Writing: Genealogy Standards

Let’s get the boring (but important) stuff out of the way first. Standards. Many genealogists I talk to either don’t know that they exist or think they don’t apply to them. I hope that you’ll at least consider them when working on your genealogy projects.

Genealogy Standards is a book published by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG). It puts into writing what many genealogists have been doing for decades, especially those who try to work at a high level of accuracy. I don’t intend that to soundBCG Standards judgy or elitist, but if you want your work to stand the test of time, to be accurate, unable to be overturned when new evidence surfaces, the standards are there to help guide you. There are standards for many aspects relating to genealogy. Those regarding writing can be found in chapter 4.

“A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion eliminates the possibility that the conclusion is based on bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence. It also shows or explains how the evidence leads to the conclusion.”1 

Some of those standards specifically (but not entirely) are:

  • Standard 59 – Proved Conclusions
  • Standard 60 – Selection of Appropriate Options
  • Standard 61 – Logical Organization
  • Standard 69 – Clear Writing
  • Standard 70 – Technically Correct Writing

When you begin writing your conclusion regarding a particularly difficult aspect of your research, you need to know what you are writing about. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? I’d like to suggest that if you aren’t clear about your research question then you will not know when you reach a sound conclusion. Be clear what you are writing about:

Who was Angeline Mitchell?

vs.

Who were the parents of Angeline, married to Thomas C. Mitchell and living in Barren County, Kentucky in 1850?

Which is the better research question? Which one will you know you’ve answered (proved conclusion) by the time you’re done writing?

Standard 60 talks about choosing the appropriate option for writing up your findings. Does your evidence warrant the use of a proof statement, proof summary, or proof argument? Do you know the difference? Think of them as being on a continuum from simple to complex.

Proofs Continuum
Proof Continuum, created by author ©2020

A proof statement can be stated in a sentence or two with appropriate citations. A proof summary might consist of a series of bullet points and/or paragraphs, with citations. A proof argument is the most complex, building a case usually through the use of indirect or conflicting evidence, much like you see in scholarly journals such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

Standards 69 and 70 discuss technically correct and clear writing. Typos, colloquialisms, spelling, grammar, jargon, and so on can make your writing difficult to read and your case unclear. Likewise, standard 61 addresses the logical sequencing of your evidence. There is some “wiggle room” with how you present your evidence, but you have to present it in a way that is clear and makes sense to the reader.

I could write a lot about the standards for genealogy. I will leave it with an encouragement for you to pick up the book if you don’t already own it and give it some study. I find the standards help guide me, especially when I am feeling stuck.


1. While this book is published by BCG, it is not just for BCG certified associates. It applies to all genealogical work. See The Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, (Ancestry: Nashville, 2019), 3.

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