Tag Archives: writing style

Writing: Patterns Matter

Writing Patterns Matter

Now that we are all supposed to be staying home as much as possible, you MAY find yourself with extra time. I’m going to be working on some organizing and writing projects. I will have my teens at home so I might not have as much time as I thought though I am not going to complain about having extra time with my kids. I hope you find some time to work on projects you have been putting off. But let’s keep going on my tips for writing…

When working on a piece of writing, you may not consider the writing pattern in the beginning. And that’s ok. The most important thing is to first get all of that information, knowledge, analysis, correlation, and hypotheses out of your brain, database, and documents, and onto paper (or screen). When you begin polishing the piece, you will want to consider the writing pattern.

I think of the “pattern” as “how best to tell the story.” What order should the evidence points be told in so that it makes the most sense? Or delivers the most compelling argument? Or is clear and easy to follow and doesn’t require a lot of jumping back and forth while reading? There are several patterns that genealogical writing typically follows. And which one you use will depend on the story you are telling and/or on the evidence you have to present.

Tom Jones wrote the fantastic book, Mastering Genealogical Documentation, which addresses some of these patterns and more.1 Some of the patterns I use and see most often are:

  • Building Blocks: this type of organization treats each piece of evidence like a building block, each piece building on the one before it.


  • Syllogisms: uses if-then statements (if this is true then that must be true), useful in proof arguments and case studies that depend on indirect or conflicting evidence.


  • Mystery-Style: built by asking the research question first and then making the reader wait until the end before revealing the answer, all of the evidence pieces building suspense along the way.


  • Flashback-Style: asking and answering the research question upfront and then leading the reader through the evidence to the conclusion.


It isn’t always clear when you begin writing which pattern you should use. Especially with today’s cut and paste capabilities, you can play with the writing pattern quite easily. A word to the wise: make sure you save an original and various copies before you start playing! I’m never one to discredit those who use paper over the computer screen. Consider cutting (with scissors!) sections of your writing apart and physically rearranging them on a table to give you a visual idea of what these various writing patterns might look like. This may not work as well with syllogisms, but this can definitely work when determining between mystery, flashback, or building blocks.

I find this part of the writing process to be fun, much like rearranging quilt blocks to get different patterns. Some patterns will “look” better than others. Have your writing buddy give you their opinion on which pattern to use. But most of all, do it.

1. I don’t address all writing patterns here so pick up a copy of the book and give it a read.

Writing: What’s Your Type?

When you are working on a project, it may not be clear as to what type of writing project you may end up with. There are a lot of options, anywhere from a one-page anecdote to a how-to article, THE BOOK. Here are some types of projects you might consider when working with various aspects of your research.

  • Anecdotal or Memoir-Style: short, possibly entertaining or thought-provoking tales that capture a moment or a lesson learned. I think of these as short snippets, one page or less. For example, I had the opportunity to informally interview my grandma and two of her friends when they came to visit me in Colorado. I asked about their experiences during the Great Depression in northwest Ohio. The piece was called “Losing at Euchre to Win at Genealogy” and here are a few excerpts:

“All three of them agreed that they didn’t notice the depression much. They all lived on farms that were mainly self-sustaining. They do not recall having many struggles. They just figured out how to live with what they had…

“All three of them remembered that they had a “school dress,” usually just one that they would have to change out of when they got home to save it for the next day. They received a lot of hand-me-downs for their clothes and they remember hand-making the blankets they used…

“There were big gardens on their farms; all of their food was grown at home. They canned everything to stock up for the winter. They also raised cows and pigs for meat…

“One thing they all agreed on was that they played a lot of cards growing up. Besides being fun, it is free…”

  • How-To Articles: Did you discover an interesting set of records? In your quest to break down a brick wall, did you do so in an interesting or inventive way? Did you learn a lesson that you think others might benefit from hearing about? If so, consider writing an article to share your experience. After spending years as a student and an instructor, I had formed some ideas and opinions about good and bad syllabus material and wrote an article that was published in the December 2018 issue of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly:

build a better syllabus

  • Genealogical Stories or Biographical Sketches: Maybe you have a fun genealogical story to tell that could also be turned into a teaching moment. This may be similar to anecdotal writing but typically longer. I shared the experience I had in researching a family legend which was published in the National Genealogical Society publication, the NGS Magazine in the Jan-Mar 2011 issue:

Roy Rogers

  • Case Studies: These usually consist of pulling together indirect and conflicting evidence to make an argument when no direct evidence exists. This type of writing is most often found in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.
  • The Book: This is the decades-long project to pull together all of your research regarding a particular family line or group into a large tome. These books can be quite useful when found on a library shelf. Just be sure to include citations!

I hope the breakdown of some options gives you some ideas for future writing. Not everything we do will fit into a case study, or we figured something out in a really cool way and want to share how we did it. Whatever you decide to do, please do it. But also please send it somewhere to be published. There are options from the small local society journals all the way up to the large national magazine, and points in between.