October is Family History Month. That makes it a time when many people feel disappointed that they haven’t gotten their family’s history written yet. No matter how diligent the genealogy researcher, writing a family history is a real challenge. Here are five ideas that will help you get yours finished.
Get out of the research trap. When I talk to genealogists who want to write a family history their most frequent statement is, “When I finish my research, I’ll be ready to write.” I love to do research. It’s an extremely enjoyable to search for new knowledge about a subject. But the truth is nobody finishes their research. You can always dig deeper into your genealogy. There will always be things you will be unable to discover through research.
If you want to get a family history written, you have to be willing to say, this is a progress report on what I have discovered so far. If you uncover more that you want to add later, you can always publish a second edition with the new information.
Don’t let the challenge overwhelm you. Writing a book that includes everything you have learned about your ancestors is a daunting challenge. You’ll give yourself a much better chance of success by limiting what you will write about. Choose to deal with a single line of your family. Set a chronological limit, whether in years or generations, on which ancestors to include. When you set a more modest goal, your chance of actually achieving it goes up dramatically.
Set a specific date for completion. There’s nothing like setting a goal to focus yourself on doing what needs to be done to reach it. Be realistic about the time it will take to get a draft of your family history written and the time you can devote to the project. Then make a commitment to working on your draft for a definite period each week. When you do you’ll be surprised how much progress you’ll make. Stick to your schedule and you are on you way to getting your family history written.
Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Anne Lamott in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, has a chapter on “Shitty First Drafts.” She advises, “All good writers write them. That’s how they wind up with good second drafts and wonderful third drafts.” Finishing a draft, even a very rough one, is important because it will help you with two ways. First, it will show you any holes in your research that you will want to fill. Be realistic as to whether you can find the information or not. It’s okay to simply tell your readers, “We simply don’t know about what happened to grandfather after he took off for Alaska in 1898 during the gold rush.” Review the draft to see that it is as clear and easy to follow as you can make it.
Get help early in your writing process. Editing can really improve even the best draft. You can make revisions to improve your draft, but nobody should edit his or her own writing. A professional genealogist or editor can give you insights on how to improve organization, coherence, and clarity, not to mention help you to tell your family’s story well. There is no substitute for good editing. Getting advice from a professional will help you finish writing the family history you want to produce sooner rather than later.
(Image courtesy of Peter Alfred Hess on Flickr under Creative Commons)