[a guest post from one of our podcast sponsors, Legacy Tree Genealogists]
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we have a lot of experience writing – not just on the part of our researchers, but also by our project managers and editors, who look over each report and make sure it is ready for publication. As you can imagine, the daily application of these skills has been very educational. Here, then, are eleven do’s and don’ts of writing family biographies using real examples from real biographies that we’ve really written…or rewritten.
1. Do begin with an interesting story or detail to engage the reader’s interest.
“With no way of knowing that a ceasefire would be signed exactly one month later, James Ralph Wilson registered for the Great War draft on 1 September 1918 in Birmingham, Jefferson, Alabama. He was 33 years old. As a salesman for the Shapleigh Hardware Company of St. Louis, Missouri, James Ralph Wilson had no home of his own and gave an address at the Edwards Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. His nearest relative was his mother, Mrs. R.O. Wilson, living 250 miles away in Irondale, Alabama.”
2. Don’t use overly sentimental verbiage.
This is not a romance novel.
3. Do use wider local and national historical context to bring your ancestors’ world to life.
“As disastrous as the Civil War was, particularly for the South, Jonathan was one of the fortunate ones who made it back home alive. This was especially amazing in view of the fact that his regiment participated in many of the most gruesome, storied battles of the whole conflict: John’s baptism by fire occurred at Williamsburg as part of the Peninsula Campaign shortly after his enlistment. He would also have been involved at the Battle of Gettysburg in summer 1863, which had the highest death toll of the entire war.”
4. Don’t use clichéd idioms (unless it is a specific one that plays an important role in your family’s verbal culture).
5. Do look outside typical genealogy sources to glean supplementary details.
“This invoice, for the cutting of cloth for a vest and coat, suggests that Washington was embarking on some adventure which required a new suit. Since we know that Washington married his wife, Nancy, in 1843, it is possible that the new vest and coat were for courting purposes.”
6. Don’t paraphrase existing biographies or histories. Beware of plagiarism!
Either include a direct quote, or rewrite the facts in a completely different order in your own words. Footnotes with citations are always helpful, too!
“‘John P. Osatiuk immigrated to Canada from the village of Waskevche, Bukovina, in Ukraine and came to the Canora district. He spent the winter in Canora, married Katie Boychuk of Buchanan. Her family was also from the village of Waskevche and came to Canada in 1906. They moved to Preeceville area in 1907 and took up a homestead, south of Lady Lake N.E. 10-35-5.’”
7. Do use visuals to add interest.
If you don’t have photos of your ancestors, consider using screenshots from Google Maps of places they lived, historical maps, images of historically-relevant artifacts, or illustrations of historical events.
|The Half Moon Inn of Heathfield, Sussex, England, where Isabella Jardine met Edwin Russell Hill in 1928. (Image from )|
8. Don’t data-dump.
Hint: If you cross out the names, dates, and places and there are hardly any words left, you need to rewrite.
9. Do include the hard parts.
It’s good for us to remember that our ancestors were people, too.
“In 1850, Alden Harrington was found living among approximately 175 prisoners of the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield, Hartford, Connecticut. Interestingly, the census enumerator recorded the prisoner’s crime in the far right column—Alden’s was listed as theft. In addition to this extra information, the enumerator also listed a year next to the prisoner’s name. No notation could be located in the census that explained this year, though it was likely the year in which the prisoner entered the prison. Next to Alden’s name was recorded the year 1850, suggesting that he was imprisoned the year the census was taken. The crimes of his fellow convicts ranged from murder and rape to horse stealing and adultery.”
10. Don’t pass judgment on your ancestors.
Tell the facts and let the readers draw their own conclusions.
“It is possible that Maude became pregnant, and the teenage couple married in order to legitimize the baby and guarantee its support. However, without their marriage record (and its exact date), we can’t know for certain.”
11. Do ask for help!
Instead of procrastinating indefinitely, let Legacy Tree Genealogists help you share your ancestors’ stories with the world!
Legacy Tree Genealogists provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA. Based near the world's largest family history library in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, Legacy Tree has developed a network of professional researchers and archives around the globe. For additional information on services visit
Exclusive Offer for Genealogy Guys followers: Receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code SAVE100.
To take advantage of this great offer, visit the link at: Genealogy Guys Podcast Offer!