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Pamela Boyer Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA, “Effective Writing and Editing,” OnBoard 16 (September 2010): 21–22.
Those who believe the career counsel to “dress the part for the position you aspire to, not the one you currently hold” would do well to remember that advice when writing and editing, whether preparing reports for their own files, research findings for clients, articles for publication, or family history narratives for posterity. Genealogists are often judged by the quality of their written work. If a reader picks up a report or family history and find misspellings, punctuation errors, and bad grammar jumping off the page, the reader might assume that the quality of the genealogical research behind the writing is also poor.
If we are known by the company we keep, we genealogists can’t go wrong by associating closely with a good style guide, dictionary, usage textbook, and citation methodology guide. The Chicago Manual of Style is the standard style guide espoused by most genealogical publications; the 16th edition just became available this summer.1 Chicago recommends Webster’s Third New International Dictionary2 and the more reasonably sized and priced Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary3 as reference works. Usage texts such as The Little, Brown Handbook and others serve as sources or refreshers for grammar rules.4 Evidence Explained is the genealogical industry standard for source citation and evidence evaluation.5 Put these books within arm’s reach of your regular writing work space and use them frequently. There is no secret to learning correct grammar and usage, punctuation, spelling, and source citation formatting; all are skills that are learned and honed by doing.
If you weren’t a grammar or spelling whiz in school, it’s not too late to improve. Take a refresher course at a local community college or senior center. Avail yourself of free courses such as those offered by Purdue University’s The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) at http://owl.english.purdue.edu. There you’ll find exercises that teach grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure and style, paraphrasing, and writing numbers.6 Don’t forget to use the spelling and grammar checkers in your word processor, but always read your text and use your human brain for a logic check of the computer’s suggested changes.
There is no easy solution to consistency in the matter of style or format other than to use accepted guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and Evidence Explained. Capitalization, citation formatting for various sources, the use of italics or quotation marks for course names, and other such style questions can be answered by sections within the appropriate manuals. At first, it may not be easy to find the answers you seek in these hefty tomes; you must have some understanding of their structure and organization to find what you need. But it becomes easier with practice; the more you use them, the more familiar you become with the “rules” and where to find them. Often a peek at the index or table of contents for the topic you need will help you find the right general area of the guide.
Writers might find it helpful to use digitized versions of some reference books. In addition to the print copy, the Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition is available via online subscription. The Chicago website (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/help_search.html) provides search capability, returning results for references in the book, in the online Chicago Manual Q&A area, and in the online forum. With the search results, users can find the specific chapter and section within their print copy of The Chicago Manual of Style or read online discussions about the topic.
The original 2007 version of Evidence Explained is available for purchase as a PDF version on the Footnote.com website (http://www.footnote.com/evidenceexplained). The advantage to using this electronic version in addition to the book is that it is fully searchable so readers can find a conceptual phrase such as Civil War pension file. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is currently available as a CD-ROM or online subscription, too. These digitized publications make it simple to perform an every-word search for the topic in question; you may install them on your laptop computer, making them available wherever you need to write or edit.
The Internet offers some assistance, but be wary of free online dictionaries or grammatical advice that may not be authoritative. However, when you just can’t find the answer you need at three in the morning, websites such as Grammar GirlTMQuick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com) can provide helpful guidance.
Good writing is an art that requires practice, the application of standards, and that certain flair. Every one of us has the power to present our work in its best light by using correct grammar and spelling and being consistent in issues of style and citation formats. Every one of us has the ability to learn to write more clearly and concisely by practicing and editing our own work and others’ work, too. Not every one of us has that flair for creative writing that allows readers to envision and imagine a scene that we depict. But we should try to produce good, standard writing that follows rules, even if we will never be Mark Twain or David McCullough. Our reputations rest on our work products.
1 The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
2 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (Springfield, Mass.: MerriamWebster, 2002).
3 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: MerriamWebster, 2003).
4 H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, The Little, Brown Handbook, 11th ed. (New York: Pearson Education International, 2010).
5 Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 2009).
6 The Writing Lab, The OWL at Purdue, the English Department, and Purdue University, “OWL Exercises,” The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises : accessed 10 July 2010).
Pamela Boyer Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA
This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.