Writing a genealogy article: three things you need to know before you start


06 June 2023
Could you write for a family history magazine?
Interested in writing a family history article for a magazine or website? Dr Simon Wills explains the three things you need to think about before you start to write...

There are many potential outlets for an article written about genealogy. Perhaps your family history society or local archives publishes a magazine, or you may have a story that’s suitable for a national commercial magazine such as Family Tree. However, history or local history magazines may also consider a genealogical contribution and even generalist publications may welcome a piece along the lines of ‘How to start your family tree’. Some genealogy websites will also publish longer, narrative-type stories if it fits within their subject area.  

However, if you’re thinking of submitting something for publication online or in print then make sure you’re writing about a subject that you understand well and can write about with confidence. For example, your authority may come from lengthy personal research of the topic, teaching about the subject, or working in an environment where you’ve acquired some specialist knowledge. Nonetheless, there are a few points to bear in mind before you even start drafting the text.  

1. Who are you writing for? 

It’s sensible to decide which publication or website you’re aiming at prior to writing anything. Look at the types of article they publish. Does their subject material fit with the kind of topic that you want to write about? If so, then it’s a good idea to approach the editor or website owner with your idea first. There’s a practical aspect to this too: the last thing you want is to submit a beautifully written article, only to find that the magazine is already covering it in its next issue! An email is a good way in. Try to find out the editor’s or website owner’s name first as a personally addressed email carries much more impact than a ‘Dear Sir/ Madam’ approach. Your email should be short and explain in a few sentences what you want to write about, why you have the experience to write about it, and why people will want to read it. If there is a particular section of the magazine or website that it would be especially suited to, then please say so.  

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2 Why would people read the article? 

Explaining what readers will get out of your article is important, so think about your topic from someone else’s point of view. Perhaps your contribution is a fascinating piece of detective work that will have readers gasping at every turn. But not many stories are like that. Maybe you have a good working knowledge of all the sources related to one topic and want to share it? Or maybe you’ve identified a specific genealogy source or subject area that never seems to be written about and you’d like to share your practical experience?

Alternatively, you may have an interesting tale to tell about researching one ancestor that could act as an exemplar to help other readers who are faced with a similar situation. Think about that imaginary reader and what value your work could be to them. It will make your writing more interesting and relevant. If you’re writing about a subject that is often written about, try and come up with an unusual angle to make your approach appealing and draw readers in.  

3 What's the brief?

Assuming your idea is accepted and you get the go ahead, what next? If it’s for a commercial entity, such as a nationally published magazine, you will probably receive what’s called a commission or brief. This will confirm the topic, explain how many words to write, specify a deadline, and indicate whether there is a set format that you must stick to. If you aren’t given a formal commission then you still need to ask about these things. Some magazines and websites may pay you for your contribution, but many genealogy websites and newsletters are non-profitmaking and operated by unpaid volunteers.  

Text extracted from an article on writing family history in the July 2023 issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy here.

Dr Simon Wills is a genealogist and author with more than 30 years’ experience of researching his ancestors. He has a particular interest in maritime history and the natural world. His latest book is A History of Birds (White Owl). He is also author of The Wreck of the SS London, Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors, and How Our Ancestors Died amongst others.