If you’re anything like me, this is your motto. But writing isn’t really all that unpleasant. We’ll take a look at what it takes to write, in the form of a genealogy newsletter article. A lot of what I’m going to talk about today will also go towards longer format writing.
Let me tell you quickly what we’re not going to talk about today: Research. We’ve all done research. Just about every program we put on has to do with research. As a librarian, I’m prepared to answer your questions about research, if you have any. But we’ll put that off until later.
Let’s talk about writing. To be a good writer, you need to do two things. The first is reading. You really can’t write if you don’t read. As a writer, I’m tremendously influenced by what I’ve read. When you read great writing, you learn great writing. So read. Read authors you like. Read authors you don’t like. Read.
The second thing you have to do is write. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. It’s like going to the gym. You may be a little sore after the first trip to the computer, but each day it will get a little easier as you build up your writing strength.
Physical aspect – putting pencil to paper, but it’s more than that. It can be sitting down at a computer or typewriter
Creative aspect – a writer must ingest information – whether it come from outside or from his or her own head – process it and produce a well written version of the information collected. For example, when I would cover Secaucus Council meetings, I would get to Town Hall, get a copy of the agenda from the Town Clerk, and sit through the meeting, recording it and taking notes. When the meeting was over, I would talk to the councilpeople, the mayor and the town attorney if I needed clarification and go and write the story. Sometimes further clarification would be necessary meaning phone calls or research from the paper’s morgue. Finally the story is filed.
This is true of all writing. Poets go through a similar process. Novelists, screenwriters, historians, journalists (as I just discussed), bloggers and of course, genealogists. Information is taken in, processed and then recorded.
Lee Gutkind is the editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine. He’s the author of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Keep It Real and The Art of Creative Nonfiction.
Some examples of Creative Nonfiction
Can anyone tell me what these books have in common?
We’re here to focus on genealogical writing so let’s do that. Let’s take a look at the different types of genealogical writing there are.
Methodology – Teaching someone how to do research for say, a particular geographical area or using particular documents. And they’re not mutually exclusive. It can be both or multiple things at the same time.
Case Study – Using one particular case of research to teach. Basically the difference between them is some thing like this: In a how-to, you might be teaching someone how to use military records. In a case study, you might be teaching someone how to use military records by looking at, say, your second great-grandfather’s Civil War records.
Review – I think this is pretty self-explanatory as well
Essay – This is the “miscellaneous” category. This is just about everything that is not listed above. A few months back, in one of my columns, I wrote about “Music to Do Genealogy By.” In it, I talked about genealogical songs – songs about family relationships. This clearly doesn’t fit into any of the categories above (well maybe it falls a little into the review category but I didn’t do it to review the songs – I did it to show how even popular music can illustrate genealogy)
What’s not covered here is more formal genealogical writing, like a professional genealogist’s report for a client or a journal article for a publication like the NGS Quarterly. These can certainly be case studies, but they’re also much like legal briefs in that the writer is trying to make a case to prove a particular relationship.
Your story should be interesting to you. If it is, it will give you inspiration to write, give you that “fire in the belly,” so to speak. Your interest in the subject will show through in your writing and you can pass it to your readers. If it’s not interesting to you, then that too, will show through in the writing.
Does everyone know what an elevator speech is?
An elevator speech is a quick pitch. It’s the ability to get on an elevator and pitch an idea to someone quickly and concisely, before the elevator door has a chance to open and the person you’re talking to has a chance to leave.
My point here is not that you have to pitch an idea to us, but that you need to narrow its focus
This is another way of saying “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”
James Joyce would sometimes only write a page a day because he worked on so many levels of language and symbolism. But I don’t think I’m insulting anyone here of I say that no one in this room is on the level of James Joyce. Just sit down and write and fix everything in the rewrite.
Don’t think too much about it. After you’ve collected enough research, sit down at the computer or with a legal pad and write it. Just get it out. You don’t even have to correct spelling or grammar errors. Just get it out
Wow, that’s a mouthful isn’t it? But really it’s very simple: Structure is the way a story is put together. Think of it as the concrete columns or wooden studs in a building or house. It all lies underneath the paint and sheetrock and insulation, but it gives the basic shape to the building. Let’s take a look at some structures:
This is the most used form for newspaper writing or journalistic writing. Top heavy, yes but it get all the important information out in the beginning. It’s been said that this structure for news came about during the Civil War, when it was common for telegraph lines to be cut. But getting all the main information out first, it wouldn’t be a complete loss if the lines were cut during transmission.
Later, in the 1970s, another style of news story would form, what I call the “Literary lede.” In this type of story, the lede is more descriptive before getting into the news of the story. For example:
John Jones stood in the doorway of his home, looking at out the acres of farmland surrounding the house. “I can’t believe it’s going to be a strip mall,” he said. “After five generations of Joneses, there’s going to be an Old Navy here.”
