A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: Two Types of Editing

In this series, we’re talking about how to craft your genealogical research into engaging stories to share with family.

  • The first post covers the facts, clues, and in-between bits that form the backbone of your story, and you can find it here.
  • The second post discusses the character, conflict, and cost of your story, which you’ll find here.
  • The third post covers bringing your story to a satisfying conclusion, located here.

Maybe right now you’re asking, “What on earth comes after the conclusion? I thought we were done!”

Nope. Welcome to editing.

The editing process is often misunderstood. Beyond simple spell-checking, editing is a broad term with multiple meanings, but all of them are about putting the polish on your story to make it the best it can be. If you’re interested in the layers of editing novels undergo, this article on The Editorial Process by literary agent Steve Laube breaks them down.

For our purpose of writing stories for a family audience, we are going to focus on content editing and proofreading.

First, the Content Edit

Once you’ve completed the first draft of your story, there’s a good chance that some of the material — even that interesting morsel you went to considerable trouble and expense to obtain — needs to be cut from the final version.

Allow me to prove it with an example. Here is one of my early attempts, exactly as I posted it on a message board several years ago.

The Witter Grocery

Plans were announced in January 1911 that brothers Jay Ansley Witter and Ora Floyd Witter planned to open a grocery in the building formerly owned by Mr. N. M. Marsh.(1) The grand opening was held Saturday, January 28, 1911. The new store was up-to-date and boasted an attractive meat market, as well as an outdoor light that was “a great benefit to the town” according to the Hinsdale newspaper column. Jay passed out pink carnations and cigars to visitors of the store. However, that same night, he and his brother Ora took the Erie train departing for New York City. Their brother-in-law, John DeBaum, had passed away, leaving their sister Myrtle a widow. (2)

He returned home on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 1911, and fell ill with quinsy and tonsillitis. (3) A week following the report of his travels to New York City, he was said to be “much improved” after being sick at home all week. (4) By the next day, however, black diphtheria had racked the Hinsdale community, shutting down schools and cancelling social gatherings of every description. Jay was found by Dr. Loughlin of Olean to have an unfortunately bad case of it, and his other sister Ruby had taken ill with it as well. In a late insertion to the news, the columnist sadly writes, “No hope is entertained for Mr. Witter at this hour.” (5)

The next day, at 2:30 a.m. on February 8, 1911, Jay Witter passed away in his home. Besides his brother and two sisters, he left his wife, three children with a fourth on the way, his mother, and many friends. (3)

Only three days later, the local news spoke optimistically of the epidemic’s containment due to strict quarantine efforts, noting that the schools were closed, church services were cancelled, and the Witter store was closed. (6) No more mention of the Witter grocery is found until March 20, 1911, when a small item ran stating that Ora Witter had sold the inventory off to Mr. Brown and Mr. Hogue of Maplehurst, and referring to the previous name, noting “the Marsh store will be closed again.” (7)

All citations are from the Olean Evening Times. (1) “Ladies’ Aid Gave Social. Baraca Society Entertained. – Other Hinsdale Items by Correspondent.” January 11, 1911. Page 3. (2) “Reception For Mrs. Leland. Occasion was Her Birthday Anniversary. –Other Hinsdale Notes.” January 30, 1911. Page 4. (3) “Five Deaths Reported. Jay A. Witter.” February 8, 1911. Page 4. (4) “Late News From Hinsdale.” February 6, 1911. Page 6. (5) “Black Diphtheria Is Epidemic. Hinsdale Suspends Social Activities – Schools May Close.” February 7, 1911. Page 4. (6) “Hinsdale Diptheria (sic) Cases. Patients Much Improved.—Death of Mrs. Burlingame.” February 11, 1911. Page 8. (7) “Happy Hinsdale’s Daily News Budget. Personal Happenings and Various Doings in Hustling Town.” March 20, 1911. Page 8.

When I put this story together, I inserted everything I found — including one detail that sticks out like a tin plate in a china shop.

However, that same night, he and his brother Ora took the Erie train departing for New York City. Their brother-in-law, John DeBaum, had passed away, leaving their sister Myrtle a widow.

Did Jay Witter pick up the bug on the train? Could he have brought the epidemic back from another part of New York State? And by the way, what caused John DeBaum’s death, and what happened to Myrtle?

I don’t know the answers to those questions.

We’ve all read books or seen movies where the story started in one direction, then veered off without resolving earlier leads. I’m not talking about well-executed red herrings, but rather details introducing questions that are never answered, leaving us asking, “Wait, what about…?”

Your readers will naturally assume every bit of information is included for a reason. If they determine that is not the case, they will be either confused or unsatisfied by the story. It’s not that the detail about Jay’s brother-in-law is uninteresting. It is simply tangential to the story. If we summarize the parts to a story we’ve covered in this series, we see that the superfluous fact doesn’t advance any of them.

Character: Jay Witter — family man, entrepreneur, contributor to the good of his town.
Conflict: A black diphtheria epidemic threatens Hinsdale.
Cost: Life, livelihood, and the well-being of the community.
Conclusion: Jay succumbed to the illness and Hinsdale lost him as well as the store.

