We love genealogy. We spend years and years researching in every direction. We go to conferences and lectures, we read books, and we develop a network of genealogy buddies to discuss every tidbit of information. We collect marriage licenses and deeds, wills and inventories, pictures and other data. So the question is—when you’re gone, what is going to happen to all that valuable research? Will anybody else know about it? Not if you don’t take some time out to focus on the importance of writing up your research and sharing it.
I know how hard it is to break out of the “research” addiction to spend time actually writing. Many people are intimidated, and feel that they can’t write, or simply don’t know where to start. I think the first step is to truly understand the monumental importance of doing it. I’m sure most of us are doing genealogy because we have deep-rooted beliefs about why families need to know from whence they came. However, your research will only be able to achieve that purpose if it survives outside of your mind and file cabinets. We want the fruits of our research to survive us, and the best way to accomplish that is to write up and submit your research.
The hard part is knowing just where to stop—we often feel like we don’t have enough information yet. We’re always looking for just a little bit more. But if we stick to that, we may never get started writing. As a general rule, I like to tell people after two years of research to stop and write up what you have. You can always publish addendums later.
What form should your write-up take? You can do an article. This is one of my favorite formats because then you can submit it for publication in the local genealogy newsletter, and it now has another chance of surviving you. Also, I have found family members really respond well to articles. You can add even pictures to the narrative, and they work well as hand-outs for family reunions. I have done a write-up for each of my family lines, and yes, some are more complete than others but I want what I have done to be known. You could also plan to do an entire book about all of your research. Many have taken this route, and in the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever. Websites such as Lulu.com and Scribd.com make it easy to submit your book for others to either simply download, or for a paperback or hardback to be published and sent.
How do you get started? Several good books have been published on how to write-up your family history and make it interesting and I include a few titles at the end of this article. There is also software available, such as Personal Historian, if you think you’ll need a bit more guidance. I like to study how others have written up their narratives, and take hints and clues from them. For example, the National Genealogical Society (NGS) holds a Family History Writing contest every year. I like to make copies of the winning articles and study them for ideas. Also, getting together on a regular basis with others with the goal of writing is a terrific way to stay motivated.
Whatever your method, the critical thing to do is just get started. You don’t need to be Toni Morrison or Richard Wright; you’re trying to convey and share all the hard work you’ve put into this research. Another huge benefit to writing up your research in this way is that it shows you clearly where you have gaps and missing information. Doing this has pointed me to new research avenues many times. Another point to remember is that you want to fully source cite all of your information. If you don’t include where you got the information in your write-up, it’s virtually useless. Elizabeth Shown Mill’s book “Evidence Explained” is the bible for genealogy source citations and should be right by your side as you write.
Once you have it written, be sure to get it out there to the public. I suggest submitting a copy to: the library system of your research county, the State Archives, the local historical society, and the Library of Congress’ Genealogy and Local History Division. All of these places take genealogies from the public. This will all lead to the greater likelihood that long after your time here has passed, your descendants will find your research and send up thanks to great-great grandmother/father so-and-so for caring enough to preserve and write the family history!
Note: If anyone wants an example of an article I did for one branch of my family, do email me at msualumni33 [at] verizon [dot] net.
- “You Can Write Your Family History”, by Sharon Carmack
- “Writing Family History and Memoirs”, by Kirk Polking
- “Writing Your Family History: A Practical Guide”, by Deborah Cass
- “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Your Family History”, by Lynda Stephenson