The Fallacy of Writing Your Family History

There seems to be a spectrum of family history writing, ranging from "I don't want to write anything" to "I want to publish the definitive book about my ancestors." No matter where you might fall in that range, there's a common fallacy that might be keeping you from writing your family history. 

The Fallacy of Writing Your Family History


Why We Need to Write About Our Family History

With all that we have going on in our lives, why do we need to be bothered writing about our family history to begin with? Glad you asked.

Writing is an under-utilized research tool. When you take the time to organize your findings into a conclusion, you're forced to see what fits, what doesn't, and what's missing. 

Writing preserves our work. When you write, others can more clearly see what you've done. They won't have to wade through your genealogy software, filing cabinets, binders, and folders to recreate it. 

Writing connects us. Many people blog as a form of "cousin bait" — a way to let others know about their research interests in the hope of finding others with that same interest. 

By the way, "writing" doesn't have to mean "book." It could be a blog, a handwritten notebook, a scrapbook page, a series of emails — anything that turns a series of facts into prose. 

The Fallacy and the Failure

Too seldom do we stop our research long enough to actually write something. Instead, we just keep looking for more and more records. I think part of it is a fallacy that we tell ourselves:

"It needs to be complete before I publish."

Somehow, we convince ourselves that it needs to be "complete." It needs to the book, with all of the descendants accounted for, with their vital events, and fully documented. 

This sets us up for failure. We either keep researching (and telling ourselves that we'll publish when it's "done") or we give up on the idea of writing because it seems way too daunting. 

In either case, we're losing out. 

What We Can Do to Write More Genealogy

First, we need to accept that there is no such thing as a "complete" genealogy. There is always something else to find. (Think there aren't some more people to find? Take a DNA test.) Even if you have managed to identify all of the descendants of an ancestral couple, for example, there will always be more you can discover about them.

Waiting to write your #genealogy until it's complete means it will never be written.

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Second, we need to accept that "complete" doesn't have to mean all ancestors or all descendants. It's perfectly alright to write about one family, one person, or one event. Anything we write about is progress, not only in our research but also in preserving our research and connecting with others. (I've heard from numerous people taking part in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge that writing on "smaller," more focused topics has helped them share with relatives who previously showed no interest in family history.) 

This isn't to say we should do shoddy work. We should strive to be as accurate as possible. But we also need to accept that our work will have errors. We are all human and humans make mistakes.

We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

We miss out on valuable opportunities to improve our research, preserve our discoveries, and connect with others when we don't write. We need to pull ourselves out of the trap of "completeness" and just write something

The Fallacy of Writing Your Family History
Posted: February 23, 2018.

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  • Thank you for this! I haven’t done any blogging about my family history in a few years. I have my mind set to write a scrapbook for my German ancestors on my Mom’s side, her grandparents are the immigrants. It’s the only line that I’ve made it across the pond with. I want to share where they came from, why they left, and their journey to America. I get so caught up in wanting to tell the “whole story” that I haven’t written anything. It’s never really done. My mom and her siblings aren’t get any younger, though. Maybe it would help to gather my thoughts one story at a time and then compile them into something printed.

    I mean, my blog is even named after my Dad’s side. Do I need to have a separate one for Mom’s so my cousins don’t get confused?

    • Definitely start now! If you can share anything that you find with your mom and her siblings, you might be amazed at what else they tell you. Stories have a way of triggering memories 🙂

      For the sake of simplicity, I’d recommend keeping everything on one blog. Your cousins aren’t going to be confused by the URL.

  • Thank you so much for this topic. I fit in you reasons of why I can’t write my story. Mine is not a family history but the history of an abandoned family cemetery. I was hoping to use the 52 week tutorial to get started but I’m still not there. With this encouragement, maybe I willl be able to compile the information I have gatheredand begin my book!

  • After receiving a number of family photos. I put together a page for each member of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters and there children. As I went through the family I found new information, had to change some, made contact with family I didn’t know about. I put together with pictures and put into a book, which I shared with family. I am currently working on my Mother’s father’s family it goes slowly but worth the effort. A family tree is looking like the dishes and laundry they are never done. Writing about each person can be eye opening, and surprising. Thanks for this reminder.

