Personal History - Hints on Writing

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Anyone who believes you can't change history has never tried to write his memoirs. David Ben Gurion

Create a Personal Journal1.jpg

Should I Be Formal[edit | edit source]

The first thing that may cross your mind is: "I'm not much of a writer." It is actually very easy to overcome that common thought process: Think about one of your favorite ancestors. Think how excited you would be if you found even a grocery shopping list that was written in their own hand about things needed on their next trip into town. You wouldn't be at all interested in the spelling used, or the quality of the handwriting or any of the rest of it. You would be delighted to find something that your ancestor had touched, written, used, and needed. It would give you a little window into that ancestor's life and would be a treasure to you.

Now think how happy you would be if you found a personal history written by that ancestor. It might be written in the starkest of styles and be constructed with nothing but short, simple sentences but each short, simple sentence would tell you a little fact about that ancestor. Now ponder for a moment how things may be 100 years from now. You are long dead and buried. The people who knew you personally are probably also dead and buried but your great, great, great, grandchild has started working on genealogy. This grandchild finds a record of your life's history written by you. That ancestor will be every bit as excited and happy to have found a history written by you as you would be if you found a personal history of your GGG grandparent. They will be no more interested in spelling, handwriting, sentence structure as you would be. What will be important to them will be having a little window into the life of their ancestor.

Maybe you think that being formal is more appropriate, after all this is your life story.

If after a few pages your literary masterpiece doesn't feel right or flow very well, it very well may be that you're using words that no one ever heard you use before. Maybe people will wonder if you really wrote this stuff. Have you noticed that when you pick up a pen you have the tendency to become someone else?

Here are a few suggestions you might find helpful:

Write Like You Speak[edit | edit source]

This is the most important point. Talk to your reader. Speak to him/her across your paper.

Knowing what you are going to say will help. Check out 1800 questions for things to write about. If you know what you are going to write about, your words will flow onto your paper with less effort on your part.

You may feel more like a spectator watching what is coming out of your pen or appearing on your computer screen. Anyway, just be yourself.

Don’t be Afraid to Digress[edit | edit source]

If you have a related thought while you are writing, include it then and there (or at least write it down somewhere so you can put it where you think it needs to be). Digressing is not bad, but don’t forget to go back to what you were talking about in the first place.

Keep Sentences Short[edit | edit source]

Keep your sentences short. They’ll read easier and they are easier to understand. Try to keep them under fifteen words or so. And while you’re at it, keep your paragraphs short too.

Avoid Compound Sentences[edit | edit source]

Compound sentences are two or more sentences put together with an “and,” “ but,” “because,” “ in order to,” “ in the event of,” or any other sort of connective. Sentences with “and” and “but” are not too bad, but split up the ones with the other kinds of conjunctions.

Avoid Compound Words[edit | edit source]

They are words, for example, that start with pre-, re-, or de-. Get rid of words that have endings such as -altry, -ousness, or -ization. These words are referred to as “crowed words.” Each of them contains more than a simple definition. It requires more effort for your brain to process them, which slows down your comprehension.

To help you get rid of these types of words, get a high school dictionary. Notice I said a high school dictionary not a college one. High school dictionaries give definitions of these compound words that are found more in everyday conversation.

When a compound word comes to mind and you can’t think of a simpler word, go to you high school dictionary and see what words you can substitute. Simple words make for faster reading and easier comprehension.

Use Quotes Whenever Possible[edit | edit source]

When telling your reader what someone else said, use quotes. Quote what your father said about his experiences in the war, if possible, rather than paraphrasing what he said. In addition, use quotes from other people’s diaries or letters.

Pick up a novel and you’ll probably noticed that they are primarily dialogue. Some novels are just dialogue with a little explanation between the conversations. Why? Because dialogues are easy to read and understand. So, use quotes whenever possible.

Try to be Exact[edit | edit source]

Try to include all names, dates and places you reference. Give exact dates of the events you are describing. Give full names of people you mention and their relationship to you, like a cousin, fellow worker, etc.

Give Precise Details[edit | edit source]

Describe in detail things you write about. For example the size in square feet of the house you grew up in, whether the exterior was brick or paint, the size of your bedroom, etc.

If you or a family member worked for a company, tell us the exact number of years. “He worked 44 years for ....” creates a picture that is more descriptive than “he worked most of his life for .....”

Describe People in Detail[edit | edit source]

When talking about people, describe them: Give details such as their height, weight, eye color, body proportion, personality such as opinionated, softhearted, friendly, kept to themselves, etc.

Don’t Be the Sole Actor[edit | edit source]

Be liberal in telling your own stories by mentioning fellow actors on your stage. Tell about family members, people you work with, your neighbors, friends, unique personalities you have known, etc.

Appeal to the Senses[edit | edit source]

Use language that appeal to the senses. Write so that the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste are triggered.

  • Sight: “The six inch dent in the side of my car told me the whole story.”
  • Sound: “My cousin’s voice could be heard all over the house.”
  • Smell: “Whenever I walked into the kitchen just before dinner, the scent of garlic always greeted my nose.”
  • Touch: “When mother touched my hand, I felt peace again.”
  • Taste: “That steak tasted like shoe leather.”

