My Writing Challenges

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?

Happy Hunting!


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


12 comments on “My Writing Challenges

  1. canyongen says:

    I need this type of advice! I tend to be wordy, thinking it sounds scholarly.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Reading the NGSQ is a great way to start to “see” where you are wordy. they generally put every article on a severe “word diet”, e.g. my 7500 word article, that I had already subjected to severe cuts, was 3800 words by the time it was published! I try to take out 25% or more out of every article–minimum. Sometimes the first edit I can take out more. Good luck! JM

  2. Gary says:

    Might I also suggest running your document through a metrics tool, such as the Gunning Fog Index? It will help you reduce sentence length and complexity to that of your target audience.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      I had not heard of this index. I am working on a proof argument and it had a GFI of 12-14. I wonder what my portfolio tipped in at? (Arguments and portfolio have a highly educated audience and so it certain is appropriate to be on the more educated group. Thanks! I am going to do some experimenting. JM

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Well, we have had great fun with this! The Certification Discussion Group has a private Facebook page and I asked if people would put a couple of paragraphs in the the Gunning Fog Index. I then ran a poll to see what numbers they came up with. I thought I would see generally high numbers (these people are writing their portfolios!) and I did. The numbers went from 10 (a person working on a client report to 17. If nothing else it told those who were just starting on their portfolio the level of the audience that others were writing towards.

      Thanks! Jill

      • Gary says:

        You’re welcome, Jill. I took courses in Technical writing and have done I’ve quite a bit of it over my career. That said; I still struggle with long complex sentences. It really all comes down to knowing your audience and tailoring your writing to them. The Gunning Fog Index is just one of the available metrics, but it’s usually enough to get me back on track.

  3. Rachelle says:

    Thanks for sharing so generously about your experience. Happy Holidays!

  4. ztnoble says:

    Love this!

    On Sat, Nov 28, 2020 at 2:26 PM Genealogy Certification: My Personal Journal wrote:

    > Jill Morelli posted: ” 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 ” >

  5. Gary says:


    Sorry about the mistakes in my last post. Writing messages on an iPad is difficult at best. :>)

  6. […] My Writing Challenges by Jill Morelli on Genealogy Certification: My Personal Journal. […]

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