  • My grandfather, Horatio Nelson Mather, had a son it’s the same name who seems to have been married several times. The first one I found was to a Mary Wheeler in Ohio. Next he married in Kansas and then in CA. He died in Colorado in 1917 BUT the same Mary above is listed in the same cemetery with what must be another Horatio Mather, no middle initial

  • Thank you for such an encouraging post. I enjoy the writing aspect of family history as much as the detective research element. I found at an early stage, it helped to get what I knew down on a page as a narrative, as it helped identify gaps in my research or provided a lesson for me to be more careful in my transcribing of records! Blogging is a great way to start in writing short ancestor profiles, so I heartily recommend to anyone to dip your toe in, by following your “52 Ancestors in 52 week’s” – you needn’t write every week if that doesn’t fit in with your lifestyle – no pressure!! Just write and share your family history stories.

  • Since I started writing the 52 weeks blogs I have discovered how much I really do know about my ancestors (that was buried in my brain and my papers). My family is enjoying my stories immensely. Thank you for this reminder that instead of being frustrated with my brick walls, I should start writing what I know right now about the ones I have already discovered before it is too late. P.S. I never know what I will be able to write, but when I get started, it flows out and I write pages full! Thanks Amy.

  • I just posted a note to 52 Ancestor’s.. about my first experience in writing a family history. After a few false starts, I found that focusing on one generation’s life time, such as one set of great grandparents, What I thought would amount to 25 – 50 pages in length, ended up being 166 pages, after other family members began to share what they had. It ended up becoming a family project, with family helping to edit the text, provide more photo’s, letters and more. We ended up having 60 copies printed, and we donated 5 copies to local libraries and the county historical society.
    Currently work is going on to do another one for another set of great grandparents and one for my paternal grandparents. Both are at the rough draft stage and research, collection of photos and documents is going on daily.
    It is really worth the effort and time to write a family history. It will live on beyond your life time for future generations. You are not writing something to make the bestseller list, it is just information about your family!

  • Glad you absolved me from writing a book. I am beginning today to write letters to all my aunts and uncles’ descendants looking for photos. It will certainly help organize my research just following the descendant trail.

  • Interesting article that brings out some good points. Stay of track for writers is always an issue. When possibly looking at one’s family history we find we have several. You have both your paternal and maternal histories. You can end up writing about several of your different family linked surnames. I also found that yes, it is important to write about them but, you will have errors and omissions. Getting the information out there for others to review and if your lucky make some comments back. These comments can sometimes help to expand your family history. So, if the book, blog, website or whatever is not complete publish it anyway. The more people write something about their family history the better the chance of everyone connecting.
    Don’t forget to include some family details when you are taking a DNA test. This will also help others connect with you.
    Paul Caverly

  • I can relate completely! I was firmly in the “can’t get started because it’s so overwhelming” camp, but your 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks initiative was the incentive to get me going, and I have found writing to be so much fun!! Doing it in bite-size chunks and having an interesting theme that varies each week makes it easy & motivating. Thanks!!

  • I started because when I realized my kid didn’t know what Veteran’s Day is I decided to put together an album of the veterans in the family. My mom helped by getting photos for me. There was one uncle who didn’t share a photo and I procrastinated putting it together. Then I let it go and just pulled together what I have. Since, I have found Civil War and Revolutionary War veterans and I certainly don’t have the photos but have the documentation and in some cases the gravestone photo. Now I have an album that spans from 1776-2000.

  • This is a very informative article that is filled with encouragement that we all need. Several books on my family have been published since the early 1980s, with the last one appearing more than 20 years ago and out of print. Those books just contained facts, like birth, death, and marriage dates, and were as dull as dirt. The writers of those books are now deceased and I have the honor of taking it to a new generation. However, I want to make it interesting with history of the areas and stories. My family lived in Virginia during Revolutionary and Civil Wars and so there is much to write about. My question is what is the best medium? Should it be a blog, web page, newsletter or book. Someone, recently advised me to try Create Space. Have you any experience with that?

