How to Start Writing: the Word File

For most of us, we’ve already gathered some information and records before we decide that we want to write. Once we make that decision, though, the amount of data, paper, and electronic images in front of us can be overwhelming. Where do we start with this?

The first thing to do is to decide exactly what you want to produce. If you haven’t decided yet, go back to last month’s article, “How to Start Writing: the Overall Plan,” to help you plan and make those decisions. Knowing what your final goal is makes the roadmap easier to develop.

Once you know what you want to produce, it’s time to open a Word file and start. At least that’s what I open. You might use a different program, and that’s more than fine. In any case, you have a blank, electronic page in front of you. Now what? I generally begin in one of two ways: abstracting or transcribing a particular record or drafting a “genealogical summary.” I won’t even think about writing a narrative for quite some time.

When I began writing about my Gregory ancestors I started by abstracting some of John Gregory’s mid-nineteenth century probate records I had just discovered, including an inventory of his estate, an account of the sale of his estate at auction, a widow’s dower petition, and an administrator’s petition for insolvency. I put those records in chronological order, and that was the beginning of an important section of my Word file: a chronology.

I then continued to abstract the records that I had already collected. Once that was done, I could see where there were gaps in the chronology that I wanted to fill in if I could. It’s up to you how detailed and lengthy your chronology is. For my direct ancestors, I like to gather enough records throughout their lives that 1) there is no significant, unexplained gap and 2) I begin to get a sense of what their lives were like.

Not incidentally, a chronology is also a useful research tool, helping differentiate people of the same name and sometimes highlighting indirect evidence of relationships when direct evidence is lacking.

An adjunct to the chronology is a section that I put at the end of my file. There, I include the important, revealing records that may be lengthy, but I want to fully transcribe. They will end up as appendixes so they don’t interrupt the narrative. But I’ll also make sure that an abstract of those records are included in the chronology.

On the other hand, I sometimes start with a simple genealogical summary. A genealogical summary gives the essential vital information for a couple and their children, starting with the couple’s birth, death, and marriage(s), then continuing with the same information for each of their known children, in birth order.

The concept of a genealogical summary is simple enough, but numbering and some formatting do become important here. Use Joan F. Curran, Madilyn Coen Crane, and John H. Wray’s NGS Special Publication, Numbering Your Genealogy, for help with these aspects. Or see the article that inspired that publication: “Numbering Your Genealogy: Sound and Simple Systems.”[1]

Click on the image below for a clearer, legible image.

Image: Joan Ferris Curran, “Numbering Your Genealogy: Sound and Simple Systems,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (September 1991): 184. Click on the image for a clearer, legible image.

As with a chronology, structuring a genealogical summary helps to clarify what you don’t yet know. Identifying those gaps, in turn, helps formulate a more effective research plan to fill those gaps. As you get additional information, you simply expand this section. Regardless of which element I start with, I generally add the other in pretty short order, as each informs and supports the other.

With a full chronology and a full genealogical summary, you have the building blocks you need to shape your narrative. You’ll find that most of the words are already there. You just need to contextualize the events and smooth out the storytelling. Use resources like Carmen J. Finley’s NGS Special Publication, Creating a Winning Family History, Patricia Law Hatcher’s Producing a Quality Family History, and Penelope L. Stratton & Henry B. Hoff’s Guide to Genealogical Writing.

Finally, and perhaps ironically, I write the introduction. That introduction might discuss the thorniest problem of the research process and its solution. Or it may summarize the migration and/or major events for the family line over the several generations presented. The narrative I’ve completed at that point generally makes it pretty clear to me what I want the introduction to address.

Toward the end here, this might all feel overwhelming again. But the endgame will take care of itself more easily than it might seem. Just start with a chronology or genealogical summary. It’ll take you farther than you might imagine.


[1]Joan Ferris Curran, “Numbering Your Genealogy: Sound and Simple Systems,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (September 1991): 183–193; PDF, NGSQ Archives ( 23 Nov. 2018).

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