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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Family History First Drafts Are Terrible - Write Them Anyway

Anyone wishing to write a non-boring family history has to deal with the daunting task of writing a first draft. Many people in my writing workshops will admit that they never write anything because they don't want to write someone awful.

Guess what? Everyone must write a first draft, no matter their chosen genre of stories and reports.

And yet, we often can not write our family histories because we're too busy comparing our rough draft to someone's final version.

Please stop.

You have no idea how many revisions that finished work endured before coming before your eyes. (Well, unless you're an editor by trade.)

Together let's reframe our understanding of your first attempt and writing a story. Of course, it will be terrible because it's that way by design. But no one should ever publish the first draft.

In fact, Ernest Hemingway apparently isn't a fan of rough drafts when he said, "The first draft of anything is shit.”

I won't argue with the man who wrote "The Old Man and the Sea," "A Farewell to Arms," and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Therefore, If he believed first drafts are awful, cut yourself some slack and write the garbage version of your family story today.

Goal of First Draft in Family History

Simply stated, the goal of the first draft is to FINISH IT!

The goal isn't for the story to be grammar error-free.

The goal isn't for it a publisher to sell for millions.

Heck, the goal isn't for your family to love the story.

The goal of your first draft is to simply finish it.

While I like to keep things simple, experts in writing have other thoughts on the goal of the first draft.

Professor Mark A. Davis from St. Lawrence University wrote, "The purpose of the first draft is to get one’s ideas on paper and to try out a plan of organization for those ideas."

Additionally, he suggests the following:

  • We include more, not less.

  • We should experiment in our first draft by trying ideas to see what works.

  • This draft could be for sharing with others to obtain feedback before we publish something.

Knowing the goal of the first draft will help you finish it sooner rather than later.

Is today that day?

What Isn't a Rough Draft?

What doesn't constitute a genealogy book's rough draft?

If your book looks like this:

or this

You have not written a rough draft.

While you may want to write the 'big book' with generation after generation of family members and how they related, those books served their purpose. However, sharable online genealogy trees replace the need for such books.

As such, we need to stop trying to print out a book form of our genealogy database. Few people enjoy a book of charts and notes.

Instead, write a family story that ties the charts, notes, and details together.

Here's an example from the published genealogy entitled Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct., 1638 and 1635.

Here's another example from my Geiszler Family Ancestors book that's currently in progress. Again, if you find errors, I'm okay with that because it's a rough draft.

Notice how I also have a footnote telling me I need a citation?

You also don't have to have perfect citations in your story. Just leave yourself a note to correct the reference and insert it later. What you see is more than sufficient for a rough draft.

↪️ Do you want to write a family history book?

Grab your copy of this FREE Writing Guide:

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

Steps For Writing Your Family History First Draft

I will not abandon you with the knowledge that you're draft will be awful without giving you some pointers on making them less terrible. The sooner you write your first draft, the better off you'll be.

Follow these steps, and you'll have the draft completed in next to no time.

1. Pick an Ancestor

Your book should include an ancestor or multiple relatives.

Let me advise you to begin small if this is the first time you've written something. Only bite off what you can chew. Therefore, either focus on one person or a small family.

Additionally, writing proceeds more quickly when you know the person you're writing about. Therefore, pick a close relative you met and interacted with first-hand rather than through documents.

Once you have written about a small family or someone you know well, you can tackle the person you know only through records. Experience and practice give you the skills you will need to write that story well.

2. Gather Facts

As genealogists, our pre-writing process is easier than for fictional or academic writers. We do not need to take notes because our source material should reside in a database, online tree, or research files.

Therefore, make sure you have sufficient facts to start a story.

Notice I didn't say all the possible details.

Sufficient facts often include researching these genealogy basic records:

  • Vital records

  • Census

  • City directories

  • Burial records

  • Photos

  • Family stories and memories

  • Perhaps: probate, wills, land, passenger lists, yearbooks, tax records, and newspapers.

