A Few Thoughts about Writer’s Block

The last of the five components of the Genealogical Proof Standard is a “soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence.”[1] As a professional genealogist, I strive to abide by the guidelines in the GPS, but I have to admit I’ve done a lot of family research that has yet to see the light of day because it’s never been written up. I have folders full of scanned documents, newspaper articles, notes and drafted timelines, reports I’ve started and then never returned to finish. I seem to hit a period of writer’s block with every report I write!

Just like the old saying, perfect is the enemy of good, sometimes I quit writing because I feel like it’s not good enough. I need to do a little more research, think longer about a certain conclusion or turn of phrase. I write, delete, re-write, delete, and suddenly I’m in the throes of writer’s block.

Lately I’ve been trying to get organized and wanted to share a few tips that I’ve found helpful to get my writing moving again.

Free Writing: Free writing is my favorite technique to break through blocks. I imagine I’m writing an email to a friend about the topic I’m researching, and just start writing. I change my mindset from striving for perfection to storytelling, wanting to communicate the main points of the research to this imaginary friend. I tell myself I can edit later, and usually end up with a solid working draft for the main conclusions in my report.

Tell the Story: Sometimes I actually write that email to a friend or tell someone the main conclusions of the research to organize my thoughts, if the research project isn’t confidential. In writing or speaking about it, I find new ways to describe the story emerging from the evidence. My friends and family are used to me excitedly blurting out genealogical findings and are generally good at responding with something vaguely positive like “Oh wow, that’s interesting,” and “Neat.”

With this technique to overcome writer’s block it doesn’t really matter what their response is, what’s important is that I’ve created a narrative from the evidence, and now have no excuse not to document it formally.

Timelines: I love building timelines when I do genealogical research. With almost every project, I create a table and list events in chronological order as I find them. I create citations for each entry as well, so I can remember why I know that particular fact or event. Timelines help organize my thinking and show where holes exist in the research. They also help me overcome writer’s block.

Once I have a timeline developed with full citations, the writing can flow from it, especially with chronological narratives. Even if I don’t feel like writing the whole report, I can write a paragraph about one event, then leave it for a while, come back and write another paragraph about another one of the events, and so on… With the full citation already created, it’s also easy to create the edited subsequent citations.

And finally, on that note…

Citations: I’ve have a bad habit of writing first and formatting citations when I’m finished writing. If I’m already feeling writer’s block with the story, and along the way have created pages of citations that need to be formatted, that’s a guaranteed recipe for me to abandon the research report for a while. I’m working to develop better habits and always create full, formatted citations each time I find a piece of evidence. It seemed tedious at first, and slowed my writing, but (not so) amazingly I started completing reports much less painfully.

These are just a few ideas that have been helpful for me when I’ve felt blocked, but I know there are many more. I’d like to hear from you – what’s been helpful for your writer’s block?

[1]              Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, fiftieth-anniversary edition (Nashville, TN: Ancestry, 2014), 1–3; BCG website, Ethics and Standards (https://bcgcertification.org/ethics/ethics-standards/ : accessed 26 Apr 2018).

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