Family History: Writing the personal history, Draft one

Family History: Writing the personal history, Draft oneBy Barry J. Ewell

By now, you should be ready to start writing. Whether you are writing about yourself or someone else, be honest. I have read many histories over the years, and those that have the most meaning include true stories about real life. The stories range from the sad and tragic to the exciting, funny, and simple day-to-day.

Gather your resource materials and find a place to write. Gather your outline and any other resource materials, such as “The Box,” near you for easy reference. Now that you are ready, sit down and start writing. When you open the doors of memory, you will probably be eager to capture everything just right. Sit in a comfortable place, relax, and take it one page at a time.

Write your first draft as fast as you can, without concern for style and grammar. You may think this contrary to practical writing style, but write your first draft as rapidly as you can. The focus of the first draft is to put your thoughts to paper (or keyboard) as quickly as you can. Be yourself—you’ll write faster and more naturally. Don’t think that the first draft has to be perfect—you’ll probably think it’s awful, but if you worry about writing a great first draft, you’ll never finish.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about style and grammar; just write. Let yourself explore the ideas as you go. If you change your mind about how to say something, don’t stop to cross it out, just write an improved version. You may have a lot of repetition in your first draft. That’s fine. Only if you find you’ve veered far off-course should you revise what you’ve written before moving on. Otherwise, wait until the second draft to make changes in the first part of the book.

Where should you begin? Remember: you have an outline, so start wherever you like. Start in the beginning, middle, or end. Just start writing. Start writing with the intent of getting some ideas down on paper.

Use memory triggers. A memory trigger can be a question, pho¬tograph, letter, or a discussion with a friend with whom you shared an experience. Think about the times you have looked through the photo album and come across pictures and were able to experience a time past as though it was just yesterday. All your memories are still in safekeeping; it’s simply a matter of finding them.

Write your first draft in the way that’s best for you. If you are a good typist, you will probably use the keyboard. If you write long-hand, you can write with pen and paper. If you have a computer and you are using voice-recognition software (like Nuance Naturally Speaking), then use this software to write your first draft. It is important to write your first draft as quickly and easily as possible, focusing on the words but not the way you produce the words. Assume you will be revising anyway.

Use descriptive words. Think about the who, what, where, when, how, and why of each memory. Use your senses to help describe your stories. These details will help bring your stories to life.

Make note of any and all ideas. One experience you will have as you are writing about one topic is that you will receive inspiration and ideas. Your thoughts will range from a new topic to add to the outline or a piece of information to add to a topic that you just finished. You may get an idea to call Aunt Peggy to ask a specific question or to go look for a photograph in the scrapbook. Whatever the thought, write it down or capture it electronically. When I am writing, I will keep a digital recorder (or a notebook and pen) with me so I don’t miss those moments.

Put brackets around sections that are tough to write or require further information. When you are writing your first draft, it’s common to either not have all the information you need or simply be stumped. You may be writing about a specific memory and think to put in a text from an obituary. Simply use brackets to denote that more information is needed and keep moving. For example: [Need text from Mary Jones Obituary] or [Need to confirm statement made by Uncle George on Spanish Fork city project during Depression.] By using brackets, you will save a lot of time and keep your train of thought moving. When you move on to the revision phase of the writing, you can go back and work through the bracketed sections one at a time.

Need help writing? If you are not confident of your writing ability, join a local or online writers group to learn about the craft of writing, or take a writing class at a community college.