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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Does my family history make sense to a reader?

Do you ever write or say something that makes complete sense to you, but to someone else, it doesn’t?

Today’s family history writers’ advice question comes from Roma asking:

"My biggest problem is clarity. What's in my head does not come onto the paper. How do I change that? "

Explain “Niche” Jargon

If you want the introduction of the video linked above, you'll hear the terms my daughter told me to move a flag around my body.

The instructions she gave me are the opening sequence to the color guard routine for the Los Alamos High School Fight Song Routine if you’re on the color guard line. You'll also see a second example where she does it much better than myself.

However, you can imagine anyone giving you instructions to a dance routine or a football play.

Some of the terminology may makes sense to you, but each group will have different terms for similar moves. A palm flip or the 'tick-tocks' to one flag line will mean something else to another.

When writing a personal or family story, when use terms that people within a certain group would understand, take time to define those terms so others can understand as well.

Define Your Terms

Have you ever had an argument with someone only to discover that you’re arguing over different definitions of a term?

In family history writing, we want to ensure that we are using words that others would understand. Otherwise, we need to define those terms.

Hopefully, this experience will provide more clarity.

Canadian relatives have written some small stories about our common ancestors.

One of my favorites discusses how a Zumstein girl was traveling to assist her sister’s upcoming confinement and delivery of the sister’s baby. The Zumstein girl traveled by train, arrived at the station, and waited for her relatives to pick her up.

Apparently, she waited a long time without a way to contact her family to find out the reason for the delay. A neighbor, who happened to be at the station, discovered the young lady’s dilemma and offered her a ride. They got into a bobsled and went over the mountain to the Zumstein farm in Elcho, Canada.

The story seems straightforward, so what terms need defining?

The first term is MOUNTAIN.

When I think of a Mountain, I think of the Rockies or the Adirondacks. For people who have traveled on the escarpment between the two Great Lakes, you might know the ‘mountain’ of which I speak.

However, when I traveled to my ancestral homeland, I couldn’t find a single mountain in sight. What the heck were they talking about?

When I visited Ontario, I didn’t see a mountain. I saw a hill.

The next term is BOBSLED.

Whenever I hear about a bobsled, particularly since I grew up in Texas, these are things people use in the Olympics. I particularly am a fan of the Jamaican bobsled team.

However, I don’t think the neighbor was using one of those to transport this Zumstein relative down a sled track to the Zumstein farm.

So make sure you define your terms.

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laptop and writing notes with title Free Guide: 5 Steps to Quickly Write Family Histories

Clarify Your Meaning

Now, if you’re fairly certain that you’re explaining terms, others might not understand,

then you have to ask whether you’re speaking clearly.

For instance, when I say that I am a one-way American Sign Language communicator, what does that mean?

Well, I can speak American Sign Language, but I can’t read it.

Wait. What? How does someone ‘read’ sign language?

In my mind, this makes sense, but to someone else, it might cause them to be confused and say, “could you explain that to me?”

Why, of course! Glad you asked.

To me, ‘reading’ signs is understanding what a person is signing to me when they are using their hands.

Thus, I’m ‘reading’ the meaning of their hand gestures.

Another way to explain this is to discuss my son, who is in Chile and fully immersed in Spanish.

He can speak Spanish to people and generally use correct words; however, since he’s so new to the language, he struggles to understand people who are speaking Spanish to him.

Now, does that make sense?

He has trouble hearing and understanding the language, but he can speak to those in Chile

Of course, the next question someone asks, “how come you don’t read sign language? Don’t you learn both?”

Then I would need to proceed to explain to someone why I can sign to a deaf person, but I struggle to understand when they sign back at me.

But when, I connect my experience to one someone else may have, like my son, clarity occurs in my writing.

So, be sure to clarify your meaning when you're writing family stories.

Keep People Straight

One final thing involves differentiating people in your reader’s mind.

For instance, make sure you check out my video about avoiding the Pronoun Game.

If you’re talking about three men and use he, he, and he in one paragraph, your reader will quickly lose track of who is whom. So, review your stories for pronoun problems after watching the video.

Also, leverage multiple name identifiers for a person to make your story more interesting while increasing the clarity of your stories. We covered that topic in this blog post.


While I may share with you what to watch out for, namely

  • Explain Jargon

  • Define terms

  • Clarify meaning.

How will you know you’re achieving these goals if your story makes sense only to you?

The BEST solution is to share your stories with someone else.

There really is no substitute for sharing your story with someone else to increase the clarity of your writing.

Grammar editors, like my favorite Grammarly, can’t overcome the human eye to improve understanding because it’s a syntax, not a context editor.

So, find someone who doesn’t know your family intimately and ask them which portions of your stories don’t make sense.

They may highlight words or phrases that need clarification. They may also recommend rearranging portions of your story so that portion flows better.

You could ask a friend or family member, find a writing group, or hire a beta reader. I also offer beta reading services,

Just remember you want someone who isn’t super invested in the person you’re writing about. They should care about helping you tell the story clearly.

If you have other advice for Roma about being clearer with your writing, share your thoughts in the comments below. I know she’ll be reading.

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