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5 Strategies You Need to Be A Confident Family History Writer

When I started working on The Creative Family Historian blog, I was not a confident family history writer. In fact, I hadn’t written anything in years. In fact, after I wrote the three-generation family history book for my mother, I didn’t write anything more than a greeting card message for a long time. And even then, I’d quickly search online for an appropriate birthday or holiday message to use. Sounds like cheating, right?

And those stories I wrote for the book? I was terrified to look at them again because I’d been focused on the ridiculous deadline I’d set, not the content. Those typos are still coming back to haunt me.

So, I was pretty nervous about starting the blog. Putting together that book in such a short time frame (188 pages in 3 weeks) had killed my confidence as a writer, not that I had a lot before that particular adventure. It’s not because anyone said anything negative but because I felt like I failed.

Why? Because of my expectations. I thought it would be a once-and-done process. Which is the same approach I’d taken with everything I’d ever written up until then. I expected there wouldn’t be any typos or errors, and every sentence would magically make sense.

Basically, I thought writing would be easy.

Even though I lacked confidence as a writer, I started the blog. Something that the whole world would see. Of course, it didn’t look anything like it does now. The initial articles were terrible — with a capital T. They were short and read like a school assignment. One that might have gotten me a C if the teacher felt generous that day. You’ll no longer find any of those early articles online because they were that awful. You could feel the nervous sweat in every sentence.

I hated writing. But I kept going, and my writing improved.

Of course, it didn’t magically just happen. It took implementing five easy-to-follow strategies to help me make progress and maintain momentum. That paid off though and I’ve gone from being a nervous writer stringing awkward sentences together to a confident one. Now, I know I’m not the only person ever to lack the confidence to write my family history. So if that sounds like you as well, keep reading as I share the five strategies I used to turn things around.

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Strategy Number 1: Organise your research

Before you start writing, you want to make it as easy as possible to get the desired results. So the first step is to get your research and notes organised and ready to use.

Being organised means more than just knowing where everything is. It’s also about taking the next step to collate all the information in the order that you’ll use it. If it’s in multiple locations, consider moving or copying it all to one folder, so it’s easy to access.

This level of organisation will give you a clear picture of what you’ve discovered. In turn, that does the following three things to make you a more confident family history writer.

How it helps make you a more confident family history writer

  1. Provides clarity. Organising your information before you write provides a solid foundation for the task ahead, helps you arrange your ideas and approach the process more confidently. The results will show in the delivery of your story.
  2. Produces a roadmap. Organising your research structures the story making vital information obvious and highlighting any gaps in the data. It also provides a basic story outline, making it easier to craft the first draft, stay on track and write an anecdote that creates a positive reader experience.
  3. Creates focus. Organising your information and converting it into a narrative removes the questions of “where do I start” and “what do I write next”? So you won’t waste time deciding the next step because that was done when you organised every research discovery, interpretation and analysis.

The side effects of organising your discoveries and notes include seeing the big picture, understanding the context, and identifying the critical elements of each story. So you can focus on writing about your ancestors, which leads to improving your confidence as a writer.

Strategy Number 2: Start small

So how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Okay, that’s an old joke, but the principle applies to writing your ancestor’s stories and eating elephants. After all, a surefire way to demotivate yourself and lose momentum is to make the project too big from the outset. You can’t tackle everything at once, so break it up into bite-sized pieces.

The easiest way to do this when writing your family history is to focus on an individual ancestor or a couple. Then write about them one event or milestone at a time. Not only will that make the project manageable, but it will build your confidence as a writer.

How it helps make you a more confident family history writer

  1. Develop your writing skills. Starting small allows you to focus on a specific event, ancestor or topic. So you can experiment with perspectives, writing techniques and styles to improve your skills and find what works best for you.
  2. Overcome fear and self-doubt. Starting small and focusing on one ancestor or event at a time means you aren’t constantly looking at the overwhelming big picture. The smaller tasks are less intimidating, making it possible to overcome your fear and self-doubt as you make progress.
  3. Build momentum. Motivation gets you started, but you need momentum to finish writing your ancestral stories. Crafting an anecdote about a single event may not seem like much on its own. However, add it to the other story snippets you write for a week or month, and it adds up to a fair bit.

The side effects of starting small include increased confidence, a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment of the task. This strategy helps you overcome your fears, build momentum, develop your writing skills, and create a more exciting family history.

Looking for a boost to help you become a more confident family history writer? Try the non-writers writing course for family historians — Ancestral Stories.

Strategy Number 3: Create writing prompts

Writing that first sentence or paragraph can be intimidating. The page is blank, and the cursor keeps blinking to let you know it’s waiting for you. Your mind is now as empty as the page. So, besides your ancestor’s name, you can’t think of anything else to write.

You can start filling those pages by responding to writing prompts. These can be:

  • an idea to build on
  • a statement to expand
  • a question to answer.

They work for all genres and any level of experience. So they help you start writing which increases your confidence as a writer.

