How to Write a Professional Genealogy Research Report
Whether you are writing a genealogy report for your family or you aspire to become a professional genealogist, thorough and accurate documentation is an essential skill. Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Robert Call provides six core components that professional genealogists use that can help make your research more organized and enjoyable for others to read.
Writing is an important part of the genealogy pursuit. In genealogy, the simplest form of writing we might do is data entry—entering the names, relationships, dates, and places—into an online or offline family tree. Make no mistake, data entry may seem “simple,” but the work that goes into uncovering that data is frequently quite exhaustive and we must be careful to be accurate with our data entry. It can be satisfying to weave that data into written stories—short life sketches, a book, a blog post, etc.—that illuminate the lives of our ancestors. Our research may be presented in an article or volume organizing vital information for the descendants or ancestors of a particular person.
Another form of genealogical writing is the research report. It is the report that is the focus of this blog article.
Professional genealogists and hobbyists alike compose research reports to fulfill a critical function of our work. At its core, the purpose of a research report is to document and communicate what was done to meet the research goal(s). At Legacy Tree Genealogists, the report is at the heart of our deliverables. Clients purchase our expertise to be devoted to their questions for a specified amount of time and the report presents what was done in pursuit of answers.
Research reports are useful for non-professional research as well; in fact, we recommend using them when appropriate in your personal research. The work we do, whether for others or ourselves, can benefit greatly because reports do more than simply account for the time spent towards a goal. Reports also assist in the analysis process. They fulfill the fifth point of the Genealogical Proof Standard, which is “a soundly reasoned, coherently written [emphasis added] conclusion based on the strongest available evidence.”
Reports can save valuable time by communicating what research has been done so that future researchers will not duplicate efforts. Reports can be shared with others who may be interested in the topic. I have written reports for myself and have taught my former students—most of whom were only interested in college genealogy classes for their own research—to write reports. Therefore, even if you have no intention of writing a research report for a client, what you will learn in this article will improve your personal genealogy research.
Genealogy research reports often have at least six core components:
- Research Objective
- Background Information
- Research & Analysis
- The Conclusion
- Research Recommendations
- Executive Summary
These components may be phrased or organized differently, but the purposes for each component remain the same. For example, at Legacy Tree Genealogists, one of our report formats is as follows: goals (research objective), progress (executive summary), recommendations (research recommendations), background information, the body, and the conclusion. We’ll delve into each of these components so that you can understand the purpose of each section and what to expect from a report.
The research objective or research goal is where the research should be focused; therefore, it is critical that the goal is defined accurately and is understood by everyone involved. In writing a report, it is important to include the goal at the beginning because it signals to the reader what the topic of the report is, which provides context for understanding the content.
Let’s talk a bit more about goals. The beginnings of a research goal are often expressed as general interests. Some examples include: “I want to know who my ancestors were.” “I want to know more about my ancestors.” “Grandma always talked about her grandfather who fought in the Civil War. I want to know more about him.” “My family is Irish, and I want to know who my immigrant ancestor was.”
Our team at Legacy Tree Genealogists will work with you to turn these interests into specific goals that our researchers can work towards, such as, “Extend all ancestral lines of Jane Doe. Jane was born on 18 August 1924 in Chicago, Illinois, and was the spouse of John Smith.”
You’ll notice that this goal is composed of five elements: the specific objective (“extend all ancestral lines”), the full name of the research subject or starting ancestor (Jane Doe), a date (18 August 1924), a place (Chicago), and a relationship (husband John Smith). Each of these components is critical because they serve as identifiers for where our research begins and indicators of the direction of our research.
If the goal had fewer or unclear details, we may start in the wrong spot in the family tree or focus on the wrong interests. The analogy I like to use is this: If a genealogist were to find the goal written on a slip of paper blowing down the street, they should be able to pick it up and begin research with some degree of confidence that they are on the right track without knowing anything else. Of course, additional background information is welcome—in fact, it is often critically important—but at a minimum, a goal needs a specific objective, name, date, place, and a relationship to allow us to start our work.
Another critical element to include is a section outlining what was known about the objective prior to undertaking new research. Doing so brings the reader up to speed on previous research before new research begins. Including background information lays a foundation that helps us to understand why certain research avenues were pursued or not.
The length of this section often depends on the amount and relevancy of information provided at the beginning of the project. For instance, an adoptee may only have a few clues about his or her birth and biological parents, and it may not take long to recap that information in a couple of sentences. On the other hand, someone may come to us with scores of documents gathered over decades on a family line or brick wall problem. Summarizing extensive research such as this may take more space in the report.
Reviewing these documents and describing that review in the report, is a critical step because doing so will reduce duplicated effort, help determine if an accurate analysis has been performed, and reveal what research avenues have not yet been pursued.
For instance, if a researcher knows that all federal census entries for an individual have been found previously, then there is no need to spend time looking for those same documents. And, if those previously located censuses are described in the background section of the report, then the reader will understand why that work was not done during the research session.
When reviewing background information, we sometimes discover errors in the family tree that need to be corrected. Explaining these errors in the background section of the report will help the reader understand why steps were taken to rectify those errors. Lastly, it may become apparent while reviewing background information that a potentially helpful record or type—such as county property records—had not yet been consulted and could be examined during the research session.
