Yes! All genealogists can and should write about their work. Writing is part of everyday life. All of us make lists of things to remember and to do. Some keep journals about experiences and emotions. We communicate with others in emails, letters, cards, tweets, and posts on social media, and we complete forms and surveys. During our research we take notes as we examine historical records. Writing about genealogical conclusions is an important but sometimes intimidating step in the research process.
Many researchers feel that looking at records is the fun part of genealogy. After all, that’s when they’re most likely to make new discoveries. In complicated cases, however, the “a-ha” moments won’t necessarily come while looking at one particular record. In those situations, conclusions are a result of extensive research, meticulous analysis, and careful assembly of evidence—and it is in those cases that writing about one’s work is most valuable. Writing will help the researcher grapple with details. The written work product will serve as a record for the future to remind the researcher and explain to others about the way the conclusion was reached.
Written discussions about conclusions can be included in working files, inserted in genealogy software notes, attached to online trees, or shared with family members and other researchers. They can also serve as foundations for articles submitted for possible publication—particularly if others would benefit from knowing the conclusion or if the complexities of the case would serve as a good lesson for others. Whether we intend to share our conclusions or keep them to ourselves, writing is the place to begin.
In general, the written discussion should have three sections: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.
The introduction should be no more than a few sentences long. Here is the place to explain the problem and list special considerations and situations such as missing records, conflicting information, restricted access, name changes, adoptions, or incorrect data published elsewhere. Researchers must be sure to include enough specific information to clearly identify the problem. This includes names, dates, and locations of key characters, but not all of the relevant details. The introduction ends by summarizing the conclusion. This tells readers what to expect in the upcoming discussion.
The body contains the meat of the discussion. Length varies depending on complexity, varying from a few paragraphs to multiple pages. The discussion does not rehash the research process or explain the work step by step. Instead, it focuses on the conclusion and the way the findings support it. Evidence is revealed in a logical order that allows the conclusion to gradually take shape.
Before writing about a conclusion, genealogists must identify the relevant pieces of evidence in their files by selecting those items that are important to the explanation. Some of the findings won’t be needed—and that’s all right. Researchers should select the strongest pieces of evidence, with preference given to original sources showing information from participants or eye witnesses. Once identified, it is helpful to create a list with full citations and to gather copies of pertinent documents.
The next step is to plan the best way to explain the evidence and the conclusion. Outlines help researchers organize their thoughts. Some elements of the explanation will be simpler to relate after others have been established. It is important to break the discussion into sections that build, one upon another, and to organize those sections in a sensible order. For example, say a genealogist is writing about the conclusion that Susie is the daughter of John and Mary. No record states that relationship; instead, the conclusion is based on evidence showing that Susie is Jane’s sibling, and that John and Mary are listed as Jane’s parents in several records. The discussion could start by addressing evidence of the sibling relationship between Susie and Jane. Once that is established, the focus could shift to Jane’s records identifying her parents. And finally, additional indirect evidence supporting the proposed relationship of Susie as daughter of John and Mary could be introduced.
The discussion body must include full citations to sources. This is crucial for both the author and anyone else who might look at the written piece. The citations help readers evaluate the strength of the evidence and provide a roadmap to sources, if any must be revisited.
Of course, evidence that contradicts the proposed conclusion must be addressed. Researchers must explain the conflict and justify the selection of one conclusion over the other.
The final paragraph should briefly restate the problem and the solution, tying back to the ideas in the introduction. There is no need to repeat all the details or to include citations. This section is meant to succinctly reinforce the main idea.
Ready to Write?
Genealogists don’t have to wait until they’ve reached a firm conclusion before they can write about it. It is helpful to write even while working with only a hypothesis. Doing so pushes researchers to explain the problem, the proposed solution, and the evidence pointing to the hypothesis. Having to write nudges researchers to think about the best way to present the evidence, encourages them to create and include full source citations, and to forces them to review exactly what the sources say or suggest. While organizing and writing about findings, genealogists can more easily spot flaws in their thinking and identify areas that require attention. Writing helps researchers think more clearly about the research problem.
Asking for feedback from others—including people with and without genealogical experience—is worthwhile. Armed with that feedback, written explanations can be tweaked, revised, and restructured.
Writing about conclusions requires genealogists to synthesize their thoughts and to explain their evidence and rationale. Writing is a useful and important element in the research process—and one that doesn’t have to be scary.