’t notice on the screen. First, look for wordiness, passive verbs, topic sentences, and sentence length. Be sure each paragraph flows to the next and that the entire paper is cohesive.
Next edit for spelling, grammar, and word usage. Nothing is more jarring to a reader than multiple errors of this kind in a paper. Several excellent editing resources can help you learn, and I’ve included some of my favorites at the end of this article.
After editing your writing, have someone else read your paper and give you feedback. Often our eyes skip over mistakes because we know what the sentence should say. Also, we know our research and what is clear to us may confuse our readers.
Applying these tips to your writing will help you share your research in the most straightforward way possible. Know that your skills will improve with practice, and you’ll create reports, family histories, and proof arguments you can be proud of.
Best of luck with all your genealogical writing!
Selected Resource List.
Fiske, Robert Harwell. The Dictionary of Concise Writing: 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases. Oak Park, Illinois; Marion Street Press, 2002.
Garner Bryan A. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Grammarly: Free Online Writing Assistant. https://www.grammarly.com
Ross-Larson. Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words. New York: W.W.Norton, 1982.
Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1959