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4 Benefits and Pitfalls of Writing Your Family History with Others

POV: You’re a family historian struggling to craft your ancestral stories. You don’t want to do this as a solo project and would love to try writing your family history with others.

Let’s face it, writing is hard, and words are tricky. Plus, solo projects can be intimidating, especially when writing isn’t something you’ve done often since school. And, if you’re like me, well, that was more than a few years ago.

And when the project that you’re tackling is a family history book to get your non-genealogist relatives interested in their ancestors? Then the overwhelm can be paralysing. Suddenly you start to think fondly of all those group assignments you had to tackle back in school.

The good news? Writing about your ancestors can be a group project. After all, teamwork can be a powerful and efficient way to approach these types of tasks. And unlike those school assignments, writing with fellow family historians means everyone is passionate about the topic and on board to preserve the past for future generations.

Writing your family history with others can be a different experience for everyone.

After all, there is no one size fits all approach. Instead, you can choose the method that works for you. For example:

  • You can invite relatives to contribute stories
  • Collaborate only on specific ancestors
  • Co-author the complete work with one or more people.

When I compiled “The First Seventy Years” to celebrate three generations of my mother’s family, I invited contributions from her closest relatives. I wanted to include different perspectives and viewpoints but hadn’t allowed enough time for another type of collaboration. Many of these were multi-page stories that gave an in-depth account of specific events and years. I included these verbatim and credited the author. These contributions gave more depth and intricacy to the story than my writing alone could have.

So, writing your family history with others can bring immense value to the project.

But how do you know it’s right for you and your ancestral stories? Let’s explore the following and find out:

  • why co-authoring might be right for you
  • the benefits of collaboration
  • four potential pitfalls to working with others.
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Should you write your family history as a group project?

There are various reasons why you may choose to work on parts—or all—of your family history as a group project. After all, family history is a multi-faceted hobby with many opportunities to work with others to explore the past.

So how do you know when it makes sense for you to take up one or more of these opportunities? Typically, it will be when it feels right, but I understand that’s a little vague as a response. So let’s explore four common reasons why family historians choose to work together to craft their ancestral stories. These are as follows:

  1. To leverage their strengths and minimise weaknesses.
  2. Share the workload for an upcoming event.
  3. To gain accountability and momentum throughout the project.
  4. Mentoring or the opportunity to learn more from others.

1. Leverage strengths and minimise weaknesses

You wear a lot of hats throughout the process of discovering your ancestor’s stories. Such as researcher, analyst, historian, interpreter, translator and archivist, to name a few. It’s no different when crafting stories to share and preserve your discoveries. You have even more titles to add, such as writer, storyteller, editor, proofreader and designer. Phew. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

The truth is that we aren’t good at everything we try. Nor will we love every task that we have to do. But there will be people who excel at— even love—doing those particular activities. So teaming up and writing your family history with others is a fabulous way to play to your strengths and theirs.

For example, you may be a natural storyteller who can compose engaging anecdotes easily, but you struggle to self-edit your work. At the same time, one of your collaborators isn’t a confident writer but has top-notch editing skills. So, teaming up means you can focus on your strengths while feeling secure in knowing that the team can handle all aspects of the project.

So if you aren’t confident in fulfilling all the roles necessary to write your ancestral stories, consider collaborating with others where your strengths and weaknesses complement each other.

2. Shared workload

Producing a written history for reunions or similar family gatherings is a popular idea. However, it’s also a project with many moving parts. A lot of work is required to write, design and print a comprehensive historical book. And that’s on top of the already time-consuming project to organise the event itself. The idea of doing both projects solo is daunting, no matter how organised you are.

You can’t do everything alone, especially when there is an unmovable deadline. Therefore turning both these activities—writing the family history book and planning a reunion—into group projects to share the workload just makes sense.

For example, say you’re planning an extended family reunion with descendants from every one of your 2x great grandparents 12 children. Twelve children you are still researching, so you know there is more to discover. So, you share the workload and collaborate with direct line descendants of each person. Or have each person adopt one or two ancestors and write what they know. As a result, you’ll meet the deadline with the bonus of including different perspectives, viewpoints and details.

So if you’re planning to write a comprehensive family history and have tight timeframes, consider collaborating with others to share the workload, reduce overwhelm and increase efficiency.

3. Accountability and motivation 

You start every project intending to see it through to completion. Me too! You’re excited, motivated and full steam ahead. But the motivation that enables you to begin is like Roger Ramjet’s Proton Energy Pills. Okay, it will probably last longer than twenty seconds, but not long enough for you to complete everything you have to do.

What you need instead is accountability and momentum. Both things working with others can provide. Being held accountable by others is simple, but it works. Plus, it has side effects such as progress and momentum. Therefore, collaborating with others, setting up project milestones, and check-ins are powerful ways to keep things on track.

For example, you probably don’t mind occasionally saying that you couldn’t get something done. After all, things happen. But saying it every week makes you feel bad, especially if you know your lack of progress is holding other people up. So you schedule the tasks and get them done even when you don’t necessarily feel like it.

So if you struggle with completing projects in a reasonable timeframe—or at all—consider collaborating with others to share responsibilities and add accountability check-ins into the process.

