Writing a Family Sketch

Register Style

Helen Schatvet Ullmann, CG, FASG
[adapted from the author’s article in New England Ancestors 8:3 (Summer 2007):41–42, 45]

Do you have a thick file or a notebook full of information you’d like to write up for your family? Or even boxes and boxes of it? Maybe your data is in Family Tree Maker or some other program. Or maybe you’re just in the beginning stages of your research. In any case, whether you just want to write about your grandparents or compile a whole book, the basic building block is the family sketch, treating a couple and their children in an organized and interesting way.

Word processing, extremely flexible, is a wonderful tool for genealogists. Remember the old days when we had to cut and paste and retype, perhaps introducing new errors as we went along?

About twenty years ago, NEHGS sponsored a seminar held at the Museum of Science here in Boston. My only memory of the whole day is Alicia Crane Williams saying, “As soon as you get a little information, put it in Register style. This is part of the research process.” So I went home and on my quaint little Apple IIe began transcribing old family group sheets crammed with information. My descendants might just take them to the dump!

What is a family sketch? It’s just a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the first paragraph that contains the vital information about the parents — all of it. So, if the reader later wants to check back to see just when your great-grandmother married her second husband, it’s easy to find.

The middle is whatever you want, usually a biography in chronological order. It could include funny stories or a serious analysis distinguishing between your grandfather and another fellow who bore the same name.

At the end is a list of children with their vital data. You may have mentioned each child as he or she joined the family, married, or died, in the biography above, but it’s still important to have a straightforward list of children at the end. Children for whom there is a lot of information may be continued in their own sketches.

You can begin with just shreds of information. I started one sketch with my mother’s memories, her grandparents’ names and the recollection that she would sit on her grandfather’s lap and braid his side whiskers — plus the fact that he was a Congregational minister. Then I listed her mother, her aunt, and her uncles, using “Conversation with . . . ” and her name and relationship in footnotes.

On the other hand, I have many folders of notes gleaned in the ’70s and ’80s, b.c. (before computers). It’s fun to open one, outline the family structure, and start adding information almost at random as I go through the file. As I work, I can see where I need to bolster a statement with pertinent analysis or where I could undertake more research.

Before starting to write, you might read some sections in Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century,[1] especially the pages that diagram the different elements of the parents’ and children’s paragraphs. There isn’t space here to discuss all the fine points, including numbering systems.[2] Many other matters, such as whether to use abbreviations, are really your own personal preference. Generally the fewer the abbreviations, the smoother the reading. Complete sentences, rather than lots of semicolons, also make reading easier.

Now you can just start writing. But here’s a suggestion: if you are going to start from scratch (as opposed to creating a “report” from your genealogy database), go to AmericanAncestors.org. Click on the Publication tab, then on theRegister, and then under Side Links, on “Download a Register Style Template for Microsoft Word.” Then “Download the Template!” If you have Microsoft Word on your computer, a document that can function as a template will open. I won’t repeat all that the template says, but it will help you format your sketch, especially those pesky children who appear in hanging paragraphs.

This template contains all the “styles” that we use in the Register, everything from title to footnotes. The word “style” here does not refer to Register “style.” It is a word-processing term that refers to the format of each paragraph. When you open Word, you will be in “normal” style, but this paragraph is being written in “body text indent.” The only difference is that the first line is indented. Hanging paragraphs for children are more complicated. These paragraphs line up roman numerals on a “right tab.” There are even styles for quotations and grandchildren.

If you’ve already arranged some material and want to use that template, simply copy your work into the blank template. First select your whole document and make sure it’s in normal style. Go to “Format,” then “Style,” and select “normal.” Delete all tabs and spaces you added to format the children. After pasting your work into the new document, save it under the name you want to use. Then review the text and select the “style” for each paragraph by placing your cursor in the paragraph and choosing the style from the Format menu. There should be a little window on your toolbar that lists the styles and offers a quicker route. You can select many paragraphs at once. (A technical detail: if you want to edit the style in any way, say choosing a different font or left-justified text, go to the Format menu, choose “Style,” and click on “Modify.”) In the Register we generally use “normal” style for the first paragraph where the parents’ vital data appear. Then we switch to “body text indent” for the biography. We introduce the children with a “kid’s intro” style and then choose “kids.” When you use that style, hit tab, then the first Roman numeral and a period, then hit tab again. Both tabs will then appear, and you can start typing the child’s name. Small caps are very elegant here. Notice that we include the surname for each child. Then there’s no doubt about the surname and indexing is easier.