That's not an exhaustive list like the one I offer for free on our genealogy resource page under the title Genealogy Brick Wall Busting Guide. It's a start.

3. Outline

With all these facts gathered, your next step is creating an outline. For genealogists, our outline is the timeline of our ancestor's life.

For the most part, if you're using genealogy software, the program creates a timeline as you add new date-based details to a person's profile.

However, you could also create a timeline on paper or a spreadsheet.

In your first draft, include events in your primary ancestor's life, their close family (father, mother, siblings, spouse(s), and children), and a few significant historical events.

If you focus on the family unit with a central ancestor and include historical events, your outline will lead you to a more well-rounded story. That story will be more engaging for your audience.

4. Turn Source Material into Paragraphs

With your genealogy source materials gathered and your timeline, all that's left is turning those resources into paragraphs.

Simply extract all the details from the documents.

Then covert the extracted details into sentences that clearly convey what the data means.

Connect the sentences with transitional words or contextual details so that each fact makes sense.

For example, take the following from the 1910 Census.

And turn it into something like this:

In 1910, Caleb Crowley, aged 56, lived in the second ward of Butte, Silver Bow, Montana, on 209 Quartz.

He was married to Margaret (for 29 years) and had the following children in their home:

Caleb, 25; Eleanor, 27; Clement, 21; Leo, 17; Clifford, 13; and Margaret, 8.

He worked in a Copper Mine as a timekeeper and had a mortgage on his home.

His parents are originally from English-speaking Canada.


That's a real page-turner.

That's precisely the point.

All the first draft accomplishes is converting source material into sentences. And sentences into paragraphs.

We will have a completed first draft if we process all the documents about Caleb's life in this fashion.

Avoid These First Draft Obstacles

Remember, the goal of the first draft is to finish it. Therefore, please avoid the following pitfalls that make it impossible to complete that draft.

Do Not Do More Research

As you write, You may find that you do not have a source for a fact in your database . Or, you may discover that you don't have a fact that you'd like to have.

Do not stop writing to research more details. Instead, save that for when you complete your first draft and start revising it.

Do Not Listen to Your Inner Critic

Inner critics or inner editors halt the progress of authors writing their first draft. So send your critic on vacation or time out until after you finish your rough draft.

It's supposed to be rough!!!

You can invite your inner critic and editor to return after you finish your draft. They have an important job to do, but first, you must have an initial starting point!

When you put the critics in the proper order and then allow them to help during the editing phase of writing, you will discover how to piece together your ancestor's tale.

Ignore yourself and get to work.

Do Choose a Voice or Style

Claire Bradshaw suggests that "Finding your voice and developing a unique writing style are among the trickiest things you’ll do as an author. For this reason, we recommend that you don’t focus on them during your first draft at all."

Whether you should write in formal or causal language, first person or third, or prose or poetic, are not decisions for the first draft.

These stylistic decisions should come after you process the details of an ancestor's life and select your audience. Then, knowing your audience helps you revise your draft for them.

However, you can not know which audience would benefit from your story until after you write about your ancestors.

For even more pitfalls to avoid, check out this post 7 Things NOT To Worry About During Your First Draft.

Commit to Writing the Bad First Draft

Have you changed your mind about the first drafts yet? Are you ready to get started writing today?

Awesome. Let me leave you with two more tips for quickly writing your story.

  • Make a Date - Set a deadline for completing the rough draft. Ideally, the deadline will have a short timeline, such as a week or a month. Then set aside time to work toward your deadline.

  • Write Out of Order - Just because you have a timeline for your ancestor's life doesn't mean you have to write in chronological order. Instead, the timeline serves as your checklist and your organizational structure. But, if you want to write about your ancestor's death and probate first, when they married second, and their military service before writing about their birth, go for it! Just arrange the stories in your draft in the timeline order but jump to the sections you want to work on next.

Now that you have the right mindset and know how to write your draft, I expect to hear from you soon that you have rough drafts ready for revisions.

More Family History Writing Tips

When you're ready to revise your rough draft, these articles are the next step.

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