How it helps make you a more confident family history writer

  1. Overcome writer’s block. Creative slumps are stressful, and that small question, “What to write next” can make you want to hide under your desk. Whereas writing prompts provide a starting point for you, meaning words on the page, even if they’re not great. After all, you can fix that in editing, right?
  2. Encourage exploration. You may feel that all your ancestral stories are similar. Possibly your ancestors lived in the same era or location, so it feels like all you’re doing is “copy > paste > change the name”. Instead, writing prompts encourage creativity and the opportunity to try new strategies in your storytelling.
  3. Reduce overwhelm. Blank pages, blinking cursors and a miles-long story outline all add up to overwhelm. Writing prompts offer a low-pressure way of creating stories in bite-sized, manageable pieces. This helps you stay on track and focus on something other than the enormity of the task.

The side effects of using prompts to write your family history include completing your first draft, improving your confidence, creative storytelling and checking another goal off your bucket list.

Strategy Number 4: Write first, then edit.

One of the most problematic habits I had to break was editing as I wrote. It always felt like a shortcut, but it was actually the opposite. You think it’s clever because it would mean one ancestor story down and no more work left to do on that one. However, on that long journey to the end, you lost momentum and likely any interest in writing more stories.

Writing and editing require different types of focus and mental energy. Writing requires you to be creative and get all the ideas out. On the other hand, editing requires you to critique what you’ve written and communicate those ideas in a better way.

Separating these two tasks will not only make the process more efficient—it will also build your confidence as a writer.

How it helps make you a more confident family history writer

  1. Less self-criticism. You’ll see more progress and feel more productive when you focus on writing and editing separately. Therefore reducing the possibility of getting discouraged, being overwhelmed and wanting to abandon the project altogether.
  2. Promotes objectivity. Being an objective editor is impossible when you are still in the writing process. Separating the two tasks allows you to approach writing with more freedom and editing with a more critical eye, leading to a better quality story.
  3. Better self-reflection. By writing and editing in separate sessions, you’ll be able to reflect on the whole story and make revisions with a focused mind. Reading and reviewing it this way will help you understand your writing style and improve your confidence.

The side effects of writing and editing your stories in separate sessions are improved focus, increased efficiency, reduced self-criticism, and more objectivity. By separating these two tasks, you can produce higher-quality stories and become a more confident writer.

Looking for a boost to help you become a more confident family history writer? Try the non-writers writing course for family historians — Ancestral Stories.

Strategy Number 5: Practice, practice, practice

My younger brother is an artist and a musician, two things he’s pretty talented at doing. And he is primarily self-taught at both things. However, if you suggest to him that oodles of natural talent makes it easier for him, he’ll tell you that it’s just practice. An inclination towards creative pursuits may give him an edge, but to improve his skills, he had to make time to practice them.  

This applies to any skills you want to learn or improve, including writing your family history. Spending some time daily or every other day writing will improve your ability and build your confidence as a writer. You don’t need to invest hours daily; 10 to 15 minutes will do the trick.

How it helps make you a more confident family history writer

  1. Learning your writing style. You’ll often hear me say, “write in your own voice”. I’m referring to the writing style you’re most comfortable using to craft stories. You’ll discover this through practice and writing more frequently. 
  2. Better focus and concentration. Writing your family history requires you to focus entirely on the task and concentrate on the process. Two things that can be difficult at first. Use a timer to help build these skills and start with short sessions. Then work until the timer goes off to train yourself to focus better on individual tasks.
  3. Learn more about your ancestors. Writing each ancestor’s story means looking at your discoveries and notes more deeply and often from different perspectives. This can result in uncovering new clues and gaining a better understanding of who your ancestors were.

The side effects of writing often include:

  • Understanding your writing style.
  • Focusing more easily.
  • Gaining confidence as a writer. 
  • Becoming a better storyteller.

Therefore the more you practice, the faster you’ll see improvements in your efforts.

Next Steps To Become A Confident Family History Writer

Crafting a family history can be challenging, especially when writing is something you feel you need more confidence to do. You aren’t alone. I’ve been there, and so have many other family historians. However, building up confidence as a writer comes through action, and the five strategies I’ve discussed can help.

Let me quickly recap those for you below:

  • Get your research discoveries and notes organised before you start writing.
  • Break down the outline into bite-sized pieces and focus on one event or idea at a time.
  • Write responses to prompts—use ideas, statements or questions—to help avoid blank pages and writer’s block.
  • Separate the writing and editing tasks so you can give your full attention to each one.
  • Commit to writing daily or every other day, even if it’s only for 10 to 15 minutes per session.

Making time to follow these five strategies can be challenging, but you don’t have to go it alone. Check out Ancestral Stories, the non-writers writing program for family historians. It’s specifically designed for first-time family history authors focusing on converting research to a character-driven narrative. You’ll build up confidence as a writer throughout the course as you go from outline to story in easy-to-follow steps. Click the banner below to learn more and enrol in this self-paced training today.

Looking for a boost to help you become a more confident family history writer? Try the non-writers writing course for family historians — Ancestral Stories.

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