One project I had a few years ago began with a man born in the mid-1700s in Colonial America with the goal of extending his ancestry. The client provided numerous historical documents about this man, and it could have been presumed that he was well-researched since there appeared to be so many documents about him.
However, as I began reviewing those documents, it quickly became apparent that multiple men of the same name in the same region had been “merged” into one fictitious man who had fought in the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War. Reviewing these background documents resulted in starting research at a more recent generation, with the client’s approval, to ensure those correct ancestral identities, and therefore the correct pedigrees were discovered.
Another example may be insightful. I once had a research project where the client wanted to know where in Ireland her family lived before immigrating to the United States around the year 1900. The client provided a large, well-organized binder of documents which was the result of years of research.
When reviewing this information, it was determined that the client was correct in her conclusion about the specific place of origin for the family in Ireland. This meant that future researchers were free to move forward with extending the ancestry in Irish records, confident that the correct family lines were being followed.
What the client needed was a set of professional eyes to evaluate the work to ensure that good methods had been employed and that correct analysis had been performed. Reviewing the documents took a lot of time but eliminated duplication of research, ensured that correct conclusions had been reached, and determined that nothing more needed to be done relevant to the goal of identifying the Irish town of origin.
For these reasons, it is important that all background information is provided at the beginning of a research project, reviewed by the researcher, and is summarized in the report.
Research & Analysis
The body of the report is focused on describing the research, analysis, and conclusions that occupied most of the research time. The structure of this section will vary greatly from project to project and is tailored to the unique needs of each project.
Genealogical research is sometimes thought of as only pedigree charts, family group records, copies of historical documents and photos, and family stories. Underlying all of this is the extensive research and analysis needed to uncover those end-products. That research and analysis must be described in a report because doing so provides evidence for the conclusions presented in those other end-products. Without evidence, the accuracy of our family trees is questionable.
Genealogical conclusions are often nuanced and require a detailed explanation that is best conveyed in a report format rather than a simple pedigree chart or family group record. The Board for Certification of Genealogists describes three types of written “proofs” that are appropriate for different situations. These are proof statements, proof summaries, and proof arguments.
As may be surmised, these categories advance from the most basic to the most complex, and typically follow the complexity of the research problem. Proof statements are used when good research produced a reliable conclusion that needs no explanation. If a conclusion is perhaps a bit more complex, a proof summary can be used to quickly outline in paragraph or list form why it is believed the conclusion is correct. For the most complex genealogy problems, detailed explanations may be presented in the more involved argument format—think persuasive essay—that clearly explains why the conclusion is correct.
One aspect of genealogy reports that is crucial is an explanation of the research scope. Describing the scope conveys what was and was not done in pursuit of meeting the objective, which signals to the reader the degree of reliability of the conclusions.
Genealogical research is an investigation using historical documents and DNA test results, when appropriate, to reach conclusions about individuals and family relationships. As with any other type of investigation, our genealogical investigations must be thorough to rule in or out hypotheses that could impact the validity of the conclusions. A lawyer cannot stand up in court and simply say, “Yeah, we investigated the situation, and our client is innocent,” and expect the jury to believe it. Rather, the lawyer must also present evidence proving the client’s innocence. Similarly, genealogy reports must present evidence of why each conclusion is correct.
Throughout this blog article, I have used the word “conclusion” in the sense of “an opinion or decision that is formed after a period of thought or research.” Let’s switch gears and think of a conclusion as it is used for writing essays in school, meaning the final summary of the report. Conclusions are great ways to bring home the main points of the report, especially after examining a complex research problem.
Writing the conclusion is an opportunity to perform a high-level assessment of whether the research objective, defined at the beginning of the report, was met and what was done to meet that objective. Conclusions are not a time to rehash everything, but to highlight the major points.
Genealogy reports also include a list of recommendations for future research. If the goal was not met during the client’s purchased time (either because the problem was quite complex and/or there was not enough time to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard), then the recommendations can include research avenues for future researchers. If the goal was met, the recommendations may suggest new goals and what can be done to achieve them.
Providing recommendations in a report can make things more efficient in the long run because the researcher often has good ideas about what needs to be done to solve the problem at hand if additional research time will be available in the future. These recommendations can provide a jump-start for the next research session.
The last section to discuss is the executive summary. Although it is almost always included at the beginning of a report, the executive summary is often one of the last sections to be written.
The executive summary offers a solution by providing a high-level overview of the major findings discussed in the report. Placing this summary at the beginning can serve as a guidepost, by signaling to the reader the important takeaways they should look for when reading the rest of the report.
Writing has an important spot in the world of professional genealogy. Research can be presented in many written formats that each have a proper use and function. In professional genealogy, the research report is the most common means of communicating the work we do for our clients. Reports have several critical components that each serve an essential purpose that ensure clients receive a high-quality product that meets professional standards.
If writing a genealogy report is outside of your skillset, time, or interest, Legacy Tree Genealogists is always available to assist. We have tens of thousands of hours of experience crafting proof summaries and biographical narratives for our clients. Contact us today to request a free quote!
 Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, second edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Ancestry, 2019), p. 1-2.
 Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, second edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Ancestry, 2019), p. 34-35.
 Merriam-Webster, entry for “conclusion,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conclusion, accessed December 2021.