    • I’d say go with whatever feels the most comfortable to start with. Setting up a blog can be a good way to start. It’s flexible. You don’t have to write things in a certain order. Then maybe when you see some themes develop, you can take that work and turn it into a book.

    • Don, Have you investigated “The Family History Writing Studio”? I don’t mean to offend by plugging The Armchair Genealogist on Amy Johnson Crow’s blog but It might give you some ideas on making your family history less dry. I have not decided how I feel about “creative non-fiction” but it is an interesting concept. And I have gotten a lot of encouragement at the site.

  • When I sit down to write my blog, each time, while writing, I check my facts and end up becoming mired in more research. I never end up with the same blog I thought I was going to write and I always discover something new. A true pleasure is in having that 3rd cousin discover you because of your blog and the new information they generously share. You have been a great mentor.

    • Thank you. That is so kind of you to say. (And I, too, have that experience of starting to write one thing and end up with something completely different!)

  • You are so right. I am trying to be better about writing out the family stories. I have started to put up these family summaries on FamilySearch under the “Life Sketch” tab. This helps me to share what I have learned and, I hope, to find others who share these ancestors.

    • I’m new here but your suggestion to look at Family Search is new information to me. I know nothing about it but will check it out asap. Thank you! I’ve been building a family tree using Amazon but have not thought about writing family stories! I am a retired teacher and I used to teach writing to High School Students. I have an entire new way of looking at my search for ancestors!
      Gmana Jane
      I actually have an old blog called Grandmama’s Stories that used to be Manila about my quilting. I wanted to write about family but became sidetracked with Quilting. I could even use the same name and begin writing my family’s Stories!

  • I’ve started doing the 52 Weeks challenge this year, and it’s really helped me getting things clear. I have so many snippets of information – some are certificates, some are newspaper documents, some are in letters, and some are just in my head – and turning them into a coherent narrative really enables me to see how they fit together. The only trouble is that each prompt leads to more than one blog post… the Valentine one has produced a miniseries of 4 posts 🙂

  • I wrote my first “book” three years ago re: my ancestors on my dad’s side in Texas back to the early 1830’s. Along the way I researched others outside of and earlier than those folks. After that printing and sending to my family and friends, I returned to that research only to find myself still working on that and not writing. I even retied to “write’ and haven’t done it yet.

    Yes, there are more folks to research–but the task just increases.

    I appreciate your attention to this topic for it gives me encouragement to go ahead and “write” on those I have researched.

    Thanks much

  • I started a genealogical and historical blog about 8 months ago, and one of my blog posts has helped put in motion a memorial to a Civil War cousin killed on the Sultana. The memorial celebration is to be May 6 of this year. The researching is enjoyable, but compiling all the information into something that makes sense and is readable puts me in a stalled position sometimes. Your encouragement to people gets me started again.

    • What a fascinating project! I’ve always felt so bad for those on the Sultana. So many survived the war and Andersonville only to get killed on the way home.

  • I enjoyed your post. In my genealogy classes, I also encourage people to write their family histories. I also encourage them to write their own stories. Who better? You have the documentation,. You can tell it from your perspective. You can tell about the events that were really important in your life. What a treasure for your grandchildren! I add a story to my own, every now and then, when I think of a story I want to tell.

  • Well said! I’m finding that writing for 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is getting my creative juices flowing and my sisters are getting the benefit of a memory boost to add other details. I have never planned on writing a family book but who knows! One might happen! Thank you for the inspiration!

  • Right on target! Everything said points to me. I have had a genealogy blog for several years. I tell people only dead people’s information is posted on my blog with some exceptions. Just last week I started on a line I hope to make into a book. I call it my soap opera line. I have been researching my paternal/paternal line for some years so of course know it well. To converse with my family they get lost in the first paragraph I speak. Last week I posted the introduction only and want to do a little bit at time to help my family keep it straight, only to have questions already of confusion. So today I am preparing a post to clear up the confusion and think though future posts more carefully. I use facebook to ‘advertise’ when a new post has been added.
    Thank You for your help.