If you want to list grandchildren, you’ll find the “grandkids” style works a little differently. No tabs needed. Just type the arabic numeral and a period. Then two hard spaces help the names line up nicely [use Control-Shift-Space]. In the Register we use italics for grandchildren’s names.

Even the footnotes and footnote references have their own styles. We encourage you to cite your sources for everything. Footnotes are much handier if your readers will really use them, but endnotes may seem less intimidating. The basics of citation format are not difficult. Look at issues of the Register for examples. A current guide is Evidence!,[3] good to have at hand, but the Register often uses simpler formats. The Chicago Manual of Style is also helpful.[4] It saves time to enter the notes correctly the first time. (By the way, the footnote reference number goes after the punctuation.)

A further hint about writing style: try reading your work out loud. Are you using empty phrases you would never use when talking? Can you say something more concisely? Are your sentences really sentences? Passive voice — “The ball was hit by the boy,” rather than “The boy hit the ball” — deadens the tone. And proofread, proofread, proofread. You’ll improve your sketch every time.

Finally, for the “icing on the cake,” dress up your sketch with illustrations! Insert photos, autographs, pictures of houses and gravestones, the ship on which your ancestors crossed the ocean, maps — whatever you can find. Your final product should be elegant and attractive, not just to your children but to their grandchildren and beyond.


A few little tips
  • Commas and periods go inside a closing quote; semicolons outside.
  • Footnote reference numbers come after the punctuation.
  • Titles of published books should be italicized.
  • Titles of articles and unpublished materials need quotation marks.
  • Titles of sources such as land, probate, and vital records do not need italics or quotes unless they are published.
  • Proofread on another day.
  • Try reading your prose out loud!

Sidebar 2:

Polishing that database reports

In word processing you can discuss all sorts of nuances of dates, places, and identities wherever they seem to fit. Such additions are not so easy when working with a genealogy database. There are quite a few differences between what we consider Register style and the quasi-Register-style report generated by most genealogy programs. If you are using one of these programs, here are some things to consider.

Once you have generated a report, it will carry its own set of word-processing “styles.” You can just accept them, or eliminate all of them by selecting the whole document and putting it in “normal” style as described above, then copying it into a blank Register template. If you do so, eliminate any sex designations for the children first. (You can easily comment on any unusual name in the text or a footnote.)

You should make some other changes as well. First, consider the order of the information. Do the wife’s name and vital data appear after the husband’s notes, with notes on her following? Move information on the wife into the husband’s paragraph and integrate her notes with his. Next, did you document those notes with citations in parentheses? All citations need to be moved into footnotes (or endnotes if you prefer). Multiple footnotes for the same piece of data should be combined into one note, with semicolons between the different sources.

You must also consider the format of names, dates, and places. Small caps are good for names, but your report will probably have a mixture of lower and upper case. Capitalizing names of the parents of husband and wife would be distracting. Place names don’t require a county or state after first use in each sketch, but it’s helpful to the reader to add “County” where appropriate. Postal codes are also distracting. In the Register we spell out the names of months and states in the main text and abbreviate them (except those with five letters or less), with periods, in the children’s paragraph

1Michael J. Leclerc and Henry B. Hoff, ed., Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century, 2nd ed. (Boston: NEHGS, 2006).
2See Joan Ferris Curran, Madilyn Coen Crane, and John H. Wray, Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin, National Genealogical Society Special Publication No. 64 (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 1999).
3Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997). The introductory sections of this book are especially valuable.
4The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003).