15 February 2011

Don't Forget to Write

Lately I see more and more discussion about writing the family history. Positively cheering! We all love the research process. We love the building of relationships and charts. We don’t love so much the citing our sources part. From the comments I see, some of us find it even harder to put it all together into written form.

Recently, Kerry of Clue Wagon opened up a nice little discussion. The little discussion took on a life of its own right into the comments. She began with genealogical software: the choices available, then why and how we use them. Kerry decided she’d put too much reliance on and expectation of software as an end product. Her post concluded that source citations and writing the history are OUR job, not that of a software program.

What is the ultimate software product? A “genealogy report”? —an automated, mechanical (boring) so-called family history? Software is just a tool, a storage tool at that. Good for data entry, but often cumbersome for real writing. In my opinion, only a word-processing program can liberate your creativity.

I hear you, those who think they have trouble writing. Maybe the mere fact of accumulating hundreds or thousands of names in your software database is what subconsciously scares the crap out of you! Feeling comfortable with writing comes with practice, practice, practice. You don’t have to write the whole family history at once. One paragraph at a time, one ancestral biography at a time.

The comments on Clue Wagon came back full circle to software preferences. Meanwhile, I particularly liked these observations, not necessarily in chronological order:

Kerry: We spend so much time and energy on being slaves to making the software fit, and we could be spending it writing or doing research.

Kerry: I'm actually finding that I sort of like doing it in Word [ed.: substitute your favourite word-processing program] ... I thought it would be awful, but it's actually kind of freeing. Who knew?

Kerry: You want the story to flow and be compelling, and no software can do that for you. I think that's one thing genealogy blogging helps you see more clearly...the need for plain old writing.

Harold: ... some of the best genealogists in the world don't use a database at all. ... There is just no substitute for a well-written, documented story of a family.

Lynn: No database can write your family history, organize it yes, but far too often we do nothing but organize and organize and never get to the writing.

Yes, some of us spurn the software for no particular reason. Building an acceptable genealogy format from scratch is a learning experience of great self-satisfaction. We savour the challenge of consistent source citations (more practice, practice, practice)—forced to think about the source it represents, its quality as evidence, and whether the germane elements are captured. And oh, the gratification of a well-constructed sentence or paragraph!

[I know, ... weird, eh? Secret pleasures. It doesn’t mean I get it right all of the time or even some of the time. But the product is all mine.]

To me, a big component of networking is encouraging, urging, people to turn those piles of research notes and database charts into writing a unique family history.

Thanks, Kerry! I hereby declare that no payment exchanged hands to promote her blog :-)

© 2011 Brenda Dougall Merriman


Kerry Scott said...

Wow, thank you for the mention...I'm so glad to see this discussion happening all over. I heard people talking about this at RootsTech too, and I think its time has come. I love technology, but I don't want to be a slave to it.

Susan Clark said...

Great post! I called a personal timeout with my database software last year and have been organizing, writing, and analyzing (not necessarily in that order). Blogging is a great tool for sharing as you go. Eventually some of what I post there will migrate to another format - book or website or both. But in the short term it's a way to eat the genealogical elephant.

BDM said...

Thank you both for taking the time to comment. I couldn't agree more about the blogging, "sharing as you go." It's also a way to share new information after you publish an opus because somehow the research never stops ... :-D

Greta Koehl said...

Excellent summary of the topic. Taking on large projects is always a problem for me; blogging helps break it down into doable bits and keeps me from being a "slave to my software." My favorite part of the software I use? The "Notes" section, where I can just copy all sorts of information that doesn't fit into the boxes.

BDM said...

Thanks, Greta. I'm still in awe of your post "Toward a Genealogical Democracy." I agree that a "gentle and welcoming approach to newbies" is always desirable, especially with the huge advent of genealogy bloggers who may be at such different skill levels, networking, and experience in general. However I maintain that aiming for profession*al* results in research, relationship analysis, and the written communication (blog or family history or what have you), benefits all of us as a credibly acceptable community of study.