Category Archives: Genealogy Writing Tips

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.

Writing: It’s part of the GPS

For those of you who don’t know what the GPS is, in this context, it refers to the genealogical proof standard. The GPS has five components that help genealogists break through brick walls and make strong conclusions regarding tough research questions:

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research
  2. Complete source citations
  3. Analysis and correlation of the evidence
  4. Resolution of any conflicts
  5. Written conclusion of your findings

The fifth element of the GPS is often a hang-up for genealogists. I’ve talked to many colleagues who really struggle with putting their thoughts down into words. We love the chase, we love finding those documents, we often do the analysis and correlation without even thinking about it… bullet-2428875_1920

Writing about our research seems to be a sticking point.

In this new series, I will be discussing ways I have overcome some of the issues with writing about my research. Some of the topics I will touch on will include (in no particular order):

  • time management
  • consistency with writing
  • overcoming writer’s block
  • blogging
  • being organized with writing
  • finding motivation
  • genealogy standards related to writing
  • writing about conflicting evidence
  • writing styles
  • and any other writing topic that comes to mind while writing this series.

I’ve written about citations before and so may not touch on that topic in this series. But you never know.

I’ve been enjoying writing and so I hope that my tips can help you work through your writing blocks.

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.

masterfootnotes

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.