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Memoirs versus Written History

Ideas for writing and presenting your family history.


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As a freelance writer I have seen various family histories. Some are better than others. When a family member decides he wants to disseminate what he knows of his family to others, the potential author should decide on who he wants to communicate to and how elaborately does he want to present the materials. The number of individuals who may want a copy and the intensity of interest should be part and parcel to how much effort the author expends in creating a family book or CD. The greater the audience and interest, the greater the responsibility is to create an effective publication.

Why write about your family history?

There are many reasons to write one's family history. Some reasons do not have anything to do with being a published author or making money. When you write about your past or your family's past, you become a proprietor of family memory. Despite how you present it, the history of your relatives becomes an important type of writing which can be a legacy for generations to come. Among valuable information is the medical history of your family. Detecting what family lines have a high chance of some hereditary disorder may save future generations some unneeded suffering. Writing of your past is often very therapeutic. As you work through periods of your life which are encrusted in pain, laughter and small victories you may come away with a deeper understanding of yourself.

Do I need to be a writer?

Being a professional writer has little to do with crafting one's memoir. In fact, it is often the distinctive voice and experience of the individual family member which brings about a voice unsurpassed by what can be contributed by a ghost writer. Often the recounting of past echoes and the quaint expressions from distant localities make the reading experience unsurpassed by critical and proper English. Too much correction negates the humor and personalities of beloved relatives.

What's the difference between a memoir and a family history?

A memoir is defined as an author's commentary on his life, his experiences and the times. It usually focuses attention on personalities and events that the author feels have been significant. Writing any history is a factually based recount of dates, places and events as they occurred. Often, history should be written without any commentary or evaluation by the author. This difference should be considered when one is doing pure genealogical research as opposed to consulting family lore. That does not mean that a mixing of the two writing forms can not be executed. Often the mix of both forms of writing can be used in a publication.

Be Accurate

Despite the number of copies or how professional the audience may or may not be, the first priority should be to make sure your data is as accurate as possible. One should take as much care to document all data, no matter if it is on a family tree outline or data, that you have deposited on an Internet database. An example of this was illustrated when I recently discovered an entry on the RootsWeb, WorldConnect Project. It proposed to have connected my fifth great-grandfather as the son of Carl Smith, yet gave no evidence as to how. When I reached one of the posters, he told me it was a guess, due to a birth date (an estimated birth date). Without knowing anything about the previously researched Smith family history, he decided to post the data. It turned out that many conflicts arose and made the connection highly doubtful. Yet, there is this data that Carl is the father of Adam Smith Sr., and many unsuspecting family researchers may accept it as fact. It is all right to publish a guess or estimate as long as you make it abundantly clear that it is an estimate. Attention to details is quite important when you are disseminating history.

Skeletons in the closet

The question of privacy and the dissemination of what some may consider less flattering events most likely will arise in any family writing. Do not worry about this subject in your first draft. After you have written and edited your story, you will have all the time in the world to consult family members who may be offended by what you wrote. Of course, if you publish a manuscript into a widely distributed book, privacy laws have more teeth.


The best advice that I can give is to write your story in installments, like chapters or episodes, and then decide in what order you want them to appear in your manuscript. It does not matter where you start writing about your life. Most often it is the most vivid recalls which you write first. Photos and graphics are placed into the story after your final draft is done. Memoirs should focus on one thing, and should be limited in scope or size to a particular family line. Too many off-shoots cause the reader to get lost.

The story's voice

Memoirs are best presented in first person and are best in the author's own voice. This is why taped interviews are good for background information and story guidance, but should not be used to change the number of voices in the story. It is important to realize that you do not need to write about everything that happens to you.


The story's subject often has less of an impact than the significance which lies behind the story. The greatest impact which reverberates from stories is the connection it makes with the audience. The location of the story can be quite plain, the people quite ordinary, and yet the event has such an impact that it causes an emotional response from the reader. One's life is full of episodes that can be strongly identified by others. After all, memoirs and family history are accountings of life itself.


Photos, memos, copies of documents, sketches, maps, etc. can add a lot to a story. It gives many memoirs and stories balance. A keepsake or possession can drive home the point of a story, or be used as a foreshadowing of the story to come.


In conclusion, writing of one's life can be the most rewarding and important writing you will ever do. In the field of writers, it is often advised to write what one knows. What does one know better than his or her own life? So write your story and never be the same again.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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