Devon Noel Lee
5 Writing Exercises to Improve Your Skills
There are many aspects required to write well, particularly family histories. What exercises can you do to improve your skills and make your published genealogies more enjoyable?
This post shares five exercises you can do to stretch your mental muscles.
1. Writing Sprints
Writing may feel like an overwhelming project. However, little bursts of energy can help you progress toward publishing a genealogy book.
Writing sprints are opportunities to leverage short bursts of energy. Writing in short bursts can help you see how much you can accomplish in 10, 15, or 20 minutes.
Set a timer and work on one part of an ancestor's story.
Write about one event, such as a birth, marriage, or death.
Write transitions between life events.
Add social history to the overall story.
If you don’t have anything to write about, leverage tips two and three.
You could also review the documents you previously gathered. Then, turn those records into sentences, as I’ve mentioned in this post.
2. Thought Web / Mind Map
Whether you have written a rough draft and are looking for ways to enhance it, or if you’re stuck and don’t know what to write about for an ancestor, perhaps you need to do this exercise and then return to the writing sprints.
Mind maps are a fun exercise when brainstorming topics for a debate or a paper for composition classes. And thankfully, family historians can utilize this technique to improve their writing skills.
Pick one topic or event in an ancestor’s life.
Set a timer for 5 minutes.
Write down everything that comes to mind about the topic or event, even if you don’t think it’s currently relevant to your ancestors.
For instance, my topic is school.
After the timer beeps, make a copy of your web. If you write about another ancestor, these topics will also help improve their story — no need to redo the process for every ancestor with a similar topic or event.
Then, review the subtopics and make some decisions.
If you know the answers for an ancestor - make a note that you have answers about that topic. Or expand the web with bullet points.
If you don't know the answer, make a mark (like an asterisk) to research that later.
If it doesn’t apply to your ancestor, cross the idea off your list.
3. Leverage Your Emotional Memory
Believe it or not, our ancestors faced many of the same decisions we did. They felt what we felt. And they behaved how we behaved.
We all have our own spin on things, but you’ll often find that you are not that different from your forbearers. Leverage this knowledge in this next exercise.
This exercise requires a little knowledge about what events happened during your ancestor’s life. Take one event such as marriage, move, the birth of a child, war, sending a loved one to fight, etc.
Consider how you might have felt or the decisions you had to make. Your ancestor likely faced similar concerns and choices.
For example, if you have an immigrant ancestor, your list of considerations might include the following:
Why would you move?
How would you move from one place to another?
What might you need to leave behind?
If it doesn’t work out, could you move back?
What feelings might you have had when leaving behind family, friends, and familiar places?
Tap into your emotional memory regarding these events and add similar questions and experiences to your list.
If you haven’t experienced the same events, you may leverage insights from others to guide your thoughts and considerations.
With this list of considerations, you can research answers to some of these questions. Regardless, you can add these questions to your story even if you can not fully answer them.
↪️ Do you want to write a family history book?
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4. Read a Draft Aloud
You will need a writing sample to practice the following two tips. You can use your writing sprint texts in this exercise.
For whatever writing samples you have, read your story aloud.
Better yet, record yourself reading aloud.
As you read, you’ll discover awkward wording and redundant details. You’ll also naturally speak more clearly when reading something a little confusing. As you read, if an idea for clarity or more information pops into your mind, say it. Speaking things aloud brings them into existence (at least in the writing world).
By recording yourself, you can play back what you read. Again, listen for your auto-correct of verbiage and more natural sentence structures, and update your draft with these corrections.
Again, you can now transcribe the amendments you made while speaking.
5. Text-to-Speech Readers
Sadly, we can read things aloud and still not catch typos and other errors. We can’t always bribe our relatives into reading our manuscripts. So what is an author to do?
Try a Text to Speech reader and listen to the computer read your text. The computer-
generated speech takes the human element out of reading. You will hopefully hear things your eye kept missing.
If you’re using Google Docs, which I do, you can use the Read Aloud Chrome Extension.
While plenty of other writing exercises abound to help you build your skills as an author,
these will help you gain the most ground. You will soon have more stories and exciting tales to share with your family. And you will likely enjoy the process of storytelling.