Good Writing is Fundamental, or Where Has All the Grammar Gone

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

[Warning: this article comes with an “I’m-on-a- soap-box-warning!]

My father was an English teacher and a poet, so writing well was a basic expectation in my house as I was growing up. I graduated from high school in the 1960s which means that I was taught phonics in elementary school. I’m one of the dwindling few who actually know how to diagram a sentence. I could read a paragraph written by any one of my staff members and tell you, within a few years, when he or she graduated from high school. Now that I’m retired and spend my “leisure” time editing books for authors of genealogical works, I find that the inability to construct a readable sentence is not limited to those who graduated from school within the last twenty years. It is an affliction shared by all ages, which, I fear, will only get worse in this age of Facebook, e-mail, and tweeting. The incorrect use of capital letters ( and don’t even think about the misuse of apostrophes), split infinitives, misspellings, and amazingly awkward syntax – they all conspire in a concatenation of literary irritation as I read the text of many a manuscript.

Even as we have an obligation to research professionally, documenting and analyzing our work, we have an equal obligation to share our work with others with well-reasoned, well-constructed narratives. In order to do so, it is important to understand how to write well. Here are a few tips:

1. Good grammar and a good writing style are essential no matter what you are writing, no matter for whom it is intended. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone comment that they are “only writing for my family, not something professional.” It doesn’t matter who the intended audience is; it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a research summary, a family newsletter, or a scrapbook journaling entry. You must write well to be taken seriously. The best work, presented poorly, reflects negatively on our impression of the quality of the writer’s research.

  • Make sure you write in a consistent voice (preferably in the third person).
  • Write active sentences such as “John Doe and Mary Smith witnessed the marriage of James Brown and Matilda Green,” rather than “The marriage of James Brown and Matilda Green was witnessed by John Doe and Mary Smith.”
  • Use present and past tense appropriately and consistently throughout your writing.
  • Reread your work frequently. Have you used two (or more) words when one is more succinct? Have you used unnecessary clichés? Does your work flow smoothly when read aloud, or do you get lost in parenthetical comments and wordy transitions?

Your work reflects your proficiency as a genealogist and writer. Your family, or other intended audience, deserves a quality product.

2. Be aware of grammar and style rules. I keep the Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition) beside my desk, and it falls open automatically to one of several often-consulted sections.

  • Do you have a question about the use of numbers in a narrative?
  • Are you unsure about the rules for capitalization?
  • Should you spell out the names of states or use abbreviations? Does an ellipsis have three dots or four?
  • What’s an ellipsis?
  • What’s the difference between a mantle and a mantel, between capital and capitol?
  • It used to be accepted practice to insert two spaces after the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. According to CMS, “In typeset matter, one space, not two (in other words, a regular word space), follows any mark of punctuation that ends a sentence, whether a period, a colon, a question mark, an exclamation point, or closing quotation marks.” In my opinion, what you print from your computer qualifies as “typeset matter,” so check those spaces.
  • Names of states and territories. According to CMS, “In running text, the names of states, territories, and possessions of the United States should always be spelled out when standing alone and preferable (except for DC) when following the name of a city.” Don’t use postal abbreviations unless they are followed by a zip code! If an abbreviation must be used, please use the old form (Ala., Fla., etc.), mindful of the fact that some states are not abbreviated (Ohio, Hawaii, Alaska, Iowa, Idaho) using this method.

3. Cite your sources correctly. When citing sources, I continue to use the Chicago Manual of Style for printed works such as books and periodicals. When I’m citing original records, websites, online databases, and other genealogical materials, my bible is Elizabeth Shown Mill’s Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007, reprinted 2008). In addition, I use Ms. Mills’ three Quicksheets: Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence! Style* (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007) and Citing Databases and Images Evidence! Style* (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), and Citing Online African-American Historical Resources Evidence! Style* (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010). For more information on these four titles and the importance of quality citations, read “Hurdling the “Brick Wall” without Landing in a Pothole (The Real Value of Source Citation): A Conversation with Elizabeth Shown Mills.” Not only does Evidence Explained cover a myriad of record formats, it provides clear sample entries for a source list, a full reference note, and subsequent reference notes for the same item.

4.  Understand the basics of copyright. Copyright law is very complicated. It is important, however, to understand the basics in order to protect your work and to respect the work of others. I recommend that you read, at the very least, the “Copyright Basics” chapter of [Sharon DeBartolo]  Carmack’s Guide to Copyright and Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005, reprinted 2007). This chapter pinpoints what is protected by copyright and what is not, the duration of copyright, and how to register your work if desired. A specific question-and-answer section discusses genealogy-specific copyright applications. You may also want to read a previous posting in this blog “Copyright and You – Basic Concepts That You Need to Know.”

5. Read well-written genealogical periodicals and books. Reading articles that are well-written and that conform to established genealogical standards will assist you in recognizing quality writing. The Register (New England Historic Genealogical Society) and NGSQ (National Genealogical Society) are examples of excellence in genealogical journalism. Read articles even if they don’t support your immediate research objective as you will not only become familiar with quality writing, but you will learn about research methodology and analysis at the same time. In particular, find out the requirements for submitting articles to various periodicals so that you can incorporate them into your writing. One excellent source is Henry Hoff’s Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: a Guide to Register Style and More (NEHGS, 2002). In addition, NGSQ provides editorial advice on its website.

6. Read books about writing family histories and memoirs. You are not alone in wanting to write about your family. With the increased popularity of family history, several books are available to help you get started – and stay on track – throughout your writing, including Kirk Polking’s Writing Family Histories and Memoirs (Betterway Books, 1995) and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s You Can Write Your Family History (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003, reprinted 2008). These books will help you articulate why you want to write, help you identify your intended audience, and much more that will help you write effectively and efficiently.

7. Have fun! Writing should not be a chore. To have a little fun with grammar, check out two books by Lynn Truss: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Approach to Punctuation (Gotham, 2006) and The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes! (Putnam Juvenile, 2007). Both books are entertaining ways to absorb some grammatical nuances.

My conviction that “if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing well” was stated much more eloquently by John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1647-1721), statesman, author and patron of poet John Dryden, who wrote: “Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”

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