Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why We Don't Write

Last week at the Indiana Genealogical Society gatherings, newsletter editor Linda Herrick Swisher and quarterly editor Rachel Popma made multiple pleas for additional contributions, so that they can publish news and articles -- rather than indexes and the like that were once staples of genealogy publication, but now belong in on-line databases. When I got home, the spring issue of the Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly had arrived, containing a similar request from editor Susan Dunlap Lee.

Why do they even have to ask?

Writing is one of the best ways to think through a tough problem, or to see what research options we've overlooked. It's also the best way to explain our research to others and to preserve its results, with both on-line and print options. The Board for the Certification of Genealogists specifies that no genealogical statement can be considered proven without "a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion," although obviously some will be longer than others.

So why do they even have to ask?

Partly it's because we're perfectionists -- there's always one more resource, one more road trip that might make our narrative tree even better.

Partly it's because we enjoy starting new projects more than the endless detail work required to actually complete the old ones.

Partly it's because writing is rarely as well or thoroughly taught as dribbling a round ball or throwing a pointy one. It's easier to go to extremes -- pretending either that anything put on paper is a valuable self-expression on one hand, or that it's important to follow all the rules (including bogus ones like never splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition) on the other.

Partly it's because writing does force us to think about what we have done, and whether it really makes sense. (Just as I suspect that folks are reluctant to cite their sources,not out of fear of the comma police, but because citation requires us to understand the source we're looking at instead of briskly moving on to the next one.)

In order to fulfill our potential as genealogists, we have to overcome these obstacles, some of them larger than others for different ones of us, but all present to some degree. There's no substitute for practice and coaching, whether by a group of peers or by a stern but compassionate editor. And there's no substitute for reading good writing either.

But mainly, even if you're only writing blog posts, there's no substitute for thinking. Cogent thoughts poorly expressed are relatively easy to fix. Confused thoughts, no matter how elegantly expressed, are more difficult to deal with. Of course, writing them out in plain language will help de-confuse them, so it's all good.

And our state editors are going to be so happy to see us!

Susan Dunlap Lee, "Immediate Need for Articles," Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly 52, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 52.

Harold Henderson, "Why We Don't Write," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 6 May 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]  


Cathi at Stone House Research said...

A good reminder, Harold. I suspect that "finding the time" might be the biggest reason for many of us. I'm trying hard to make the time to write.

Harold Henderson said...

Same here, Cathi. I tend to think of various writing tasks in different categories, so I sometimes have trouble even listing out all the various possibilities and commitments to make sure I'm prioritizing them right!

Michael Hait said...

This might just be one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time. (That might be the writer in me as much as the genealogist in me.)

Great article, Harold!

BDM said...

Very perceptive! We can all examine our own problem-solving and then test the hungry editors. Win-win.
- Brenda

Unknown said...

Writing causes us to stop and think about what we are doing.

Thank you, Harold, for an excellent reminder!


Madaleine J. Laird said...

I'd like to submit my writing to state genealogical society publications, but the last time I did so, an editor introduced errors into my book review. I have no earthly idea how the author's middle name lost its final letter, or how the title of her book suddenly transformed itself into another title she didn't even write. The errors are not my fault, but I'm the one who looks incompetent, not my editor.

I'm definitely a perfectionist, and this unfortunate experience taught me to be more selective about the publications I submit to. I want to work with editors who can help me improve my writing and build a reputation for compentence. If I'm not impressed with an editor's credentials or the product they put out, I won't even go there.

PS - To the author whose book I reviewed (who also left a comment under this post), I apologize for the errors in my review. I assure you, they weren't there when I submitted it.

Harold Henderson said...

Madaleine -- Good point -- and you sure don't need to be a perfectionist to insist on editors who can improve your work! One would hope that editors would provide the author with a copy of the article as prepared for publication, in time for any such mistakes to be corrected. -- Harold

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thanks to Michael Hait for sharing this article in his post, so others and myself who missed it the first time got to read it. Very well stated! ;-)

Shelley Bishop said...

Thanks for this perceptive post, Harold. Like Cathi, I think finding the time to write--and write well--is one of my biggest challenges. It's also a challenge to pick a family or research subject with broader appeal for a large state journal. But you've made an excellent case to make the time a priority and just do it!

Jacqi Stevens said...

Harold, thank you for this timely post. I've done a lot of writing for other purposes--and put in my fair share of time serving as editor, too--but though I've been a researcher for decades, I've never pursued the thought of actually getting any material published in local or state genealogy publications. Perhaps it was my assumption that that was the domain of certified genealogists. Your article inspires me to inspect this possibility further.

Harold Henderson said...

Jacqi, even the august NGS Quarterly publishes writings of non-CGS and non-AGs, provided the problem is difficult enough and the solution interesting enough. There's more than plenty of room in state and local publications for those who are not credentialed. Good luck!

Unknown said...

You started me thinking here. I consider why I don't write to be more of a question of why I don't publish. One reason might be that it took me almost a week to write a short blogpost about this, lol!

Jane E. Wilcox said...

Inspiration to do more writing! Thanks, Harold.