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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Good Genealogical Writing,” OnBoard 4 (May 1998): 16.
Research is pure exhilaration. Writing is sheer drudgery. Most genealogists hate writing. Most people hate it. A sage once described the chore as 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration.
Yet, to be genealogists, we must write. We must know the mechanics of writing, as well as a lot of irksome rules we tried to ignore in school. And, no. We cannot avoid them now by investing in those electronic marvels (or should I say advertising marvels?) that promise to automatically write our genealogy from whatever names, dates, and places we feed into its data base. Machines don’t write prose that humans want to read.
As genealogists, our writing has two objectives: to convey facts accurately and clearly; and to convey them interestingly, so that our families will enjoy and appreciate the work we have done.
Toward that end, this column’s focus is not on those rules we can glean from any self-help book but on a few particulars peculiar to our field.
The point should be obvious, but publishers offer several attractive manuals that lead us into grave sins against truth and reality. One “teaches” us how to invent drama and characters that bear our ancestral names, dates and places—how to “recreate” thoughts and conversations those people surely had, even though they left no record saying so. Another encourages us to read social history and revise our ancestors’ documentary record to make those forebears fit aberrations that are currently faddish in controversial “scholarly circles.”
To the contrary, we genealogists have an obligation to treat our ancestors with respect. We cannot charge them with sins or foibles their records do not support.
Don’t exaggerate, inflate, or hide.
When our family cannot be traced out of the mountains of Vermont, we fool no intelligent person by adorning our book with a coat of arms. We add nothing to its value by reciting a list of ancient heroes who bore a surname of similar spelling. (A surname does not a family make.) If we yield to the temptation and hide records or situations that embarrass us, we may make it impossible for descendants to find the truth in later eras when different attitudes prevail.
(You have noticed, haven’t you, that situations perfectly acceptable—even desirable—in some societies are scandalous in others. Pendulums swing. Let’s don’t bury truths our offspring may need for reasons we cannot anticipate.)
Avoid clichés like the plague!
We see them everywhere, especially these:
- We know that . . . . Oh? How do “we” “know” it? In utter laziness, authors use this cliché to avoid having to document what they want to believe but have found no evidence for.
- The Smith family . . . . Which Smith family? Surely the author is not implying that all individuals of the surname Smith belong to a single family.
- Records state that. . . . What records state this—specifically? Where can we find them? Are they original and primary? Derivative? Hearsay? The details make a tremendous difference.
- On the 1880 census, John said . . . . He did? How do we even know that John was at home the day the census taker visited? The data could have been provided by any household resident or even a neighbor.
Introduce quotes properly.
If someone’s words are important enough to repeat them exactly, with quotation marks around them, then that somebody is important enough to be properly identified—right there in the text. Our readers need this perspective. How can they judge the validity of what is said, if they do not know who said it? Good writers preface a quote with such identifiers as “According to John Smith, a fellow soldier of our ancestor who later wrote a history of their unit, . . . ”
Observe the natural order of things.
When a new person is introduced in the text, identify him or her on the first reference – not the second or the tenth. When one conclusion rests upon the reader’s acceptance of another conclusion, the underlying conclusion has to be established first. We cannot ask readers to believe an undocumented relationship on page 2, on the basis that it is proved by an argument not presented until page 37. Our documentation for note 13 should not ask readers to skip ahead and find our explanations at note 111.
Follow basic rules of expository writing.
Paragraphs need topic sentences. All material in a given paragraph should relate to the same subject covered by that topic sentence. Pronouns must have clear antecedents. Active verbs and nouns make text much more interesting than passive ones.
Edit, edit, edit.
Especially do we edit the mechanical text produced by clicking the “report” button of our genealogical software. What we put into print should show our non-genealogist relatives the excitement of our search—not the barely grammatical, robotic drone of a verbalized database.
We spend a fortune and a lifetime on our research. Let’s create a legacy our descendants will actually treasure.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
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.