9 Tips for Writing Your Family History

By Diane Haddad
Hand writing on a notepad.

Are you itching to put your genealogy research into shareable form by writing your family history? If your goal is to discover the stories of your ancestors, writing those stories in a book will help make sure their legacy lives on (and that all your efforts to document their lives won’t be wasted).

Wanting to write your family history and actually doing it are two different things. Writing is part of what I do for a living, so I wanted to share some tips that have worked for me when starting a writing project:

1. Know what you want to write about. An outline gives you a helpful framework for a story involving multiple individuals or a long span of time. Outlining your project is essential, no matter if you’re writing a formal genealogy research report or a family photo book.

2. Don’t begin at the beginning. If you’re having trouble getting started, just start writing a story you like—maybe it’s a particular ancestor’s immigration story, military service or venture to the wrong side of the law. The words will begin to flow from there. You can always rearrange later.

Also, no one said you have to start your book with the earliest chronological event. Instead, begin with the most dramatic moment, such as your immigrant ancestor stepping off the ship that brought him to America, or purchasing the land that enabled his family’s farming success. Then you can jump back to cover so-and-so’s birth.

3. Use prompts. If you’re still having trouble knowing what to write, try answering the family history writing prompts in a book such as Stories From My Grandparent or a tech tool such as Saving Memories Forever.

4. Remember: You’re not carving in stone. You can always edit your words and move the pieces around, so take the pressure off yourself and don’t worry about making the story perfect in your first (or second, or third) draft.

5. Write naturally. If you’re writing for relatives, pretend you’re telling your family story to a friend. If you’re writing for a publication, tailor your work to that publication’s style.

6. Organize your thoughts with apps. Writing apps can help you create an outline, organize and edit your story. I’ve heard good things about Scrivener ($45), which is like Evernote but especially for writing projects. Here’s a link to more writing apps.

7. Seek inspiration. Read published family histories for examples. One of my favorites is Family by Ian Frazier.

8. Don’t delay. Start now and work on your writing project a little at a time once a week or every evening if you can manage it. Imagine where you’ll be a year from now!

9. Get help. Look for writers’ groups and classes in your community. From online groups to friends and family members, having a community you can rely on for feedback and encouragement is essential.