4. Learn from others

You’ll experience many firsts on your journey to discover and document your family history. It starts with the first search, which leads to your first discovery, and, eventually, the first story you’re ready to tell. But, of course, there are so many more firsts that you’ll encounter as you travel through historical records looking for your ancestors. And each one will bring a learning curve as you gain experience in doing something new.

One option on this path is to learn from others. Either via books, courses or collaborating with people with more experience than you have. Writing your family history with others can provide that support. Teaming up with relatives who have previously written and produced a book offers the roadmap you need to develop the skills and confidence for yourself.

For example, if compiling your first book or story, you can get support, encouragement and tips by participating in a group project with more experienced writers. They can offer insight into the different stages of the project and techniques to organise and present your discoveries. You can also learn from their success and mistakes on previous projects.

So if you aren’t sure of the steps to take or feel unsure about the process, consider collaborating with others who have the skills and knowledge you want and can mentor you along the way.

That establishes the reasons for writing about your family history with others. Now, let’s talk about the benefits.

Working with others is the opportunity to pool skills, knowledge and resources to create something valuable for this and future generations. These are the four key benefits of writing your family history with others.

1. Perspective

Interpretation is everything when reviewing historical records and piecing together our ancestors’ stories. Sometimes what happened is obvious, while at other times, it’s as clear as mud. So being able to discuss our analysis with others has immense value and can sway the direction of the work. In addition, collaborations may bring different viewpoints, adding depth and intricacy to the story.

2. Accountability

How often have you told yourself that you’ll do that “thing” today but never get around to it? Then, of course, after the fact, you wish you had done the thing. If only you’d had someone ask how it was going and help you brainstorm what to do when stuck. Writing your family history with others gives you inbuilt accountability partners for motivation, planning, and check-ins which will improve the chance of success. Also, working with others helps push perfectionism into the background as you’re part of the process and working within structured timeframes.

3. Resources

Inviting others to collaborate with you on a writing project:

  • increases the available skills, resources and knowledge
  • reduces individual workload
  • minimises the chance of errors.

More people means you can allocate tasks based on skill and interest. Plus, kick some less efficient processes—like self-editing—to the kerb. After all, many hands make light work. Nothing highlights that more than when working efficiently as a team.

4. Preservation

One of the primary factors motivating many family historians to write their ancestral stories is the need to preserve what they know and have learned. Collaborating with members of your extended family to document and preserve your shared history helps ensure nothing is lost or forgotten. Why? Because it’s an opportunity to bring together all points of view, family wisdom and rumour that future generations may not otherwise know. 

Of course, no project is smooth sailing. So what are some potential pitfalls of writing your family history with others?

Multiple author projects mean bringing together different personalities and working styles. To ensure that the project goes smoothly, take time to set up the project and agree on the necessary details of how things will proceed.

1. Timeframes

Syncing schedules sounds great in TV shows and movies, but it’s a little more complicated in real life. Due to other commitments, writing your family history with others can take longer and require a flexible timeframe. After all, life happens. It will be impossible to avoid setbacks and missed deadlines.

Plan for these and set up regular check-ins so time-related issues are flagged early and the group can find workarounds.

2. Disagreements

Working in a group opens the opportunity for heated family history discussions, as each person will have their opinion, interpretation, and theories. These differences can bring depth and intricacy to the stories but also create disturbances and potentially introduce inaccuracies in the project.

Plan for conflicts to happen and set up a verification process for fact-checking. In addition, you’ll also want to have a structure in place on when it’s appropriate to introduce conflicting theories and how the group will handle these.

3. Bottlenecks

The curse of team projects is the bottleneck—when everything is waiting for a specific task to be completed or an action taken. So naturally, everyone dreads them—either being one or the person next in line after them. These can happen for two reasons. The first is a flaw in the system, and the second is when a team member cannot get the work done. System-based bottlenecks may be avoidable, but human-based ones are less so.

So aim to create a system where work is evenly distributed with buffers in the timeframes if required. And maintain regular communication to flag issues that will cause flow-on effects.

4. Dropouts

Hopefully, this one won’t happen when writing your family history with others. Still, it’s best to have a contingency plan in case it does. Of course, I’m talking about if one or more team member drops out of the project. There are many reasons this might happen, and it’s not always the result of conflict within the team. If it happens, it often comes without warning or a handover of materials. The departing team member may also choose to remove their contribution from the project. Consider discussing the possibility in the setup stage to establish a course of action if someone cannot meet their initial commitment.

The ultimate group project — writing your family history with others

Writing your family history doesn’t have to be a solo project unless you want it to be. You can unlock the power of teamwork to craft an in-depth piece of storytelling instead.

So, if writing your ancestral stories seems daunting and overwhelming, investigate turning it into a group project instead. Consider your reason, the benefits, potential pitfalls and your unique project to decide if this is a good fit for you.

Having inbuilt accountability and team members brainstorming ideas can motivate you to start your storytelling. Plus, regular check-ins will keep the momentum going and get your ancestor’s stories told. Not to mention kicking your weaknesses to the kerb and encouraging each team member to play to their strengths so you can do the same.

Writing can be challenging, and starting is always one of the trickiest steps. If you’re looking for a guide that takes you from outline to story in simple steps, check out Ancestral Stories, the non-writers writing program for family historians. Find out more and enrol in this self-paced training today.

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