52 Weeks to Better Genealogy: Good Writing Tips

This week, Amy Coffin’s provocative series of genealogy exercises throws down a challenge dear to my heart: Brush up on good genealogy writing tips.

Talk about timely. I don’t yet have a whole family history book in me, but I’d love my extended family to read at least a brief summary of the research I’ve done so far. If I get going on it now, it might be done in time for the holiday card mailing.

But how to square the demands of good storytelling with the structure of a well-researched genealogy table? I was cheered by this pragmatic advice in a wise, witty article from Sharon DeBartolo Carmack: Split them up. “Part One is the readable narrative family history; Part Two is the reference section of genealogical reports or summaries with all the bare bones facts.”

This sounds like an admirable way to tame these wildly different beasts. The trick is making sure everything in Part One is substantiated in Part Two.

So that takes care of my structure problem. On to the writing itself.

I’ve spent many hours hanging around copy-editors who waxed eloquent about gerunds and dangling participles. But over time, I’ve come to think the writing I most admire follows the sort of rules you’d hear from a plainspoken great-aunt:

Don’t show off.

Get to the point.

Say what you mean.

The motherlode of plainspoken writing advice is Strunk and White’s  The Elements of Style, a bible for generations of writers. “Pithy” doesn’t begin to describe it. (“Omit needless words!” the authors thunder — leaving you nodding. Wordlessly, of course. )

I can’t resist one final (and personal) tip:

Read it. Then cut it.

Once upon a time, I sat mesmerized as an editor (crusty, old-school, winner of two Pulitzers) whacked my story from 20 inches to 8. It was great. I mean it: In an hour’s work the strong, clear bones of the story emerged from the trivial details and extraneous turns of phrase I’d draped about to show what a clever thing I was. You don’t argue with an editor who demands, “What happened next? Why aren’t you just SAYING WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”

In his memory, I always ask myself those questions when I’m writing. And then I whack whatever gets in the way.

Thank you, Amy, for the opportunity to think this over!