When to Start Writing

Quick reminder: you are going to die.

I forget that fact myself sometimes, thinking I have all the time in the world to do what I want to do. But I don’t. That bleak reminder has a follow-up truth for every genealogist: if we don’t record our work in some presentable format that can be distributed to others, all of our research is moot, nothing more than a temporary pastime.

Some of us depend entirely on websites like Ancestry to record our family trees, sometimes accompanied by a few vital records and censuses. Posting online is surely a form of publication, but the data presented there is more abstract than meaningful family history.

NGS members are generally a bit more sophisticated. We recognize that family trees are a far cry from family history. We recognize the value of adding details, context, and color to give us a sense of who our ancestors actually were. We recognize the need to coalesce disjointed points of data into a cohesive narrative. We recognize the need to actually write.

But have we written? For many of us, the answer is “No—not yet.”

If you’re among the not-yetters, you may be holding off until . . . well, until what? Some of us are simply procrastinating, avoiding what is often the hardest part of writing: starting. If that’s your stumbling block, one way around it is to begin by writing about why you’re procrastinating.

This feels like a giant mountain of a project, and I have no idea how to start. Should it be a giant ahnentafel of hundreds of pages? Or should it be a series of shorter descendancies? If the latter, where do I start and how do I organize that? With the immigrants of each particular line? Or some other delineator? I’ve done enough research on my Gregory family to write about them, but I’ve not done nearly enough research on my Yoachum family to write much of anything.

It might seem silly to write something like this, but it’s more effective than you might think. If you wrote this particular paragraph, here’s what you accomplished in a just a few lines:

  • You identified the problem of indecision about how to organize your writing project: as a single ahnentafel or as a series of descendancies.
  • You identified the fact that a series of descendancies requires further decision-making about how to organize that series.
  • You identified a particular line on which you’ve already conducted a substantial amount of research.
  • You identified a particular line on which you need to conduct substantially more research.

In addition to these distinct accomplishments, you also changed your brain. Having put words on a page, you are no longer stumped by the monolithic challenge of starting. You’re beyond that now. Having articulated your challenges and rendered them in black and white, you’ve given your brain specifics to focus on. Your brain is so appreciative, it has already begun to solve the problems you just identified, forming lists of to-dos, and starting to prioritize. Record those things too. Your document is a living, breathing one where you record everything, following the roadmap you find developing in front of you.

Others of us genuinely want to complete more research before we begin writing. How else do we know what we’re writing about? Some of my colleagues suggest a defined list of items that you should have accomplished and put in order before you begin writing. But my view on this purely subjective matter is markedly different: no matter where you are in your research process, no matter how much or how little you know, no matter when you read this, the best time to begin writing is today.

Say, for example, you’re just starting in earnest and know absolutely nothing beyond your parents and grandparents. Start writing about what you know (or think you know). Seek out and cite records that corroborate or correct that material. As you do this, you’ll start identifying gaps in information and inconsistencies or conflicts between records. Find additional records to fill in those gaps and resolve those conflicts. All of that information will tell you something either explicitly or implicitly about your great-grandparents. Now you’re well underway and on a trajectory.

Everything you write tells you something about what you don’t yet know. Clearly identifying what you don’t yet know makes it infinitely easier to develop an effective research plan. Following that effective research plan significantly increases the likelihood of completing your research and producing a final product you’re satisfied with. Publish and distribute that final product, and you’ve accomplished something that anyone should be proud of.

So, what do you really want to do? Are you most interested in the fun of the chase? Or do you specifically want to leave some of your knowledge for surviving family members and/or future researchers after you’re gone? Are you a family historian tasked, as all historians are, with writing and publishing your work? I personally want to focus more consciously on that task.

Ask yourself these questions honestly. Draw your own conclusion. And spend your time accordingly.

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