I have never considered myself a great, or even a good writer. I just want to be a better writer.
This summer I took the Tom Jones’s “Writing and Publishing for Genealogists” class at the Institute for Genealogy & Historical Research (IGHR).1 Our pre-class assignment was to submit a genealogical work sample of 500 words. Halfway through the class he asked us to edit the document and submit to him. Tom then edited the work of each class attendee.
Humbled. Again. By “Yoda” Jones.
I decided to take that document and assess what he changed.
Here are my discoveries–some of my most common issues:
- Avoid the use of the passive voice (was, is, to be).
- Avoid the reference to the record set in the narrative. I thought I didn’t do this. Wrong.
- Avoid repetition. I repeat information stated just a couple of paragraphs before. I must learn to trust the reader.
- Avoid weak active verbs, like “do” and “get” or their variations.
- Think about verb selection. Many of my verbs, even if active, require a preposition to complete them. I should instead select verbs that send the same message, but do not have the preposition attached.
- Avoid extra words at the beginning of a sentence. I often want to “ease” the reader into the paragraph, by using unnecessary phrases like “Therefore,” or “According to the ….” or “Having ridden the train…”
- Avoid naming people unless they contribute to answering the research question. It confuses the reader. Generic labels can be used instead, e.g. sister, the farm hand.
- Use the word “apparent” to describe family structure or relationships that are implied but not stated, e.g. pre-1880 censuses. (But, you only have to use it once.)
- Edit your work by reducing the number of words. Each remaining word brings a higher value to the sentence. Words that “take up space” have no value–delete them.
Not all of these are horrible; not all are to be avoided at all costs. I am trying to be cognizant of these issues as I write. Hopefully, my writing will improve.
My initial work sample for the class was 503 words. After the self edit, the sample was 429 words. Tom reduced it to 383 words–24% from the original! If you are working on an article or your portfolio, think about what you would do if you had to take 25% out of your document. Wouldn’t each word gain in value? Wouldn’t that be better?
Why not start your own list? What are your common writing problems? My list is taped to the wall I face as I type this post.
Or, pretend your editor has told you to remove 25% of the content, otherwise they cannot publish it—what would you do?
What I have done since I last blogged: I am on a roll lately with my posts. I just seem to have a lot of subject matter right now. Hope you all had a happy and COVID-free Thanksgiving and plan ahead for a safe Christmas.
1 You can find out more about registration for the 2021 classes at IGHR and Tom Jones’s writing class at https://ighr.gagensociety.org.