  • Amy, you couldn’t be more right! When I first began The 52 ancestors project I thought that I’d be able to write a blog post once a week for a couple of hours. But I quickly learned that each post requires a weeks worth of thinking, organising, researching time/place, and finally writing! And through that process I end up making discoveries and identifying new avenues to explore. The process is priceless! Thank you so much for organising this project!

  • I always thought I would write that huge book with all the information I discovered about my ancestors. Never going to happen. So I started a blog several years ago as part of the 52 Ancestors. I am doing the 52 Ancestors again. But about that big book. I took a piece I wrote on the blog about my dad, added some pictures and printed as a Chatbook with copies for my family. I plan to do that with other individuals or family units. Even a few little books are better than the big book I’ll never write.

  • Agree totally. I try to create photo books, including old family photos, maps, etc., and I use them as prompts to write in small segments. Now when I get a chance to do the longer history, I’ll have parts already written. And it’s true that when you write, you realize both where the gaps in your understanding are and how much you already know.

  • I am taking part in the 52 Ancestors project and loving it, and judging by comments it gets from family members so are they. I am writing in a family Facebook page but saving what I write as a word document to publish as a booklet when the 52 weeks are up.
    A few years ago, on the insistence of my niece, I wrote about my childhood and growing up in the 1950s in rural New Zealand. Just like Amy she sent me prompts. I loved it and once I started the stories flowed. I added photos, photocopied and had it spiral bound. It was a hit!
    I’ve now started on our family’s genealogy story adding a few historical notes and photos. I’ve only started and as I write I add questions I think people may ask, I’ll go back and complete these later. Along with my 52 Ancestors I’m hoping it will prove another hit!

  • I’ve been a few years researching and writing my ‘big’ book. It has been inspired by my granny who was a lovely person but also brave and good. Secondly by my Mum who gave me a love for research and writing and thirdly, I have been fortunate to come across distant cousins who have passed on a valuable body of information and letters written in 1877, 1916 and 1933. These were amassed by another distant cousin in the 1930ies who was actively collecting information form family in three continents for a book. I feel I owe him to write down what he passed on and what I have discovered since. I have discovered new records and stories.

    But I think it will never get published in any form. So what is holding me back? It is copyright. I’ve drawn heavily on documents provided by the big genealogical sites who in turn have databases with their own copyrights. I have carefully documented each item of information as I like to know where I found it but I can’t afford to incur fines or perhaps even pay for copyright clearance in the first place – the references are too many. Some copyright owners are not to be found. I’ve tried. How do others cope?

    By the way, I love the weekly prompts. I find I am able to think of something else and have been keeping up. They will come in useful when I write about my other family members – when I get there! Thanks you so much.

  • Thank you for your suggestions, very helpful. I agree with you. I started writing Facebook posts for my family about two years ago. Looking back it’s hard to believe how many I’ve posted. I’ve learned new, fun things about family from the comments. I usually draft a post, set it aside, then review it for clarity with fresh eyes several days later. I’m currently looking into the next step — beginning a family history website with a blog!

  • Such sound advice. Having self published 3 books it is refreshing to hear the “it’s never finished” scenario. And I could certainly now write an addendum for my first book which our family call the Bible. It is the “go to” reference for the older generations and the younger generations will take care of themselves when the time us right. Even after 13 years I have people contact me to buy a copy and it is the next generation …. so now I am in the process of reprinting again. Nothing is too small and nothing too large when writing your story.

  • Thank you for your inspiring article. I am writing about my ancestors and enjoying the research that accompanies this. I feel I am studying history as well as my Ancestor. I have signed up for 52 weeks and will enjoy compiling a collection of brief stories to be elaborated on at a later date.

  • Amy, Great post and I’m going to reference this post in the Root Cellar (Sacramento Genealogy Society) emagazine “Preserves”, June 2018 issue. I only write a very brief description, then provide a link. This is available to members only for 5 years.
    I refer to your posts rather often as you are so “On Target” and write in a brief, easily digestive fashion.
    Thank you for all the information, insights, etc. you have provided.

  • I think the #52ancestors challenge is a great inspiration to just start writing. I have tried to join the challenge twice within the last 2 weeks – but have not received a response with prompts. I am finding out the weekly prompts by searching the hashtag on twitter – but really want to find out how to officially join the challenge.