Thanks to F. Warren Bittner’s presentation at NGS earlier this month, “Writing to Engage Your Reader,” I learned that writing a family history and genealogy writing are different. Specifically, writing a family history that will engage your readers from start to finish.
I tend to march to a different drummer much of the time, so while most genealogists are busy capturing names and dates on scraps of paper and then entering into the database of their choice, I am interested in immediately writing about the names, dates, and whatever social and cultural history I can pull together. Entering names and dates into my Reunion software is mostly an afterthought.
I am a genealogy writer, which means I stick right to the facts. I now struggle with turning that writing style into a more relaxed, creative style that my readers will be hooked from the start, and will read through to the end.
Research has to come first. Mr. Bittner stressed to search all available records and then analyze them. Some he listed were military, probate, court, contemporary journals, histories and diaries. Look at every jurisdiction. Read between the lines. What isn’t being communicated? Scour social histories – regional, educational, medical, gender, micro, ethnic, economic and vocations.
Start your family history with action, a moment of decision or high point, an interesting person, or an unusual situation. Catch your readers’ attention, give them a reason to keep reading. Then add context. “Arrange facts and details for impact, not chronology.” Stay true to the story.
What makes your ancestor unique? What makes them tick? Your story should be emotion based; appeal to the senses.
Use clear language, action verbs, active voice. “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action,” states Mr. Bittner.
On a sobering endnote, Mr. Bittner says, “Nine tenths of good writing is re-writing.”