Making Good Genealogy Habits

Improvement in any area often comes down to improving habits. That includes our genealogy research. Better genealogy habits makes for better research. Here are five habits that will help improve your genealogy.


You can listen to the audio:

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 14

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 15 minutes.

Or watch the video (or scroll below to keep reading):

Read the Introduction to Sources

Though it's natural to want to dive right in and start searching in a new source, take a minute to read the introduction. This is true whether it's a book, a database, a website, or a set of original records. 

Learning more about the source will help you avoid erroneous conclusions. If you use a database or a book called "Indiana Marriages, 1800 to 1900" and you don't find your ancestor listed, you might conclude that your ancestor wasn't married in Indiana between 1800 and 1900. However, it could be that the county where he was married isn't included in that book or database. It could be that the year he was married wasn't included. Reading the introduction can help you avoid making the wrong conclusion. 

Play With Search Terms

Don't be a "one search and done" kind of genealogist. Get into the habit of playing with different ways of searching. Not surprisingly, different search terms usually give different results. However, we usually don't embrace that as a good thing. 

What happens if you leave the first name out of the search? What happens when you add or omit a location? 

Cite Your Sources

(You had to know this one was coming!) Citing sources not only allows us to recreate our research, but it also helps us evaluate what we have. It may seem daunting at first, but it does get easier with practice. 

One way to avoid citation stress is to focus on the elements of what goes into a good source citation, rather than worrying about where the commas go. I've put together a quick guide on the elements of a good source citation. Click the orange button below to get it:

Ask a Research Question

Get into the habit of asking a research question before you start to research. This will help you focus. Instead of just sitting down "to research," ask a question. "Where and when did Philip Everts die?" "What was the maiden name of Philip Everts' wife Catherine?" Looking for Catherine's maiden name will take you on a different path than searching for when and where Philip died.

I’ve had students in my Generations Cafe Circle tell me that asking a question before researching has really helped them focus their research. It's a simple thing, but it is so effective.

Write More

We talk a lot about researching, but what about after we research? What do we do with it? I think that one of the most overlooked areas of genealogy is writing.

Are we leaving all of your discoveries in your genealogy software? If so, I can almost guarantee you that your research will not outlive you. Taking those conclusions and stories and writing about them will get them into a format that others can more easily use. 

Writing about your ancestors is not only a way to preserve your research, it’s also a good research aid. There's nothing quite like spelling out what you know about someone to show what you don't know about someone!

It doesn't have to be dozens and dozens of pages. How about a couple of paragraphs explaining a probate file or how the land passed through several generations of the family. Tell the stories. Share the discoveries. 

If you're stumped about who and what to write about or you just want to challenge yourself to write more in the new year, I encourage you to check out my free writing challenge called 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. It’s a free challenge. Each week is a different prompt to spark ideas for your writing.

Your Turn

What is a good genealogy habit that you've developed? What habit do you want to work more on? Let me know in the comments below!

Making Good Genealogy Habits
Posted: December 27, 2018.

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  • Thanking you for being a blessing Amy! I need to work on consistently playing with different searches. That worked for me recently and helped me find the death record of a great-grand aunt.

  • Season’s greetings to you, Amy. I enjoy reading your blog. Thank you for the “learning” aspects of genealogy but also for your “challenges.” In 2019 I am going to do the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. I look forward to another year of great information and encouragement from you and your followers as they share their stories.

  • Asking a research question is definitely a habit I need. I can spend an hour researching, surfing one rabbit hole to another, rarely focusing. Answering a specific question will keep me on track. I also need to write more. Thank you for the suggestions.

    • Ah,yes – focus on one thing at a time. I, too, find myself getting sidetracked ‘surfing rabbit holes’ is a good description!

  • Great suggestions and I would add “sharing” as an important habit. Even if you think others are not interested or your story is not good enough, you never know what will happen in the future when someone comes across your work. Think what it would be like if you found some old papers that contained a story about an ancestor.

  • I tell people that a genealogy that isn’t well documented is just family lore. So yes, document everything, 6 ways to Sunday! Also I look for more than one source for a specific event. Sometimes you can get different information on a 2nd source. I have also started using the the ‘web links’ section in It is an easy way to transfer a quantity of information, document where it came from, and an easy way to get back to the information.

