Writing Professional Articles (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Research work for clients can be very fulfilling and even time-consuming, from an income point of view, once your business is a growing concern. But you may feel the urge to expand in other ways. You read the trade journals and magazines, you attend conferences when you can, you keep your library up to date, you watch or subscribe to news on the Internet. In this way, you know who is doing what in the genealogy field in general, and also in your particular areas of interest. You recognize certain names as career leaders.

Do you want to do more than research work? Naturally you want to examine your own interests and talents. Do you enjoy assembling your client reports more than anything? Or do you prefer meeting with other genealogists for discussions and interaction? Or both? Are you verbally adept in public and enjoy meeting new people? Do you have abilities from non-genealogy fields that would enhance your image and your business? What kind of extra public (or private) venture best suits you?

As potential add-ons to basic client work, some researchers are gifted with the ability to write; others have a gift for public speaking. Yet others have the added experience and discipline to formulate a teaching course. Still others may find that selling books and products is a rewarding sideline. Any of these paths could lead to another bonus: public appearances in the media.


You have already learned to write reports about research work. Some of us find this the most difficult part of client work, others have a natural bent for expressing themselves in writing mode. For those who enjoy it and feel comfortable with it, writing more is merely one step further.

Writing what, exactly? Well, the old saw about fiction writing also applies here: write about what you know.

  • The Federation of Genealogical Societies newsletter FGS Forum for several years has featured a column by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack called “The Writer’s and Editor’s Craft”; the subscription is inexpensive and worthwhile.
  • The book Professional Genealogy under “Writing and Compiling” and “Editing and Publishing” has several articles aimed at writing columns, book reviews, family histories, editing periodicals and so on.

We do need to say here that you must study what rights you retain and assign according to the publication that decides to print your article, column or book. Study their stated policy about rights and learn what it means. If a contract is involved, it can be negotiated. The rights of the author and the rights of the publisher may not always mesh. Copyright law is not the same in every country; even between the United States and Canada there are differences. Copyright law changes from time to time, and we will see even more changes to reflect the fast-growing world of electronic publishing. If you are a creative person who loves to write, these details may be irksome, but you have an obligation to protect yourself for current and future possibilities.

Let’s emphasize a major caveat upfront about subject matter:

Writing an article or story about a client family or problem must never be done without the permission of the person who commissioned your research.


You have experience in certain how-to aspects of research—geographical, repositories or sources—that would be of interest to others. You have also worked on problem-solving for a number of clients or cases. Maybe you have practiced formulating your thoughts and writing by posting responses to a query on one of your email listserves. Writing an article about any of your familiar subjects is an obvious choice. The way you write it depends on your intended audience. Even a one-page query letter to an editor needs to capture attention right away.

  • Decide on your topic; obtain client permission if necessary.
  • Make an outline of your concept for personal use.
  • Describe the concept in a few sentences for querying an editor.
  • Decide on and prioritize likely target publications.
  • Determine if they have their own publication guidelines.
  • Send your query while you finish the article.

How to write it? As one knowledgeable genealogist once half-quipped, “An article has a beginning, a middle and an end.” Overly simplistic? Well, sometimes we are so wrapped up in an idea or a problem right now that we forget where it began and how it will end. We want to describe:

  • what the article is about
  • what we have to say about it
  • make a conclusion that sums it up

That is a preliminary outline and then you begin to fill in the details. It is impossible in our course to include a mini-course on writing, because it would not be mini! We have to refer you to excellent advice already in print about writing, proofreading, query letters to editors and many other details, such as the three sources mentioned above, along with style sheets from individual magazines or journals.

Where to seek publication? Starting small is the usual advice. Local genealogy societies are often begging for submissions to their newsletters and journals. You may want to post some general articles on your website, if you have one. With enough writing confidence, you could query a more widely-distributed genealogy publication about a longer, in-depth article. As well, there are many, many commercial magazines on the stands dedicated to lifestyle, travel, hobbies, seniors and other categories that could be approached. The main thing is to keep up with what’s out there already and check out the requirements for any given publication, if applicable. Know the target you choose.

In general:

  • A small society newsletter may welcome relatively short, narrative stories or descriptions.
  • Scholarly genealogy journals expect full citations to sources and appreciate a proper genealogical summary of the pertinent family or ancestors.
  • Commercial genealogy magazines look for articles of interest to a wide readership.
  • Non-genealogy magazines want an angle that appeals to their subscription base.
  • Don’t forget the growing number of online sites for informative articles.

Will you get paid or not? In the genealogy world, mostly the answer is “no.” Most of the glossier (commercial) genealogy magazines offer an honorarium for published submissions, but in general, society newsletters and scholarly periodicals have no budget for this. The upside of being published is the promotional value. Non-genealogy magazines usually will pay, but probably have stringent journalistic guidelines.

Book reviews are a type of article and another feature often welcomed by genealogy editors. This includes reviews of software and even websites.

If you enjoy challenges and deadlines, consider trying out your writing skills by entering a contest created specifically to encourage new writers. A few samples:

  • The International Society of Family History Writers and Editors(ISFHWE; formerly called the Council of Genealogy Columnists) sponsors an Annual Excellence in Writing Competition. You must be a member of the society to enter the contest. Check the website for an application form and current postal address. This organization extends to all different kinds of genealogy writings.
  • The National Genealogical Society has an annual Family History Writing Contest as well as two different Awards for writings on family history or methods and sources. Applications are on the website.


Writing a column for a newsletter or a newspaper or a magazine is a slightly different kettle of fish. A genealogy column in a genealogy publication is obviously appropriate. You will see that the news magazines of many major societies have columnists. It means your approach to them should probably be on a special facet of the hobby or profession which is not currently being addressed.

Why not make a proposal—again on a smaller or local scale—to a newsletter or periodical which has no columnists at all? You would be helping them fill space and providing a service. Potential topics for discussion in a column are almost unlimited. If you personally know some editors, an informal verbal suggestion might open the door for follow up with a written proposal. For a commercial genealogy magazine with distant editors, written proposals are necessary and should include reference to your qualifications.

A commercial non-genealogy magazine or a newspaper is a much bigger kettle of fish. You will have to sell the product (interest in genealogy and family history) and sell yourself (the best-qualified person around to do it!). These publications have editors who deal with a wide variety of topical matters and you would be but one of many applicants or many interests they customarily deal with; genealogy and family history may not have come across their radar yet. If you are serious and confident, your best bet is to seek a personal interview after your initial written contact. This is a world of other-type professionals and to be hired and paid by them, you are expected to perform.

Whomever you approach with a proposal, from the smallest newsletter to the largest newspaper or magazine, prepare your thoughts and written material carefully in advance. No matter whether you are contacted or interviewed by Joe Smith down the street who edits the county society newsletter, or the Washington Post, treat them equally professionally.

See the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE) above which has a booklet called Be A Genealogy Columnist.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.