Composition: Part Three


Alicia Crane WilliamsEach Early New England Families Study Project sketch is an article by itself, so full bibliographic citations are given the first time a source is used, with short form citations thereafter. I have a Word file with the full citation for every source I have used (which grows with each new sketch), and I can “cut and paste” these into footnotes without having to retype. This is my manual version of the bibliographic and footnote options that come with most genealogical database programs these days.

Embedded notes, footnotes, end notes

In the days before word processing programs could automatically create and update footnotes/endnotes, we all used embedded notes – parenthetical citations immediately following the text they cite – e.g. “Born Braintree, 2 June 1657 (Braintree VR, 234).” Many people still feel more comfortable using the embedded notes while they are working because they can see the exact note for each fact right next to it.

I, however, find that converting embedded notes to footnotes is cumbersome extra work, so I prefer creating footnotes from the beginning. If I do not have a citation to fill in, I still create the footnote and leave it blank, which gives me visual evidence of missing information. I use “short form” citations while I am working, then finalize with the full citation the first instance it is used, once I know where that will be.

End notes can be all placed at the end of an article or chapter, but I don’t recommend them because of all the extra back and forth needed to match the notes to the text when reading. They work best when you have a lot of very long, technical notes.


Don’t tell Henry Hoff, editor of the NEHGS Register, but I do not format my Early New England Families Study Project footnotes in proper Register Style. There are two reasons for this. First, I am comfortable with my own footnoting style developed over the years following basic rules I learned in school from the Chicago Manual of Style and other such guides, which is very similar to Register Style. Second, so far no one has made me change.

The point being that although there are times when strict footnoting laws apply (such as writing one’s dissertation), the only reason for a footnote is to provide the reader with enough information to locate the source if they so desire. A good full citation needs at least the following – author, title, number of volumes if a multi-volume work, year and place of publication, and the short form that will be used thereafter. For example: Henry Porter Andrews, The Descendants of John Porter of Windsor, Conn., 1635-9, 2 vols. (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: 1893) [hereinafter John Porter]. A good “cheat sheet” for genealogical citations is the bibliography to Torrey’s Early New England Marriages, downloadable as a pdf.

Footnotes also provide the opportunity to add collateral information and explanations that do not “fit” into the text, although if your footnote gets longer than your text, the information might really belong there.

My last check on footnotes involves making certain that I have the full citation the first time the source appears, that I have a consistent short citation thereafter, and that for every short citation there is a full citation somewhere preceding it.

Concluded here.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

17 thoughts on “Composition: Part Three

  1. Smacks himself upside the head. Why, of course, “the bibliography to Torrey’s Early New England Marriages, downloadable as a pdf” as do-it-yourself cut-and-paste full citation source!! (Now if some institution would do that for The Harvard Guide to American History, almost all in print pre-1900 genealogical sources would be covered. I can wish. [See next paragraph.])

    The Other “Of Course” is why muck around with a do-it-yourself version? Our esteemed society could curate a more complete (cut&paste) version on the web site as a True Value-Added Benefit of Membership. When trying to get the cats already inside the church to all sing from at least the same page of the Bay Psalm Book, it would be helpful to make copies of the book readily available.

    The Society already has Torrey as template, and Henry/Helen themselves must have some automated version for lessening the footnote rewriting at The Register. (Those for many an English origins article are of the highest craft/art form as well being mini-articles in themselves.)

    Re my comment in previous post: Embedded Footnotes appear only in my first draft because when I am typing out “the story”, I don’t want to slow down the writing. Also, just what the footnote will Foot Note will change at a revision; and then there’s the revision, as you mentioned, that is just All About Footnotes.

    Time to turn these posts into a 4 page Portable Genealogist, eh, Penny?

    1. Why I mention The Harvard Guide is that the sources are arranged by SUBJECT, whereas Torrey is ALPHABETICAL. So, if I want to see what’s available for “New Netherlands”, I can just turn to that page and see the major listings, some of which I might not have known about. Whereas with Torrey, there is no such thing as “New Netherland”, because Torrey is arranged alpha by Sort-Title, not by author or subject.

      Now, I do look things up by subject at The Society’s Library Catalog. But an LC is NOT a bibliography. There are many many things in HG that are not on our shelves. And no one Google search will turn them up on the web; I’m thinking here of a lot of American Far West material. The Harvard Guide should be part of your essential “sitting-on-the-shelf-to-your-right” references at hand. It ain’t on the web, folks.

        1. Friedel HG Rev. Ed.1974 2 vols at 9.99 on eBay. Good enough for standard pre-1900 publications, plus all the front matter. I have not checked ABE nor Amazon. I’m assuming that the $250 price is for whatever Harvard U. Press is charging for latest revision (year?). Nothing beats a subject matter organization which is often how I use the Society’s online catalog.

    2. Bob, as the old saying goes, “Whatever works.” I will eventually get up to speed on the current Register style, as it is our universal style, but I memorized Register Style in 1980 and it has changed multiple times since then! However, that said, the specific footnote style falls way below the content and accuracy of the information, so no one should lose sleep over the style. A fully integrated alphabetical, subject, etc. bibliography would certainly be nice.

  2. Alicia, I really like your “Composition” mini-series, and I appreciate your candor in dealing with the real issues involved in creating genealogical compositions. In this article, totally agree with your notion that a good footnote is one that contains enough information to allow others to find the reference being cited. Formatting consistency is important, of course. In regard to formatting, and absent formatting “rules” imposed by the publisher, I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ 885-page book Evidence Explained (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007). I’m wondering, however, whether you or others seem to find the book as helpful as I do, as I rarely see it referenced or spoken about in the literature.

    1. Jack, thank you. I, too, am a big fan of Elizabeth Shown Mills, however, I have to confess I do not have her book. I guess that should be on my birthday wish list this year. Her work is excellent.

  3. I am just getting started writing my family’s history. I use a Mac. And I use in design in illustrator for page layouts. My family history has already been written in the classic style. My book will be a generation by generation look at their lives with pictures and maps. Can you recommend a program a specific piece of software?? Thanks I love your articles I save them. Sam. NYC

  4. Alicia, your “Composition” series is a classic in the making. My only problem is that I need to find a place to save the Composition series, as they’re clogging up my inbox… I don’t want to delete them! That suggestion of turning them into a 4 page Portable Genealogist is a good one. I love the Torrey suggestion too. Keep up the good work.

    1. Bruce, thanks. I think if you have Evernote or One Note or the like, you can capture a web page and save it, then clear your inbox. I’m sure there are other alternatives, too.

  5. Alicia, I love your solid, common-sense approach to citations and footnotes. As a technical writer, to me footnote and citation style should be consistent within any particular publication, and true to its purpose: pointing to the source. I also like Robert’s idea of just using short cites until final form. Now I just need to get busy and use all this in pulling together my mass of genealogical information!

    1. Annie, thanks. Agreed that consistency and clarity come first. It is so daunting for those who haven’t done footnotes since school, and probably didn’t like them then, that I’m hoping to take some of the fear out of the idea for non-techies.

  6. Well, I can’t even find the “cheat sheet” in order to download. I get so frustrated finding things on the American Ancestors web site. Where in the world do I look? ? I went to the Database and there is just an index to the Early New England Marriages.

    1. Jayne, apologies. I will have to remember to include the links in the future. If you have trouble finding anything else, let me know and I’ll see if I can figure it out.

  7. You can search for a title, click for the full record, including a list of many holding libraries, then near the top of the page there is cite/export. The menu will offer you a choice of formats. The library world’s gift to scholars.

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