The article then goes into its main point, real estate foreclosures.
Structure doesn’t get any easier than this.
Think back to the foreclosure story I talked about before: Quote from Jones is the first bookend, then the general story, then a final quote or scene from Jones.
One of my first feature articles for the JJ followed this story. I was driving to work at the post office going over the Wittpenn Bridge when I got a really good look at the office that sits over the roadway. It got me to thinking about who worked there so I decided to do a story on it. I visited the bridge, they did a test lift, did some interviews and when I wrote the story I started with the bridge going up, talked about the guys who worked there and what they do and ended it with the bridge going back down. One of my favorites from when I worked at the JJ.
Has anyone here seen the movie “A River Runs Through It”? Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt, Tom Skerritt? One of the first scenes shows Tom Skerritt, a Presbyterian minister, teaching his young son about writing. The boy turns in a handwritten sheet to his father to takes a red pencil to and fills it with proofreader’s marks. He hands it back to the boy and tells him to “make it half as long.” The boy leaves and returns a little while later, hands the sheet to his father who again marks it up and hands it back to the boy and tells him again to make it half as long.
The moral of the story is: It can actually take longer to write something short than it will to write something long. But don’t let that stop you from being clear and concise.
My advice is: write it as long as it needs to be. Don’t leave anything out but do make sure that the story keeps moving forward. And for our purposes, for the Hudson Roots newsletter, don’t worry about length. If it’s too long we can serialize it.
And that leads us to…
Hemingway is right. As a newspaper reporter working on a daily deadline, you don’t often get a chance to do rewrites (that’s why there’s a long line of editors it has to go through before it can be typeset). But we’re not burdened with daily deadlines. We have the luxury of rewriting. We can take the time to pull everything together and make it cohesive.
If you’re talking to someone for an article, they have to know that what they’re saying is going to be published somewhere. It’s not fair to them to let them talk without knowing this.
Unless it’s someone you know really, really well, ask them to spell their name. You can’t know if it’s “Michelle” or Michele” just by listening. And there are tons of ways to spell tone of names. I have a friend that I’ve known since sixth grade who still sends Christmas card to Kline instead of Klein. Ever see a press conference on the news where someone comes to the podium, introduces himself and immediately spells his name without being asked? That’s someone who has experience talking to the media.
More on taping in a second
This is pretty self explanatory. You don’t want to piss someone off before the interview is over.
Get permission. If they don’t give it then just take notes
This is more for your records than for any legal or ethical reason. It’s an audio tape so this is really metadata for anyone listening to it down the road.
Get consent on tape so they can’t use “I was misquoted” or “I didn’t know I was being taped” as an excuse
Always take notes anyway, even if you’re taping. Batteries can fail, mechanical troubles can happen. Also it’s good to have your notes when listening back to the tape because if you have to FF or rewind, you can see where the conversation is by checking your notes
Don’t ever, EVER tape secretly
I first heard this from a crusty old copy editor and it’s stuck in my head ever since. Just like we do as genealogists, we have to verify, verify, verify. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a trusted source or document, if you can corroborate it with something else, do so.
It’s true. I can only speak for myself, but when I read something with poor grammar, I think more about the grammar then I do about the story. Some sloppiness in an email or facebook post I can forgive, but not in a piece of formal writing. On the other hand, when you read something that’s well written and thought out, you don’t even think of it at all
Single noun: The boys is in the room
Plural noun: The boys are in the room
Perdue Online Writing (OWL) Lab is a great resource
I know this is not intuitive, because when you write a possessive form of any other noun, there’s an apostrophe. Except for “its.” But here, “it’s” is a contraction, not a possessive noun.
This is one I do a lot myself.
Ways to defeat plagiarism:
Attibute in the text and in citation.
Ask permission to use lengthy portions of someone else’s writing.
Complete rewriting isn’t an excuse.
The greatest sin: Someone is going to read it and trust it. Fabrication betrays that trust.
Rolling Stone magazine Brian Williams Jayson Blair Janet Cooke Stephen Glass
Writing for a genealogy newsletter
Writing for a genealogy
Daniel Klein, MLIS, APG
Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society
April 11, 2015
“I don’t like to write,
I like to have written.”
George R.R. Martin?
What is writing?
• The physical aspect of writing is using an instrument to record words in an
analog or digital format
• The creative aspect of writing is capturing events, ideas and information
from real life or from imagination, processing it and recording that processed
• This is true of all writing: poetry, prose, plays, advertising, scriptwriting, news
and sports writing, business writing and yes, genealogical writing
• In a word: Storytelling
It’s all about storytelling
• A story is: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to
interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.”1
• Storytelling is: “…the conveying of events in words, and images, often by
improvisation or embellishment.”2
• There is an entire branch of nonfiction writing devoted to inventive
storytelling called Creative Nonfiction. This genre is dedicated to telling true
stories, in a creative and interesting manner.
