Writing Your Family History: Tips for Non-Writers 

A mother and daughter writing a family history together

Writing a family history is one way to ensure family stories will be preserved and passed down to future generations. It can also be a fulfilling and engaging pursuit for retirees. But for non-writers, the prospect of filling a blank page can be intimidating.  

If you’ve been mulling writing your family history but aren’t sure how or where to start, we’ve asked writers and coaches who specialize in writing and recording family histories to share some writing tips for kick-starting your own chronicle. It turns out, when it comes to documenting the past, the only rule is not to let your own insecurity get in your way. 

How to Start Writing a Family History 

When confronted with a blank page, it can be easy to get caught up in all kinds of self-doubt and impossible expectations for what you are about to produce.  

Hazel Thorton, author of “What’s a Photo Without a Story? How to Create Your Family History,” encourages trepidatious writers to have realistic expectations not only for their own work, but also to keep in mind their audience. “Nobody writes a perfect draft. Get something down. And remember your family members will just be happy they have something to remember you by.”  

To take the pressure off Thornton suggests it’s unnecessary to write a formal draft – or even write at all. Perhaps starting small will be a more comfortable and realistic entry point.  “You can leave the bare minimum behind by noting what the photo means on a post-it note, or you can write a full-blown written narrative.” You can also make a recording or ask someone else to. Ultimately, what is important is that you do it, not how. 

Putting Together the Puzzle of The Past 

No one’s memories are totally complete, even when they’re your own. And when it comes to remembering things that happened to other people, your story will be fuller if you look to sources beyond your own memory to help you tell it.   

Figuring out what you do remember will also show you where the gaps in your memory or understanding are, says professional genealogist and writer, Dr. Daniel Hubbard. “Figure out what you don’t know and then depending on what it is, you can call a sibling or cousin to find out what is missing from your story.” 

As you talk with relatives, you may not only begin filling in gaps in your family tree, but you may also jog forgotten memories or learn about stories you hadn’t heard. Rather than focusing on the writing itself, focus on gathering stories and family facts. 

Sometimes there isn’t a living relative to talk to, especially when you are recording long ago family stories that may have been told to you years ago. In these cases, researching newspaper databases can help you put the pieces together. “You can read the article that talks about what happened, and sometimes your story has the potential to be more interesting than you remember,” says Hubbard.  

Often an heirloom has meaning because of its story. Telling these stories can also offer an entry point. Thornton recommends looking through photos or sentimental objects. “You may realize you’re the only one who knows the story behind a particular photo or object,” she says.  

The main goal, says writer Daniel Tortora, is to think about the stories you want to tell. “If you’re going back further in time, it can be useful to start with a timeline of events or a family tree, and then just fill in the details.”  

Finding a Structure for Your Story 

Organizing chronologically is a simple and effective method, but there are other ways to connect stories, people, and eras that may be more effective. A good family biography, like any book, “elicits an emotional response from its readers. Where there are highs and lows? Don’t hold back,” Tortora says.   

While researching and brainstorming, you will likely identify certain common threads. “Maybe your family history is about moments of courage, painful tragedies, service to others, long journeys, many little moments that are cherished, or big weddings,” says Tortora. You may want to consider arranging your chapters by these themes.  

If you are struggling to give your writing structure, Thornton says you can’t go wrong by focusing on the five questions — who, what, when, where, and why — of a particular event, photo, or an object and begin weaving a story from your answers.  

Getting the Words Down 

Everyone has a different relationship with writing. Hubbard thinks many people may not start or complete their stories for fear of using incorrect grammar.  

People who find the act of putting words on paper daunting may find recording themselves telling the story can ease writing nerves. “Turn on the recording device and start talking into it. That’s often a good way to get memories out because your mind can wander and you pick up details you may have not realized,” says Hubbard. You can listen to the recording and then write it, rearrange the order, and even correct your grammar.  

Tortora adds that you can experiment with dictation or transcription. And you can try Otter.ai or use your phone’s voice memo to record your stories.  

Another option Hubbard recommends is to ask someone, like a friend or even a grandchild, to interview you. You can ask your “interviewer” to give you feedback as you go. Questions like, “Why did that happen?” can jog your memory. Also, he says, “Sometimes it is more fun to work with somebody than it is just to work on your own.”  

Seek Professional Assistance

Ultimately, the goal is to start writing your family history down in a form you can share with others. If you find yourself consistently avoiding working on a story you want to tell, take the pressure off yourself by enlisting help from a professional. There are multiple startup companies devoted to helping people tell their stories in different formats.  

StoryWorth sends regular emails with writing prompts. The subscriber responds to the emails and receives a compilation of their answers in a keepsake book at the end of the year. Other companies record interviews to make videos or podcasts. An online search turns up a wide array of options and prices. 

For those who do write their own stories, Tortora recommends investing in a professional editor. “It doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but as a first-time writer, it can be hard to spot little mistakes and internal inconsistencies that might distract from the overall quality of your book,” he says. “No matter what, run your spell checker, and when giving your manuscript a final read, change the font and print it out so you will see it (hopefully) with fresh eyes,” he adds.  

“If you think you don’t have a story, you’re wrong. Everybody’s got a story,” says Thorton. By taking the time and effort to tell yours, you’ll be creating your own heirloom that will be treasured by future generations.   

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