Devon Noel Lee
Ignore Your Audience When Writing Your Family History First Draft
To focus on an audience or not to focus on an audience. That is today’s question for you as a family history writer. Should you have a specific audience in mind as you turn your genealogy research into a published family history book?
What Experts Say
According to an article via The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
“Keeping your audience in mind while you write can help you make good decisions about what material to include, how to organize your ideas, and how best to support your argument.”
According to an article via The Writing Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, “To define your audience, it helps to think about these things:”
This advice is propagated throughout the “How to Write a Book” sphere, but are they dishing out correct advice?
Perhaps the answer lies in whether or not you, like I, have published any family history books. Did you write for a specific, well-defined audience? I didn't.
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Are Writing Experts Correct?
I came across this article by David B. Clear The Problem with Writing for a Target Audience, which offered a contradictory approach.
"As an individual writer, forget about target audiences. Don’t try to meet other people’s expectations. If you do — if you try to mold yourself into the right-shaped hole — then you’ll just end up torturing yourself into a warped and misshapen writer — a distorted writer that doesn’t really appeal to anyone."
Now, before you dive into WHO David is, my question is, does he have a point?
Yes, yes, he does.
It’s no mean feat to write over 120 biographical sketches about my ancestors in one year.
But I did it.
Mind you, all of these sketches are still in draft form, with two sitting on my shelf as finished projects. If I hadn’t started the Family History Fanatics and Write Your Family History YouTube channels, I would have plenty of time to turn these drafts into books.
In the year before I challenged myself to write all of those drafts, I researched how to write family histories and how to write a book for any genre.
Whenever I encountered what the experts said above, my writing didn’t progress. The ideas remained in my head.
In short, instead of making progress in completing the first draft about my ancestors. I would do, as David said, “... come up with an idea and then let it go because [I] decide that it’s of no interest to [my] target audience.” He was correct when he said doing this made writing feel “like a dreaded homework assignment” rather than a fun journey.
Before I heard of this lament, I felt it. And I decided to lean into my contrarian nature and ignore any potential audience while DRAFTING my family histories.
Instead, I developed my record-by-record, sentence-by-sentence method of turning documents into paragraphs and paragraphs into stories.
And within one year, I had 120 stories that were ‘boring’ but complete. I can now spend my free time (or rather the time I will have when my youngest son graduates in six years) making those factual snooze fests into something my family enjoys reading.
Only then will I consider my audience to know what type of book I will write: children’s picture book, young adult chapter book, adult non-fiction, or academic methodological analysis.
Why Ignore Your Audience While Drafting?
Can you build a house without identifying what materials you have to use?
It's very difficult to build a log house if there are no trees around. If you have no steel, it will be difficult to construct a 70-floor apartment building. You have to know what you have to work with before you can plan your building.
You may say, “ I know what the raw materials are so I can chose and audience and start writing.”
However, not all materials are created equal, even if you identify them ahead of time.
Suppose you plan to write a brick wall, but you do not know how many bricks you have or whether they are the right consistency to build your desired home. You are still unable to build your house until you answer those questions.
When we write a memoir or a family history, we need to know what materials we have to work with.
Thus, we need to unlock the memories for our memoirs, conduct better family history interviews, or, again, take our documents and turn them into sentences and paragraphs.
Lessons From Writing My Stories
When I wrote my pageant memoir, I had one thing in mind sharing my personal history so that future generations would know why I
competed in pageants.
wanted to be a beauty queen.
While writing about Lewis Sherman or Joseph Geiszler, I aimed to transform names, dates, and places into a readable story. I hope people who read about our common ancestors will understand their life.
While it’s okay to have goals in mind, you will discover as you write about yourself or your ancestors that you do not really know where a story will go until you finish the first draft.
Writing Help Us Process All the Details
Writing a family history is a way to process all the details we gather as we build our family tree and identify individuals. As we see how puzzles fit together, we discover the stories can be common story arcs of rags to riches, riches to rags, quest, tragedy, and so forth.
While we think we know the arc a story will take, it’s only after we process all our gathered data and combine it with historical context that the true tale comes to the surface.
For example, I thought I knew my great-grandmother’s story so well. She married and had five children. One died in infancy. That’s all there is to it, right?
Instead, as I processed all the documents of her life, I found a different story than I had anticipated.
I discovered she had a great capacity to love.
Her first fiancé died before they got married.
Her should-have-been mother-in-law remained a constant part of her life after the fiancé died.
This ‘mother-in-law’ encouraged her to date and then marry my great-grandfather.
After marrying, they had four children and named one child after the deceased fiancé.
Her children and grandchildren had fond memories of her, which shows that despite her heartaches and losses, she had a great capacity for love.
That observation was not clear at the beginning of writing her story. It bubbled to the surface as I wrote her first draft. Once I knew her underlying story arc, I could then revise the story to make that more clear.
