Genealogical writing styles

Alicia Crane WilliamsSome Vita Brevis readers have sent me really nice samples of what they are doing using the Early New England Families Study Project format model. Thanks, you are all “on point” and doing a great job. Plenty of questions have been sent, too, so let’s address some of those.

Register style” vs “Early New England Families format”

First, there is no right or wrong way to use the Early New England Families format. It can be expanded to include as much information as you want, you can put information into any category you feel is appropriate, and you can add or delete categories. It is an organizational tool, particularly useful for summarizing the information you have gathered, and it can be used by itself or as a stepping stone to a more expansive work in Register style.

Register style is an industry standard for publishing genealogical material. It does have rules and regulations, but it is a logical system once you get used to it. Even with the rules, there are no penalties for not being “perfect”! The only unbreakable rule of any style or format is consistency. The reader has to know where to find the information for which he or she is looking, and it has to be presented in a clear and consistent form.

Here’s a short reading list that might be helpful (all available in the NEHGS store, of course):

The Portable Genealogist series (handy laminated 4-page pamphlets):

  • “Organizing your Research,” by Rhonda R. McClure
  • “Building a Genealogical Sketch,” by Penny Stratton
  • “Genealogical Numbering,” by Penny Stratton
  • “Editorial Stylesheet,” by Penelope L. Stratton
  • “Indexing,” by Leslie A. Weston

And for the full plunge, Penelope L. Stratton and Henry B. Hoff’s book, Guide to Genealogical Writing.

Differences between Register style and Early New England Families format

The latter is based on the former, so they are very closely related, and as noted above, you can adjust the Early New England Families format to suit your needs. The most notable difference is that Early Families arranges information by type of record (Land/Property, Estate, Court, etc.). Within those subjects, information is usually arranged chronologically. Keeping information from a record group together can help greatly in managing “input” from your research.

Register style can also be arranged by type of record, but more often information is presented either in chronological order or in whatever order best serves the case being presented, so that deeds, court, military, community records, etc., are intertwined. Register style allows you to expand more on a problem, demonstrate a time line, or provide information on collateral branches, for example.

Early New England Families format is not meant to replace Register style. It is a tool to help us gather information. If you want to use this format for your family genealogy, you certainly can – it is neat and compact. If you feel you have more material than will comfortably fit within this format and/or if you need to present an argument for a case that requires more flexibility, use the Early New England Families format to organize and then formalize your presentation into Register style.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. 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. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

8 thoughts on “Genealogical writing styles

  1. Alicia, I really appreciate all of your great data re New England Ancestry. I have DNA data that links me to several of the Mayflower, Fortune, and many other ships that brought some of my ancestors to the Americas. Great going with your many efforts. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul Morris Hilton, Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada.

  2. Alicia, I would also be interested in seeing a template and/or style sheet for the Early Families of New England style. Maybe you should consider publishing a Portable Genealogist version.

    I’m working on a historical/genealogical study of five families for the period of roughly 1740-1840. They had a lot of interactions (inter-marriages, settlements and migrations together, Rev War service together, etc.). So far I have 6 main chapters: 1 discussing the historical context and the 5 family interactions and then one chapter each per family. I have been using a rough adaptation of the Register style on the family chapters, but neither it nor the Early Families style seem to adapt well to the discussion of interactions (lot of census, tax, land and other early documentation to cite). Any suggestions of an approach that might work better for that chapter? Hopefully you’ll address this in one of you Writing Styles posts.

    1. Greg, customizing formats and/or customizing information to fit formats is an age-old problem for genealogists. There is no one answer, just what works with the material you have. Study articles in the Register and other periodicals. You will find that each one reaches its goal a little differently depending on what it needs to do.

  3. Greg, What you’ve got going is 2 different genres: the strictly genealogical study and the historical/sociological study. Doing the former concentrates the raw information you can then use in the latter to “tell” that story.
    You’ll likely get more “stuff” to use by doing the genealogical studies FIRST for each generation in either the Anderson format (designed to catch all “facts” without any real narrative comment) or in Alicia’s (which has “room” to breathe). That work becomes the “database” you use to write the narrative/analysis. In turn, working up the narrative/analysis will likely lead you to say at least once, why I need to check that out about such a family or individual.
    The Dunbar genbio studies in recent Register issues have a great deal of narrative and analysis within each sketch which includes place setting, but there is at the end no overarching “this is what it means moment,” something I presume you are considering in the analysis chapters.
    I always recommend Greven’s FOUR GENERATIONS about Andover to 1730 or so as it clearly works off of family data sheets (crucial in keeping the bodies straight!). The grand-daddy of all such work remains THE WORLD WE HAVE LOST, which uses the census-like data generated by family data sheets for targeted and/or representative families to present true demographic information. The methodology is explained, examples are shown, charts are created but the human focus is never lost as the demo-info is meant to illuminate their experienced reality. One aspect of what that reality encompassed is covered in RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC by Keith Thomas, but Gordon Wood has a fine book on a similar theme covering the American Revolution period that would more suit your needs.

    1. Robert, Thanks so much for your detailed response. I started out trying to complete the genealogical studies first and writing an overarching narrative, but as you predicted, I was then overwhelmed by the need to do more genealogical research to elaborate or expand. I suppose it’s a lack of research discipline on my part. I’ll take a look at the studies you have referenced. Thanks again!

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