Are you looking for the do’s & don’ts of writing family history biographies? With thousands of hours of our own writing, review our tips, and help make your ancestors come to life!
Recently, we published a post on tips for writing a family biography that others would want to read. Perhaps that article inspired you to begin your own, or to dig up an unfinished manuscript and take a closer look. Maybe you’ve got the organization part figured out, but your writing itself needs some polishing.
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we have a lot of experience writing – not just on the part of our researchers, but also by our project managers and editors, who look over each report and make sure it is ready for publication. As you can imagine, the daily application of these skills has been very educational. Here, then, are eleven do’s and don’ts of writing family biographies using real examples from real biographies that we’ve really written…or rewritten.
1. Do Begin with an Interesting Story or Detail to Engage The Reader’s Interest
“With no way of knowing that a ceasefire would be signed exactly one month later, James Ralph Wilson registered for the Great War draft on 1 September 1918 in Birmingham, Jefferson, Alabama. He was 33 years old. As a salesman for the Shapleigh Hardware Company of St. Louis, Missouri, James Ralph Wilson had no home of his own and gave an address at the Edwards Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. His nearest relative was his mother, Mrs. R.O. Wilson, living 250 miles away in Irondale, Alabama.”
2. Don’t Use Overly Sentimental Verbiage
This is not a romance novel.
“tears could never compensate for the loss”
“mother’s arms and sweet lullabies”
“saddened the hearts”
3. Do Use Wider Local and National Historical Context to Bring Your Ancestors’ World to Life
“As disastrous as the Civil War was, particularly for the South, Jonathan was one of the fortunate ones who made it back home alive. This was especially amazing in view of the fact that his regiment participated in many of the most gruesome, storied battles of the whole conflict: John’s baptism by fire occurred at Williamsburg as part of the Peninsula Campaign shortly after his enlistment. He would also have been involved at the Battle of Gettysburg in summer 1863, which had the highest death toll of the entire war.”
4. Don’t Use Clichéd Idioms (Unless it is a Specific One that Plays an Important Role in Your Family’s Verbal Culture!)
“pillar of society”
“across the pond”
“needle in a haystack”
“kill two birds with one stone”
“barking up the wrong tree”
“went over it with a fine tooth comb”
5. Do Look Outside Typical Genealogy Sources to Glean Supplementary Details
“This invoice, for the cutting of cloth for a vest and coat, suggests that Washington was embarking on some adventure which required a new suit. Since we know that Washington married his wife, Nancy, in 1843, it is possible that the new vest and coat were for courting purposes.”
6. Don’t Paraphrase Existing Biographies or Histories. Beware of Plagiarism!
Either include a direct quote, or rewrite the facts in a completely different order in your own words. Footnotes with citations are always helpful, too!
“‘John P. Osatiuk immigrated to Canada from the village of Waskevche, Bukovina, in Ukraine and came to the Canora district. He spent the winter in Canora, married Katie Boychuk of Buchanan. Her family was also from the village of Waskevche and came to Canada in 1906. They moved to Preeceville area in 1907 and took up a homestead, south of Lady Lake N.E. 10-35-5.’”
John P. Osatiuk came to Canada from the small town of Waskevche, Bukovina, Ukraine. He wintered in Canora and then married Katie Boychuk of Buchanan. Her family also came from the same village of Waskevche, arriving in 1906. John and Katie took up a homestead in the Preeceville area in 1907.
7. Do Use Visuals to Add Interest
If you don’t have photos of your ancestors, consider using screenshots from Google Maps of places they lived, historical maps, images of historically-relevant artifacts, or illustrations of historical events.
8. Don’t Data-Dump
Hint: If you cross out the names, dates, and places and there are hardly any words left, you need to rewrite.
“⊠married ⊠ ⊠in ⊠.The couple had nine children, the first six born in ⊠: ⊠ was born ⊠, ⊠was born ⊠, ⊠was born ⊠, ⊠was born ⊠, ⊠was born ⊠, and ⊠was born ⊠.”
9. Do Include The Hard Parts
It’s good for us to remember that our ancestors were people, too.
“In 1850, Alden Harrington was found living among approximately 175 prisoners of the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield, Hartford, Connecticut. Interestingly, the census enumerator recorded the prisoner’s crime in the far right column—Alden’s was listed as theft. In addition to this extra information, the enumerator also listed a year next to the prisoner’s name. No notation could be located in the census that explained this year, though it was likely the year in which the prisoner entered the prison. Next to Alden’s name was recorded the year 1850, suggesting that he was imprisoned the year the census was taken. The crimes of his fellow convicts ranged from murder and rape to horse stealing and adultery.”
10. Don’t Pass Judgment on Your Ancestors
Tell the facts and let the readers draw their own conclusions.
“If Maude’s birthdate is correct (as several documents will attest), she was only about 13 or 14 years old when she and Howard—who was 18 or 19—married, and she had her first child before the year was out. Although average age at first marriage has fluctuated historically and often been lower than we would consider normal in the 21st century, even this degree of youth was unusual for the time. It appears likely that Maude had found herself pregnant, and the wedding was hastened in order to legitimize the baby and guarantee support. It seems that something more than young love must have acted as the catalyst to the union.”
“It is possible that Maude became pregnant, and the teenage couple married in order to legitimize the baby and guarantee its support. However, without their marriage record (and its exact date), we can’t know for certain.”
11. Do Ask For Help!
Instead of procrastinating indefinitely, let us help you share your ancestors’ stories with the world. Contact us to learn more and to speak with a project manager.
 Preeceville Historical Society (Saskatchewan), Lines of the Past (Preeceville, Saskatchewan: Preeceville Historical Society, 1982), pages 714-175, Family History Library book 971.242/P4 H2L.