But, if we shortchange the writing process by aiming toward a specific audience, the ‘true tale’ remains hidden. The story will likely be factual, but it will also be hollow.
Focusing On Language Halts the Writing Process
Another roadblock that happens when we choose an audience before writing a draft is we criticize the language we use. We tend to filter out jargon and worry about poor word choice. We worry about the semantics and how we explain things instead of just capturing the raw event.
But, when we ignore the audience initially, we’ll write something rough like this.
I stood on the pageant stage in the ballroom in the “Pageant Stance,” waiting for the announcer to say, “Ladies, turn for the judges.” After I did my turn, I exited stage right and huddled with other delegates until it was time for a lineup. After the lineup, we returned backstage and prepared for the next competition segment. While backstage, I had to fight the butt glue on my swimsuit to get out of the clothing and into my evening gown and accessories.
If you have watched or attended a pageant, you have some idea of what all of these details mean. However, some of you have next to no idea what I'm talking about.
When I revise this section, I can explain the terms. I can show what I was doing rather than just telling. As I write in more context and describe the setting, I can share what I saw, wore, heard, and even where my parents sat and how I felt.
Be aware that those details typically come to the surface once we write the first starter paragraph. But if I worry whether a child should learn about how I enhanced my figure to create the illusion of an hourglass figure, I probably wouldn’t have even gotten as far as I did in the earlier example.
Thus, we should record raw memory in our first draft and worry about the appropriate audience later.
Judging Our Memories Hurts Memoirs
The second reason why you need to ignore your audience is that you judge your experiences, thoughts, and feelings. You suddenly have writer's block because your memory says, “I don't trust you to have this memory and record it in its raw form. Forget it, you’re getting no more from me.”
That's not helpful!
Instead, we need to avoid judging or using presentism while we write. Otherwise, we will not capture the correct story.
(While these examples relate to memories, you should recognize how they apply to family histories)
I won a local pageant and advanced o the state finals. I received a prize package and had a pageant director who was supposed to help me prepare for state. She was also supposed to be my biggest fan besides my parents.
In this pageant system, the director took other delegates from the local event (whether they were finalists or not) to the state pageant. Typically, these delegates know that the winner gets the best time, money, energy, and resources from the pageant director. Everybody else gets varying degrees depending on how well they schmooze the director. In short, the local winner takes precedence.
However, that was not my experience. I didn’t receive preferential treatment, in fact I felt unwanted.
Was I right to feel this way? Had I done something that I didn’t realize to receive this ‘neglect’? Perhaps there is more to the story.
But here’s the point.
This is what I felt and believed at the time, and it played a negative role in my performance during the state competition.
If I chose an audience while drafting this story, I would spend so much time wondering if my feelings were valid or if there was another side to the story. By so doing, my brain would say, “I'm not sharing anything more with you. We're done.”
More importantly, when I revealed the outcome of the state finals and my reaction, if I didn’t write the raw emotions of what I felt, you won’t see the internal conflict of the story. And the ultimate story lacks a compelling reason to read it.
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What Happens When You Initially Focus on the Audience?
In the examples I just shared, focusing on the audience while writing created mental blocks, or rather writer’s block. You will likely do the following if you focus on the audience while drafting:
Criticize yourself for being incomplete or childish.
Judge your memories or stories as unfair or wrong.
Fixate on using language a particular audience prefers rather than accumulate stories.
Did you not see these writing roadblocks in what I just shared?
What should we do instead?
David invites us to get out of our heads and write with these specific actions.
“If you enjoy humor, don’t squash your light-hearted tone to appeal to some arbitrary humorless target audience.
“If you want to share personal stories, don’t abolish personal anecdotes trying to find readers who will never care about your life.
“If you want to write long piece, don’t cut them short trying to capture an audience with a 5-second attention span.”
Can you see how identifying a target audience as you start writing your family history will keep the creative juices?
And if you chastise your memories, your inner self won’t trust you to capture and value them for what they’re worth. Thus, your memories will stop flowing because they feel betrayed.
When Should You Choose an Audience?
While my invitation is to ignore your audience initially, there is a time and a place to select your ideal reader. Write and curate your tales until you’ve written everything you can think to say.
After you compile all of your stories, then you can review what you have and answer the following questions:
Would young children benefit from the stories?
Would teenagers and adults be capable of handling the intensity of the topics?
Would a public audience benefit from personal stories or the stories of your ancestors?
Do you want to discuss HOW you came about the research you found?
Does your audience want the entire story or just a segment?
Do you have numerous photos and scanned documents?
What social context is available for the story?
How much social context does your audience need to understand their ancestor’s story?
Notice how you’ll rarely have answers to these questions until you can review the text you have created?
But after you have an idea of the types of stories you have, you can begin developing and enhancing your writing.
To sum up, the experts are correct that your audience does matter when you’re writing.
However, when it comes to writing family histories, their timing is a bit off. Ignore your audience in the drafting phase. Chose an audience during the developmental revision phase of writing.