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Rebecca’s Reel Hints: The Power of Writing

I am not afraid of much. I can take snakes, spiders, rollercoasters, speaking in front of large audiences, and even doing my own taxes.  But one thing that really gives me the shakes and makes me break out into a sweat is writing!

Why I write

Writing, however, is a crucial part of our research into family history.  Here are three reasons why I encourage researchers to spend time writing:

1)     Write to understand.  Often we sort out the why, when, and who of a particular research problem in our own head.  When we try to write it out, it gets difficult to explain.  This may be because we are missing parts of our research that we didn’t even realize.  Start with writing out the problem, such as “Who are Evaline’s parents?”  Then write what you know, and how this problem is being addressed.  You will find that you either are missing key points in your research, or sometimes that pieces fit together that you hadn’t realized.

2)     Write to analyze.   Often, our research problem is not solved with one document that says, “Uriah Smith was the father of Evaline.”  In most research problems, we have to build a case to show why we believe that Uriah was the father rather than another candidate.  You may end up using three censuses, a tax record, the brother’s death certificate, and a probate record to “prove” your point, for example.  Writing out the points of your case and how they fit together is called a “proof argument” by professional genealogists.  It is easier for you to analyze the points of your argument in writing, rather than trying to piece it together later.

3)     Write to communicate.  You probably found other researchers who believe that your ancestor’s parents were someone other than you have determined them to be. Online family trees could list Evaline’s parents as Josiah, not Uriah, and have either no proof or other documentation to prove it. If you believe your research is sound, it is a great idea to attach an explanation of your findings (with footnoted source citations) to your own online family tree or to give to family.  Not only does it lend credibility to your findings, but it can start some great conversations with other interested researchers.

Writing also helps you communicate with those who are less involved in the research process. Think about your children, siblings, cousins, and friends who may be thrilled to learn about your findings. If you keep the information in your head, or scattered in notes all over your office, how will they ever learn from all the hard work you put in?

Writing tips

There is no one way or style to use when writing your proof argument.  The style will depend on the needs of the research. However, there are formats that you may choose from that are recognizable to the genealogical community.  Check out articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) or other scholarly genealogical journals. They can easily be found at many local libraries or Family History Centers, and will familiarize yourself with how others have presented a problem and shown their work. The book Professional Genealogy, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, has a great chapter on writing proof arguments.  Even if you are not ready for scholarly-style writing, reading the case studies of other genealogists is a great way to learn.

Get over the mental block

As I said earlier, writing is a scary thing for me.  But even scarier is the idea that all the work I have done could be gone if something happened to me.  It is worth so much to me to respect my ancestors by sharing their stories and connecting them correctly to the people they loved.  No matter the way you write, just write!  Write what was found, not how you found it, and let your ancestor be the star.

And nothing is set in stone. Just because you write it one way doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  I find I change the style of writing a little with each project, because each ancestor and research project are so different.  The more you write, the easier it becomes.

Let us know at Reel Tributes how these ideas have helped your work.  What else would you like to hear about?  Send comments or emails, we’d love to hear from you.