Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Writing: The Ten Suggestions

Writing is how genealogists preserve, propagate, and prove our findings about our families. For those who never quite get around to it, the following suggestions may help:

(1) Furnish your brain with good examples. I am very fond of Ian Frazier's Family, Martha Hodes's The Sea Captain's Wife, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's The Midwife's Tale, Leonard Todd's Carolina Clay, and William Maxwell's Ancestors -- as writing. Some are better at source citations (#10) than others.

(2) Don't try to do the whole family at once. Consider writing up smaller parts of the family and publishing them as articles in state or local or regional genealogy or history publications. Package them into a book later. Articles have a quicker turn-around time (thus more satisfaction), allow for experimentation, and unlike books they are indexed in the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) where the rest of us can find them!

(3) Expect to be sent back to do more research. One reason why the Board for the Certification of Genealogists defines a cogently written argument as an integral part of proof is that the act of writing itself often highlights erroneous or incomplete research.

(4) Read the problem-solvers. There are other kinds of genealogical writing than those named in #1. If you run into serious conflicts in evidence, or no evidence, then get acquainted with the people who deal with these situations well, who are published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

(5) Consider taking a writing course at a genealogy institute. The two best genealogy writing instructors I know, Tom Jones (editor of NGSQ) and John Colletta (author of Only a Few Bones), have completely different approaches.
The shortest, cheapest, and best writing instruction book is still Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

(6) Draw up an agenda before starting. Usually it helps to have something in mind when firing up the ballpoint pen or word processor. Some people make outlines, some have a killer lead paragraph in mind, some list out the points they want to include, some use the currently fashionable "mind-mapping."

(7) Revise, revise, revise. Don't correct yourself as you go, just get it on paper -- then it can be fixed. Start the process early so that you can put your draft in a drawer for a week and then read it cold. (One person in a million can sit down and write a book that needs no revision. None of them are reading this.)

(8) Seek out editing, amateur or professional. We all need it. Prefer friends who tell you where the problems are -- whether they're at the level of words, paragraphs, sections, tone, rhythm, or the whole concept. Prefer publications that edit your work (and show you the results prior to publication!) over those that do not. Enter contests for the judges' comments, not the prize.

(9) Know the mechanics in order to benefit from #7 and #8. Yes, this means grammar and punctuation. Even an amateur car mechanic knows the name of "that big plastic thing in the middle under the hood" and when the job calls for a Philips-head screwdriver. Similarly, writers need to know which words are adverbs and what the passive voice is. Find out.

(10) Cite your sources so that you can understand them in the first place (and find them again if need be) -- and so that your readers know that your work deserves respect. Use Evidence Explained. Author Elizabeth Shown Mills maintains a web site of the same name that offers ongoing continuing education. The book is large because it is chock-full of examples. Read the first two chapters over and over; consult the rest as you would any reference work.

Writing is like genealogy. There's always more to learn, and every day is a fresh start. Good luck!

Harold Henderson, "Writing: The Ten Suggestions," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 7 August 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Judy G. Russell said...

Great suggestions, here, Harold. Especially the planning stages, which are so much more important than they might seem!

Harold said...

Thanks, Judy. Planning is good. My first big paper in college, I wrote maybe six pages, came to a blocking point, figured it out, and started all over. This recurred *several times.* And the paper did finally get done, but not very efficiently!

Debbie V. said...

Harold - thank you so much - these are such good suggestions and I am really just now getting interested in writing!

Cathi at Stone House Research said...

All excellent suggestions, Harold. (And I laughed out loud when I got to the line, "None of them are reading this.") Keep up these writer's posts. I soak them up.

Harold said...

Thanks, Cathi and Debbie. I will continue if I can do so without being too overlappingly and repetitively redundant.