In Telling Your Story[edit | edit source]

If you want to use the story telling technique, consider the following ingredients:

  • Background: Tell what led to the incident.
  • Raising Action: Describe the string of events to show how they increased tentions or emotions in the characters.
  • Climax: Tell us how it ended.
  • Effect: What were the results on yourself and others because of the events described. 
  • Learned: Tell us what you learned from your experience.
  • Feelings: What were you feelings about the people involved or towards the events themselves.
  • Consequences: What other events were effected by this incident?

Other People’s Feelings about You[edit | edit source]

Share how others felt about you. For example, you could interview your children to get their memories of you as their parent. Or maybe your brothers and sisters could tell about you when you were growing up. Consider getting your spouse’s recollections of you when you were courting and as a husband or wife.

Get Input from Others on Common Events[edit | edit source]

Talk to others who may have taken part in what you are writing about. Record what their recollection was, even if it was not exactly the same as yours. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked my wife about an event we experienced together and she has a different memory of it.

You will probably have the same experience if you talk to one of your old school chums about something you did together. If that is the case (and it probably will be) decide which was the real story, if indeed either recollection is. I guess that’s why the phrase “If memory serves......” was invented.

Express Feelings[edit | edit source]

If there is anything in the telling of one life, this is the most important item it in. Events we experience are interesting to others, no doubt, but our feelings about them do more to reveal who we are to others than anything we can say. Express feelings like surprise, embarrassment, sorrow, happiness, joy, bitterness, resentment, remorse, etc. If you have these reactions to the events you are writing about, tell us! You have feelings and we, your readers, want to hear them.
Life affected you. It did not bounce off of you without a reaction. Humans react to everything, whether it can be seen or not.

We want to know how you felt if you lost a child, failed at business, inherited a large sum of money, when you realized you had met the person you were going to marry, hated it when a certain person was elected mayor of your town, etc.

Your reactions are who you are and your reader wants to hear them to know YOU.

Put in Some Humor[edit | edit source]

Describe some of the funny things that happened to you in life.

Tell Us How[edit | edit source]

Be sure to answer “how” as well as “what happened.” If you tell us that you lost your job, tell us how it happened. If you earned an award for something, what did you do to get it? If you earned a college degree, how did you do it?

You Are Not Ordinary[edit | edit source]

There is no such thing as a ordinary person. Just as no two people would ever play the same piece of music the same way, no two people will ever react the same way to the same situation.

Everyone is unique and everyone is interesting once you get to know them. It’s a fact – people find other people interesting. Magazines about people and what they are doing sell far more issues than magazines on home improvement.

Remember -- how you faced the commonplace is not commonplace. You will always do things your way. Your descendants will see how you handled sickness, death of family members, financial reversals, marriage, divorce, and more.

They’ll want to see how you “made it,” if you "made it." They’ll want to know what process you went through to get to the top. Or if you didn’t accomplish all the things you wanted, what did you do? This may be of critical importance to a 4th great grandchild who is down on himself, thinking he is not achieving his best. Reading your response to your failures and how you kept going may give them inspiration to keep going too.

In addition, the specific thoughts you recorded and the language you use will tell them if you took life seriously or were a light-hearted person. What you write about will tell them what was important to you.

Of course, what you didn’t write about will speak to them as well. What could you do better for your children and your children’s children than to record the story of your life? Some of what you write may, indeed, be humdrum dates and places, but there will also be passages that will be quoted by your posterity.

Think about that. You could be quoted by your descendants. I have quoted my ancestors as I’ve told my children and grandchildren about them. You will be quoted too.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly[edit | edit source]

The question sometimes comes up, should we write about everything -- the good, the bad and the ugly? Do we reveal all, even our bad side? What is tasteful and what is not?

Personally, I disagree with those who delve in detail into the ugly parts of their lives or those of anyone else, for that matter. The truth might need to be told and I emphases the word “might”, but why play up the negative?

Why spend a lot of time talking about an ugly incident when your life is, for the most part, one of trying to do the right thing for yourself and your family?

As we seem to forget the unpleasant experiences in life over time and remember only the good, let us do the same with our personal histories. Remember for whom you are writing and what you want others to remember about you.

Tell Us Why[edit | edit source]

Once you’ve told us how, tell why did you did what you did in the first place. What is the background behind the decisions you made in your life? Why did you want to earn that award? Why did you want to go to college? Why did you quit a job you liked and move to another place for another one? Why did you run for public office?

Don’t Worry You’ll Get Better as You Persist[edit | edit source]

I’ve given a lot of suggestions. Some you may do already. But if you think about using them all, they will make your writing much more readable. It may take a little practice, but in time you’ll get it.

The benefit will be that the real you will come out. Your reader will come to know you and learn from you. After all, isn’t that the reason you want to write your personal history?

Books on Writing[edit | edit source]

  • The Art of Readable Writing – by Rudolf Flesch.
  • The Art of Plain Talk – by Rudolf Flesch.
  • A New Guide To Better Writing – by Rudolf Flesch and A. H. Lass
  • On Writing Well – by William Zinsser.
  • Writing About Your Life - by William Zinsser
  • A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction – by Elizabeth Lyon

Examples of Personal Histories[edit | edit source]

  • Essays – by Montaigne
  • Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
  • Education of a Wondering Man – by Louis L’Amour.
  • A Grief Observed – by C.S. Lewis.
  • Surprised by Joy – by C.S. Lewis.
  • Summing Up - by Somerset Maugham

See also[edit | edit source]

What to do with the genealogy and family history I collected