At its heart, this is a tragedy about community, because gas lights and grocery stores are but one face of small town life. Epidemics and quarantines are another. Without information connecting it to this idea, the NYC trip simply doesn’t have a place in the story of the Witter Grocery.

A Word on Proofreading

If you clicked over to Mr. Laube’s article, you noticed the copyedits and proofreading came last. Even though little corrections are much easier than content changes, it only makes sense to tinker at the micro level — word choice, spelling, and punctuation — after the macro level of sentences and paragraphs has been finalized. Let me encourage you not to underestimate the importance of grammar in producing a piece of writing that is enjoyable for your family to read. You don’t want to bury all the work you’ve done under little mistakes or silted phrases.

I find reading out loud helps me slow down and catch things that don’t look or sound quite right. For example:

Sounds awkward: “Plans were announced in January 1911 that brothers Jay Ansley Witter and Ora Floyd Witter planned to open a grocery in the building formerly owned by Mr. N. M. Marsh.”

Better: “In January 1911, brothers Jay Ansley Witter and Ora Floyd Witter announced plans to open a grocery in the building formerly owned by Mr. N. M. Marsh.”


Sounds awkward: “…the columnist sadly writes…”

Better: “…the columnist reports sadly…”

See It With Fresh Eyes

I should point out that I wrote this piece about the Witter Grocery in December 2008, and none of this occurred to me at the time. I was simply eager to share what I’d pieced together about my ancestor. Now, however, I’m able to look at the same piece of writing and see where I can improve it.

You don’t have to wait years, but the time to edit is not as soon as you’ve written the first draft. You won’t see mistakes yet, because you know what you meant! Instead, put the piece away for a few days or weeks, then return to it with a little distance and forgetfulness. You want to approach it with fresh eyes to see if it flows well. Does everything sound as good as it did when you first put it down? Chances are, there are changes and tweaks you can make to sharpen your story.

That concludes A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling! Whether you’re participating in the Family History Writing Challenge this month or jotting down stories one at a time to preserve your family’s legacy, I hope this series has put some new tools in your storytelling toolbox!

Question for You

What are your plans for sharing your stories? Scrapbook or photo book? Blog? Family Facebook group? Tell me in the comments!

15 Replies to “A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: Two Types of Editing”

  1. This is very interesting. I like to write up as many facts and details as fit together, and when it concerns my own life and involvement I’m right there with the storytelling (memoir writing). But when it comes to creating a compelling story about an ancestor and an event that was long before my time, I find it very difficult.

    1. I will admit, this whole series presupposes that the information is available and there are sufficient known facts to tell a story. I used my timeline of my Wells line as an example in an earlier post, and maybe that re-sparked my interest because I’m back to trying find more details. Seems like the parents died fairly young and the kids leaned on each other for a while, then scattered, but I haven’t been able to find specifics at all.

      What is the focus of your memoir?

      1. Brandy, it sounds like you would have to imagine some of the story, using historical information. That’s where it moves into a different genre, I think. Have you ever read a book called Half-Broke Horses (I think)? The writer re-creates the story of her grandmother’s life. Very interesting. Also Still Life with Rice, same thing. I can’t imagine the work involved in that!
        My memoir is focused on my childhood, my father and his background, and his family origins.

        1. I haven’t read either of those although I do have some creative nonfiction on my reading list for this year. I definitely don’t want to encourage people to present assumptions or imagination as fact though. Much of it comes down to either having sources like newspaper clippings, diaries, letters, etc., or not. Sometimes a sketchy timeline is the best you can do.

  2. Good advice! I would also note that the first piece was bogged down with facts. I think that is something genealogists get stuck on. There is the writing you do for a client (facts & data) and then there is the story you tell to entertain. Every writer needs to answer the question..what is the purpose of my writing? And who is my audience?

    1. That is true! I imagine you have a whole different perspective since you’re working on your certification! And yes, I agree I bogged down the writing with facts. I planned to post to a message board when I wrote it, so that was the audience I intended, although I didn’t really think much about it. I suppose I wanted to show why/how I knew all this information, but now I think I stopped searching too soon.

  3. I would like to create an interesting family tree book sometime in the future. Working myself up to it, I write brief biographies of people that I have framed photos or portraits of and tape them to the back side. I’m also working on a cookbook of favorite recipes and am including pictures of just my immediate family through the years. My cookbook will be more a visual history rather than written.

    1. Cindy, those are great ideas! Especially linking those bios with photos that you have. That is awesome!

      Also, I am so in love with the cookbook idea. A few years ago my sister and I were thinking of doing something similar, a heritage cookbook, but we didn’t get very far with it.

  4. Reblogged this on telling family tales and commented:
    This is the last post in Brandy’s excellent series on how to tell your family stories. I’ve really enjoyed this and now I’m going to apply these to the story book I’m working on about Mary Taylor, my great-great grandmother. I’m excited to see how I can improve that book with Brandy’s advice.

  5. Thanks so much Brandy for sharing your knowledge with this series. I’m working on a children’s story book about my great-great grandmother and I’m sure this is going to help it to be a much better book. My niece is an illustrator and doing some wonderful drawings. If I can get the story to really work, it will be a great project for my extended family to enjoy. Thanks again!

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