Writing a great family history

Credit: Marianne Holman Prescott
Credit: Marianne Holman Prescott
Credit: Marianne Holman Prescott


The small details make a big difference when writing a quality family history, said David W. Smith during the Conference on Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University on July 29. Even the smallest details will have an impact on the history’s readability and usefulness.

Brother Smith shared four important factors to consider — preparing, writing, editing and publishing — while writing a family history.

“The steps we are going to go through — the preparing, gathering, writing and publishing — are not [necessarily] linear. You don’t prepare everything and then gather everything and then write everything,” Brother Smith said. “You do it as you go along.

“You can define the steps differently, but I have found that this helps to categorize — basically enough to keep yourself focused.”

Establishing a focus helps as individuals begin work on their family history. Determining the size of the family history and the work associated with that makes it so an individual can properly prepare.

“You want to learn about what is out there or what is already known,” he said. “The history behind the people you are going to be writing about and the context of the times as well as the geography.”

Once a broader focus has been established, individuals are able to start gathering information from their family, extended family, relatives, friends, libraries and online.

“Online is the newest approach to doing research,” Brother Smith said. “When determining what you are going to write about, the first thing you need to determine is your focus. Who are you going to write about?”

A good, solid focus — maybe a specific person, event or immediate family — provides a more narrow concentration, making it easier for the researcher to complete the task and not get distracted.

“Focus on someone. Maybe you have heard many stories about your great-great-grandmother who sailed across the ocean. Learn more about her and her family. Study her parents and her children and get information on that. You want to focus your efforts on a group of people or even just one person,” Brother Smith said.

Another factor to consider is the size of the family history desired.

“Are you going to write a T-Rex-sized family history that’s going to be 300 pages, or are you going to write a little human-sized family history that will be around 10 pages that will share a few stories?” he asked.

Determining the size and how much a person would like to write will determine how much research will need to be done.

“If all you are going to do is write the story of your grandpa as he was growing up, then you don’t need to go and research his grandparents’ history and his grandchildren’s history. The size should come after deciding the focus.”

An important element to writing a family history is figuring out the context of the person’s life. Looking at dates and geographic locations will tell more to a person’s story.

“You want to learn a little bit about the history,” Brother Smith said. “What was going on during that time period.”

If a person who was born and raised in Idaho died in 1945 in the Philippines, there is a likelihood that that person would have been in the military. Knowing some of the background of the time — history of the area, weather, what was happening — will make the history much more compelling to read.

“You want to find out the history because that will set the context of what you are going to write about,” said Brother Smith. “Learning the geography might lead you to some great stories and can also help you identify any possible errors. Geography can help clarify and set the record straight.”

Figuring out what is already known will help the researcher know what topics to pursue. Talking to family members gives individuals an idea of what is available and where the records may be.

“The family is the repository for most of the stories,” he said. “Most people keep the records in families themselves; they hold on to letters and journals. Very few people turn these historical documents over, so it is important to check with extended relatives.”

With so many resources now available online, researchers can turn to the Internet for records, contacts and archives. Many local historical societies are now making their records available online, making fewer road trips necessary.

Once the focus has been decided — and a good idea of the desired size is determined — individuals can put together an outline of their research. It is important to have someone — even just one person — look at the work to check for grammar and spelling errors before it is published.

Brother Smith shared hints for the layout of the pages, specifying that white space is important and no more than 2-3 fonts should be used throughout the publication. Sans serif and serif fonts are better than cursive fonts, and headers are necessary to break up the text.

“You should never go more than a few pages without a header,” he said. “You need them!”

Make sure the photos are not blown up larger than they are able, he taught, mentioning that if the photo is getting blurry, it should not be enlarged any more.

“Keep the size of the picture appropriate to its clarity,” he said. “Once you start to lose the clarity, you can’t go any further.”

One of the most important decisions is if a person is going to print the family history or just publish digitally. There are pros and cons to both: digital histories are easy to share and make more interactive, but the print copy will never be out of date or need new software. One idea was to create it digitally and print it so the researcher is prepared either way.

“We want to preserve the stories of the people we care about,” said Brother Smith. “If we don’t preserve and tell them well, they will be lost.”

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