    • I agree with documenting using other sources. This is something I have grown to do. There are many, many ways on the internet now–not saying the internet is the only source.

  • I need to work on actually using the web resources I’ve found. When I find a site that looks interesting, I make a note of it, and usually search for one or two names that “should” be there, but I rarely explore all the pages on the site. I’m sure I’m missing lots of good information. So many sites, so little time!

  • Oh how I wish I could stay on the one subject. when looking for something or someone and I find another link to someone totally different. I have the bad habit of heading off on another tangent. It’s hard not to, as it is usually something I hadn’t seen, heard or knew about. Perhaps I’m lacking discipline. Uninterrupted time is my problem, maybe this year will be different 🙂 Thank you Amy for all your wonderful hints and advise, you are brilliant!

  • Some good reminders. I think another important habit is to check the numbers. I have come across many online trees where the dates don’t make sense, such as mother’s being too old or too young or children being born after parents died – all things that family history software flags, but people still make the mistakes and leave them in the trees they share.

  • A good habit to develop is to step back and look at the data logically. If Mary Smith died in 1865 did she realistically have a son born in 1867. It’s sounds obvious but sometimes we get so excited about the discovery we forget to check that it really fits into what we already have solid data on.

  • Thanks for the article. I was inspired by your 52 ancestors challenge to start my own blog to bring my ancestors to life. I have been struggling with when and how to cite sources.

  • Great tips here – good reminders for us all, Amy. My favourite habit I have is that I always [always] keep a pad of paper beside me as I search, writing down how I searched, where, and when. Often, just writing it all down stimulates more search ideas. And I love to search in weird combinations of names and places, and see what comes up. Curiosity is so important.

  • What a great collections of tips! I can thankfully say that I already do all of these things but that only started a few years ago… 25 years of unguided research preceded my development of good research habits.

    I would add one thing that really helped me the most and I would add it to your “Write more” section; also write more DURING the research process. Write, research plans, research summaries, research reports, proof arguments, next steps to research, etc.. It really helps you think things through when you have to put int into words. I’ve resolved enigmas during this process by forcing myself to put things into sentences and tables instead of just plugging the data in software. I use to solely collect snippets of information in genealogy software and that was my research. I would work on all ancestors without a focussed plan and when I would return to a specific ancestor, I would have to reassess everything I had already found and what I needed to do next. Now, I take a quick read of previous research questions, plans and summaries and I can re-focus on a research area within minutes!

    I wish I had read your blog 25 years ago! 🙂

    • I keep a file on each family or person I research and in that file I have a document–a “Search These Sources” like sources to search in the future or next time I come back to that person or family. I could also jot questions to ask. Then when I return to that file, I have some direction.

  • I have absolutely LOVED the #52Ancestors this year! When the prompts arrive, I consider all the ancestral stories I have gathered and written then write a few paragraphs to accompany each prompt. I share mine on Facebook each week. The feedback has been delightful, and I am pleased that so many readers enjoy the stories.

  • A favourite ‘habit’ of mine is to take a really large sheet of paper, A2 or so, and write down what I know about the person (or situation etc) of what I am working on, in a series of statements. Then I examine and cross examine it as if I’ve never seen it before and ask questions about it, which also go on the sheet and can lead to next steps and which also can throw up discrepancies. Having the large space to work on seems to encourage me to add in associated information, get an overview, think out of the box, brainstorm, and so on in a relaxed and often productive sort of a way.
    I also have loved the 52 Ancestors challenge, and have found that writing about something also brings up questions

  • Hi! So I have a confession to make: I am a Magpie Genealogist with Bright, Shiny Object Syndrome. “Hi, Christy!” (There really should be a 12-step group for this affliction. Smile.) I have spent years “surfing down rabbit holes” as somebody else posted. I am in the process of organizing my genealogy again so that I can make sense of it — and, more importantly, that those who come behind me can make sense of it. I am going to put their family in the #1 spot and have all the ancestors relate to them so that they will not throw away my genealogy when I pass since I will be tricking them into thinking that this is all about their family, which it is, of course. So I am chipping away little by little at my backlog and working on improving my habits going forward. I found this blog at the beginning of the year when next week’s guest, Janine Adams, was on talking about organizing your genealogy. I went immediately to her blog and voila! I got inspiration to get my act together. Looking forward to hearing you and Janine again, Amy, as I am working my way through your podcasts in sequence.