Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing narratives in genealogy software

There has been an extensive civil discussion on the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) mailing list concerning writing narrative text, all or part of a person's life story, for genealogy reports, magazine articles or books. The critical post that set off the discussion was Elizabeth Shown Mills post here. Her preference is to write narratives in a word processor so that the author has full control over the result without "software-created" sentences.

In response, Bob Velke of Wholly Genes (which produces The Master Genealogist (TMG) software) claimed that his software could do exactly what Elizabeth said shouldn't be done. Terry Reigel chimed in with a link to an article he wrote that demonstrates the range of flexibility in adapting TMG capabilities to different facts and the use of end notes in creating "flowing narratives." My observation is that "it seems to take a lot of effort" to do it.

The need for writing "flowing narratives" is vital for client reports and publication in genealogy periodicals or books. One of the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) requirements is to submit a Narrative Report as a requirement for certification. The certification submission requirements are here. A sample work product of a narrative genealogy is provided here. Reviewing all of the sample work products are an excellent way to understand the BCG requirements and application process.

The issue is "can TMG, or any other software program, create this type of a report, complete with note callouts, footnotes with text, headings, bullet points, etc." Bob Velke and Terry Reigel think that TMG can do it, albeit with substantial custom text writing, as Terry's web site example demonstrates.

I have not written a report similar to the narrative example. But I think that I could use FamilyTreeMaker 16 to generate all of the text, and footnotes, using the Facts, Sources and Notes capabilities of the software. I would then have to edit the result in a Word Processor to superscript the footnote numbers, to put the right footnotes with the right number at the bottom of each page, to modify the source citations as required (short forms for second and later citation of the same source), to indent, change font size, bold or italicize when necessary, etc. Other software, like TMG, may allow the user to do all or many of these tasks.

However, the folks who don't want software to "write" their narrative do all of that in their Word Processor document when they write their reports or narratives.

I think the issue is really "how many times do you write a narrative?" The ideal number is "once." It shouldn't matter if it is in your word processor or in a software program. The goal is to document your work in a clear and complete manner. The second issue is "how many times do you edit a narrative?"

My current preference is to write my narratives for an individual in the Notes section of FTM16, and include my source citations in the text body (either as cited, or numbered with a list at the end). Either method can be used to generate a genealogy report that can be edited. IMHO, the key is that I've typed it in only once, I have it saved in a place I can find it, and I can edit it if necessary. Once I put it into a word processor, then I may have to edit it to put it in a preferred format. At that point, the information in my word document and in my database are different.

Whether it is in a word processed document or in a database-generated report, the work product of my narrative will be generated by me using my so-called creative writing skills. If I submit it for publication, I expect it to be edited, polished as required, and submitted again. Whether I started in a word processor or my database really shouldn't matter.

What think you? Do you use a word processor to write client reports, magazine articles, book chapters, or do you use your genealogy software? Or some combination of the two? Tell us about it - I'm willing to learn best practices!


Thomas MacEntee said...


This is a great post since it highlights the difficulties involved in trying to get genealogy software programs to "do your bidding" as it were.

Since Microsoft Word and adapting it to a legal environment is my livelihood, I can tell you that I've seen first hand that it isn't always easy to take data from another program and have it build a coherent document.

One idea: is to create a mail-merge type template with specific fields (birth date, birth location etc.) and then use the data exported from the genealogy program as your data source. This would provide a good base document to which you could provide your own florishes during the review process.

Lori Thornton said...

I'm on Elizabeth's side on this one. I know that I am unable to write anything in a genealogical program (and I've tried several) that meets the standards set forth for publication. If I send someone a report from my program, I'm always careful to tell them that it needs editing. If it's for publication, I open up the Word processor and create it. The entire process of doing this often helps me spot something that lacks enough documentation and causes me to go search for something better or something to corroborate a statement.

Tony Proctor said...

I not only agree with Elizabeth, Randy, but I got so frustrated with commercial software product's poor handling of narrative, and content providers totally ignoring the need for narrative, that I devised my own data format for family history: STEMMA (, and started writing my own software for it.

I wrote some justifications for my approach (called "Structured Narrative") at, along with a bunch of research notes and the main specification.


L. Hedgecock said...

Have you reexamined this issue lately? I'm looking for the best software for integrating family narratives into my family tree.

Unknown said...

I think Randy has hit the key issue: "I think the issue is really 'how many times do you write a narrative?' The ideal number is 'once.' " If that is the case for you, then writing a good narrative in a genealogy program is just too much work. Word processors are optimized for, well, processing words. They are better adapted to that task. The only possible reason to use a genealogy program is to get the citations consistently written. People, even professionals, just aren't that good at doing that.

On the other hand, if you expect to re-issue narratives time and again as the data is updated, often with different constellations of people, then writing the narrative in a genealogy program makes more sense than manually editing in a word processor.

I suspect that most professionals fall in the "once is enough" group. But those serious about their own family history often have occasion to update their narratives time and again, year after year. A good genealogy program can serve them well.

Terry Reigel