Is writing a family history one of the items on your to-do list? Perhaps you have self-doubts and fears about how to get started, what to write, and how to put it all together in a compelling way? The only way to overcome the obstacle of facing the blank page is to make a commitment and start writing! Here are seven tips to help you write a family history narrative in 30 days.
1. Give yourself a deadline. Since 1999, National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) has served as an online writing forum where registered participants begin working on November 1 towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. See https://nanowrimo.org/press#nanofacts. I have participated in NANOWRIMO twice. If this sounds intimidating, you can create your own version of NANOWRIMO for your family history writing project. While you don’t have to write 50,000 words, you can commit to producing a draft of your narrative using the November 1-30 deadline as a guide. The pace you set is entirely up to you.
2. Find your focus. Many family historians mistakenly think they have to write one large manuscript in their first attempt. It is much easier to focus on a smaller project such as ancestor profiles, or on one event or time period of an ancestor’s life (immigration story, military service, work history, etc.). You will feel less overwhelmed working on a smaller project and more likely to finish what you've started.
3. Set SMART writing goals. One way to focus your project is to set SMART Goals. SMART is an acronym giving criteria to guide in the setting of objective. There are a number of interpretations of the acronym's meaning, the most common designations are: Specific, Measurable, Relevant (Realistic), Attainable (Actionable) and Time-Bound. Here is an example of a SMART writing goal for writing four ancestor profiles in 30 days.
- Specific - I will write a profile for each of my grandparents (4 profiles). I will work on one profile per week.
- Measurable – I will write a profile for each of my grandparents. I will write 1200-1500 words for each profile.
- Attainable (Actionable) - I will write a 1200-1500-word profile for each of my grandparents. For each profile, I will write 250-300 words per day for 5 days.
- Relevant (Realistic) – I will write a 1200-1500-word profile for each of my grandparents. I will work on one profile per week. I will do this by writing 250-300 words per day for five days.
- Time-Bound – I will write a 1200-1500-word profile for each of my grandparents. I will work on one profile per week. I will do this by writing 250-300 words per day for five days. I will have all four profiles completed by 30 November 2018.
By breaking your writing tasks into smaller daily or weekly goals the process becomes less overwhelming and you are more likely to stick to your writing routine.
4. Craft a storyboard. A storyboard is a way to visually outline or map out your writing project. It helps to plot out your family history writing project using index cards or a project management tool like Scrivener. (To learn more about Scrivener, watch my five-part Legacy Family Tree webinar series). The objective of the storyboard is to jot down the main events of the story you are telling, then arrange them in chronological order (first to last). If you need to, you can then move them around to create another structure that makes sense for the story, such as a flashback. Virtual index cards created with a program such as Scrivener make this task much easier. The index cards should be used to describe your scenes or write down key points you want to include, but should not contain long sections of text. Try to stick to one scene, event, or major point per card. For storyboarding tips, watch the Legacy Family Tree Webinar “Storyboard Your Family History.”
5. Write daily. The premise of NANOWRIMO is to write every day. It is important that you schedule time to write. Block out writing time on your calendar and make every effort to adhere to that appointment just as you would any other commitment. To succeed at finishing your family history narrative you must be willing to put in the time and effort. If you need to block out distractions (social media, e-mail, etc.) choose a quiet place to write where you can shut the door and turn off all electronic devices, or if you need to leave the house, consider going to a library or coffee shop to write. If you are really serious about distraction-free writing, edit lock tools such as The Most Dangerous Writing App or WriteorDie force you to set parameters and stick to them otherwise your words will disappear!
6. Rest and revise. Once you have a draft, it is a good idea to let your writing rest. Put your draft aside, and have someone you trust read your prose and provide feedback. Then, go through your narrative and fix the punctuation, grammar, and any other problem areas. When you finish, you can decide whether to create a book (print or electronic) using a print-on-demand service such as Lulu, or share your stories on a blog.
7. Remember: You Can’t Edit a Blank Page! You don’t have to write the perfect narrative the first time you sit down at your keyboard. Avoid the paralysis of perfectionism. Just write something. Once you start you will build up a momentum to finish the story.
While November is a great time to start that family history narrative (just in time for holiday gift-giving), you can follow these seven steps during any 30-day time period.
No more excuses! Stop procrastinating and start writing!
For over two decades, author and instructor Lisa A. Alzo has been educating and inspiring genealogists around the world to research and write about their ancestors. She has presented 44 webinars for Legacy Family Tree Webinars, include nine on Writing and Publishing. Lisa coaches aspiring family history writers through her online courses at Research, Write, Connect https://www.researchwriteconnect.com