Writing Tip: “Touch it Once” Citations

Genealogical writing can be daunting. There are a lot of moving pieces you have to keep in mind each step of the way. This post is going to address just one of those moving parts: CITATIONS.

Do you find citations time consuming? You may find that they stop you from making much progress, or that you just don’t write at all because they are intimidating and/or confusing. This is a tip for applying the “touch it once” principle to citations.1 If you follow the “touch it once” principle, citations can take up much less of your time.

The “touch it once” principle is a time-saving technique established by efficiency experts generally pertaining to the tasks that enter your life on a daily basis. Take an email for example. Typically, we go through our email and if one is particularly hard or time-consuming, we think “I’ll get to that later.” Then one of two things usually happens. It gets lost down your list of emails never to be seen again, or you come back to it later, read it for the second time and again say to yourself, “I’ll get to it later.” It’s the re-reading and redoing that wastes a lot of time.

Let’s look at this from a citation angle. As genealogists, there are a couple of different types. There’s the one who doesn’t do citations at all, or captures a vague title or URL. There’s the one who collects all of the information that may be needed for a citation and determines to “work on it later.” And there’s the one who crafts the citation, every semicolon, waypoint, and accessed date, right then and there.

I’m not perfect. But I’m here to tell you that as I’ve done this genealogy-thing over the years, I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’ve learned from having to redo things more than twice, and I’ve gotten into the habit of being that last person. I would guess that about 85% of the time, I craft the full citation right then and there. The other 15%, I collect what I think I’ll need and I’ll “work on it later.”

But my “touch it once” tip has one more step. Where do you store that citation once you’ve made it? That is up to you, but I encourage you to store it in a place that is easy to find, easily accessible (stored in the cloud perhaps), and in a system that makes sense to you.

My system utilizes a spreadsheet. I have each crafted citation in its own cell. Over the years, I have accumulated so many citations that I have developed a tagging system. I also capture the surnames involved and a geographic location.


As you can see from the screenshot, not every citation is in full EE style.2 This is because some of these I created back when I was a “baby genealogist.” But you can also see some symbols (***) that indicate to me that I’ve checked it against EE and it is more or less up to standard. There are names and initials in purple font in front of each citation. I use that for sorting purposes. Some citation formats don’t begin with something useful for sorting for these purposes and so I came up with this system. I also added the columns for location and surnames. The spreadsheet can be sorted by any column. You can utilize the “find” function to search for a particular word.

As we all know, the “way” we do things change over time. A lot of this has to do with new technology, digitization vs. film, for example. When I began, waypoints were not a thing. Now I find they are quite useful in certain types of citations. Many of these citations will need to be reworked a little bit as things in our industry change. But for the most part, I have a “touch it once” system. Now, when I’m writing an article, entering information into my database, writing a blog post, or anything where I need the citation, all I have to do is cut and paste. No more recreating the citation.

Another thing I do that helps me with citations comes from Standard #8, “Separation Safeguards,” in Genealogy Standards.3 I make sure that somewhere on the face of a document (whether or not I intend to print it), I also affix in a text box, the citation for that source. You can do this by putting the image in a word processor or by annotating images with software like Acrobat, Mac Preview, or Photoshop Elements. Then, if there is some breakdown in my system, at least there is a copy of that citation on that record image.

Like I said, this is a system that works for me. But it also has evolved over time and I go fix some of those old citation styles as I need to. The biggest message here is to not let citations stand in the way of your genealogical writing.

1. “The basic idea behind “touch it once” is that whenever you get an incoming task in front of you, you decide right away what to do with it.” From Zachary Sexton, “The ‘Touch it Once” Principle That Will Skyrocket Your Personal Efficiency,” AsianEfficiency (http://www.asianefficiency.com/mindsets/touch-it-once-productivity-principle/ : viewed 15 January 2019).

2. Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2017.

3. Board for Certification of Genealogists. Genealogy Standards. Nashville: Ancestry, 2014.

11 thoughts on “Writing Tip: “Touch it Once” Citations

  1. Cari,

    I am with you. Thank you for this blog post.

    My trick / tool is a bit different, but the same concept. That is to “craft my Citation” in Evernote, which is my tool box item for this. I have tried the Spreadsheet several times, but Evernote worked better for me.

    When I find a new record, the FIRST thing I do IS the hardest, that is crafting my citation. I know what our ‘gold standard it” reaching that goal is what I try to do. Where I start this process is collecting as number information about the Source that I am looking at, answering two questions, What am I looking at, and Where did I get it from. I put that information in Evernote, for that Record Type. EvidenceExplained is at hand, and read about that source in that book. I try to pick up the Pieces of data about that Source, then start crafting the Citation. My notes are in Evernote and crafted in my genealogy program.

    I capture that information in that Source, then using this new Citation, try to find that SAME document again from the Citation. OK, that worked, now the real test, is to find another claim in the same source for someone else or a different piece of information. Since I have a format I can follow, it TEST that citation in this new piece of information and make any adjustments needed. I will then do a couple more, just to make sure the citation works.

    Time goes by and I find another piece of information in that Source or one very similar. I look at my Evernote notes and repeat the process.

    This whole process, as I am learning, really works when I find conflicting information, I get to review them again along with the Information in that Source.

    Bottom Line: Touching it One Time works. But takes a few extra steps that first time, pays off in the long run, for me at least. The difference, I use a different tool from my Genealogy Tool Box

    Thanks again,


    1. Russ,
      This is a perfect example of everyone finding a system that works for them! Thanks for sharing it! As a longtime Evernote user, I am going to think about your system and see what I might implement to use that tool more effectively.


  2. I don’t use a spreadsheet, Cari, but I do admit to having a list of basic templates for the most common sources that I use. Unfortunately, I find that almost every case has something “special” about it that means the template has to be crafted and so preventing any real automation by software. At the end of an article, I also try to reduce the space taken by all the citations so that the article focuses more on the body of the work, and that means differentiating first-forms from subsequent-forms, judicious use of acronyms for organisations, only identifying a location or parish by its full name once, and an increasing use of ‘hereinafter’. I then have to tweak the HTML so that reference note markers become links, so that clicking on a reference takes you to the associated note, and clicking on the identifier by the note takes you back to the reference. The reason I’m mentioning this is that citations can still require a lot of time and effort — luckily I agree with you on their importance in supporting claims and inferences.

    1. They definitely do! Taking care of it the first time, when I locate a source saves that time later when I am trying to focus on writing. I find that doing this is a helpful defense against writer’s block and getting distracted.

  3. I build them as I write my blog posts in Scrivener. And I’m considering creating a separate Scrivener project JUST for citations…I do already have a Citation Template I keep on Google Drive in Sheets, but am considering keeping an original on my computer and then updating the Drive version as, even though I download it frequently to back up, I don’t want to lose my most recent version if Google suffers a collapse (not beyond the realm of possibility in this digital world)…

    Blogging has really helped me with my citations as it forces me to write full ones for each person’s event. Also helps cement the format in my head when I’m doing it over and over.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s