1 “Story,” Dictionary.com, accessed 22 Oct. 2014, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/story
2 “Storytelling,” Wikipedia, Accessed 22 Oct. 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storytelling
Creative Nonfiction examples
• All The President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
• The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
• In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
• The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
• Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
What is genealogical writing?
• Narrative – A story from your family’s history
• Methodology or “How-to” – How to conduct certain types of research
• Case Study – Similar to a “how to,” but uses a particular story to illustrate
• Review – An opinion on a book, movie, TV show, software program, web site, etc.
• Essay – Writing that doesn’t fit into any other category, for example, your thoughts
on genealogy, theory and criticism
What are you going to write about?
• Do you want to tell a story about your family or a historic person or place?
• Do you want to tell a story about your research?
• Is it interesting to you?
• Do you think it will be interesting for others?
Do you have an elevator speech?
• Get your idea focused to the point where you can get it to one (or two) short
“Give them the third best
to go on with; the second
best comes too late, the
best never comes.”
Sir Robert Wilson-Watt
What is structure?
• “Structure is a fundamental, tangible or intangible notion referring to
the recognition, observation, nature, and permanence of patterns and
relationships of entities.”1
• For our purposes, structure is the way a story is put together.
• It can make a story more interesting or more confusing.
1 “Structure,” Wikipedia, accessed 22 Oct., 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structure
“Once upon a time…”
• Linear storytelling.
• Tells a story chronologically – A happens, then B, then C,…, then Z.
• Simple but effective.
• Tells a story beginning with an event, then flashing back (or maybe even
flashing forward!), then ending with the original event.
• Standard high school/college thesis paper style
• Open with a thesis paragraph, making a statement as to what you intend to
prove, make your case, and end with a summary paragraph.
• Good for scholarly or legal writing.
• Could be on the dry or boring side.
Know Your Ending
• By knowing your ending, you have something to work towards. All roads
must lead to the end
• No horizontal movement unless it affects the narrative
“I didn’t have time to write
a short article, so I wrote a
long one instead.”
Another old newspaper saying
“The only kind of writing
Ernest Hemingway – A Movable Feast
• Attribution is when you put words into someone’s mouth (figuratively)
• In 99.9% of cases, a simple “he said,” “she said,” or “[insert name here]
said” is sufficient
• Do not add adverbs to attribution (i.e., “he said jokingly”)
• Only direct quotes in quotation marks
• Always identify yourself as a writer if you plan on talking to someone on the
record and use their quotes. Even if you’re not going to use direct quotes, it’s
important to identify yourself
• Ask them to spell their name and give a title
• Taping is a good idea, if allowed by the interviewee
• Save the awkward questions for the end
• Always ask if you can tape first
• Turn on the recorder, identify yourself and give the date, the time and where
the interview is being recorded
• Introduce the interviewee and again ask them for their consent in being
• Always take notes, even if you’re taping
• Never tape surreptitiously
“If your mother says
she loves you,
check it out.”
Old newspaper saying
Taming the grammar monsters
• Bad grammar (and spelling) is hard on the reader
• Bad grammar (and spelling) doesn’t reflect well on you
• Bad grammar makes editors cry
Active voice vs. Passive voice
• Active: It is this editor’s opinion that the active voice is better.
• Passive: It is the opinion of this editor that the passive voice is better.
Active Voice Wins!
The split infinitive
• An infinitive is a dictionary form of a verb (e.g., to go, to buy, to run)
• By placing an adverb between the preposition and the verb you are splitting the
• It used to be a big no-no (see Strunk and White’s Elements of Style), but is less
frowned upon now.
“To boldly go…”
Is the world’s most famous example of a
Photo via WikiMedia Commons
Its and It’s
• If it’s possessive, there’s no apostrophe
• “The genealogical society is having a gathering of its members.”
• If it’s a contraction of “it is,” there’s an apostrophe.
• Say it to yourself: If you can replace the “its” with “it is,” then there’s an
• Possessives – Use ‘s for singular nouns
• Danny’s laptop
• Kansas’s team
• Use s’ for plural nouns
• The Murgittroyds’ home
Style refers to…
• …a series of rules to make copy more cohesive
• …setting a standard for spelling
• …standardizes attribution and titles
• A long time standard: Surnames written in all capital letters in genealogical
• Easier to find on a page
• Moving away from that standard
• More documents have indexes and online publications are keyword searchable
• Avoids confusion (e.g., DEMOTT vs. DeMott)
The act of using another person's words or
ideas without giving credit to that person; the
act of plagiarizing something
“Plagiarism,” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com
One of the great sins of writing.
• Fabrication is the act of inventing parts or the entire article
• In my eyes, it’s the greatest of all journalism/historical sins
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