i) Be confident
Everyone who has ever written articles always started off with a first effort. Many people worry that writing something down is an impossible task requiring great linguistic skill and dexterity, and best left to the likes of Shakespeare and Robbie Burns. Personally I find them both a bit old fashioned and boring, so here’s how I see the content of an article. It’s a conversation between you and the reader and its main purpose is to communicate and to impart knowledge. If you can talk the hind leg off a donkey when it comes to your friends and family, try doing the same with a keyboard instead. Do try to get the spelling and basic grammar right though!
ii) Who to write for
If you want to be in print, you can try writing for your local family history society publication, a local newspaper or a mainstream magazine for the shop shelf. Genealogy is a growth area – any subject that can involve a family history connection can be the basis of a great article, whether read by 1 person or 20,000. You can also self-publish, the easiest way to do so being through a blog (through sites such as Wordpress or Blogger). So ignore any snobbery about being published online or offline. The lines are blurring and each provides a valid forum with its own dedicated target audience. Writing is about delivering a target message or article to the reader, using whichever medium works best for the task at hand.
iii) What to write
Most mainstream magazines have a pool of so-called ‘experts’, a regular core of writers who can be relied on to regularly produce articles on various aspects of the family history profession, but there are slots in all magazines for others to contribute, and these are the best places to get started.
The easiest way to get an article published in one of these titles is to submit an idea for something for which you are the absolute person for the job. You may have a real interest in a particular regiment, or old fashioned occupation, or place in the country. If so, convince the editor that you need to write about it.
iv) How to write
Before you start writing, pitch the idea to an editor first. You will normally find contact details for the editor inside the cover of a magazine on the first or second page, or on the magazine's website. In a simple paragraph, try to make the editor see why he or she should commission your piece. How will your piece help the reader? If the editor agrees, you will then be asked to give it a go. If it is for a commercially produced magazine, don’t forget to ask how much you are to be paid!
Some editors may then send you a formal commission document, a brief with a shopping list of things to include etc, possibly even ideas on how to structure it. Others will let you do it entirely as you see fit. If you don’t get formal guidance but feel you need it, ask! It is in the editor’s interest for your piece to work as much as it is in yours.
You will be asked to write to a particular length, and as long as you are usually within about twenty words or so on either side of that word count you should be fine. Don’t worry about over-writing it to start with – in fact, it can often be easier to write too much and to then edit it back than to be three hundred words short and to worry about how to fill the gap!
But some things to watch out for – don’t waffle, don’t repeat yourself, and keep pushing the narrative forward in a coherent way. Don’t waste a third of the piece writing an introduction, just get into the subject matter. In many cases I will actually leave the intro until the end, once I know what I want to write into.
Don’t patronise your reader. An opening line such as “As everyone of course knows…” will likely annoy your reader if he or she doesn’t actually know what the hell you’re on about. Don’t assume that you are writing a Janet or John kiddies book either (“Once upon a time there was an archive…”!). Talk to your reader as you would expect to be spoken to. And don’t use language that will make someone think that you are a self-important idiot - you will only end up looking like the fool.
Don’t be too precious about your final product once it is submitted. If lucky, you may be asked to proof read it before publication - if you get the chance, take it! The editors will use your article almost word for word, but they may need to abridge it, they may need to redefine something if they think it is unclear, or they may even postpone its publication. If changes need to be made, they may ask you to do them, they equally may not and may make the amendments themselves!
Where possible, try to supply images which you own, or for which there is no copyright claim – ancient black and white images which you don't own the rights to are usually OK if over a hundred years old. If you don’t know the original source of an image, tell the editor. It is then up to he or she to decide whether to use it or not. In most cases, magazines have their own photo editors and access to image libraries etc, but it is always better to try to supply the images you want to see if you can.
Normally with publication you will get a free copy of the magazine you've written for, but it may not come immediately. For commercially produced magazines, payment can also be delayed after publication (to suit the relevant accounting department's payment run), though make sure you have your invoice in! With the fee from your first article, buy a bottle of Champagne. Drink said Champagne, realise you have no money left, and feel inspired to try again!
The more you write, the more confident you will become at it, but listen to criticism. When I used to work in TV I hated people telling me what they loved about a programme, I always wanted to know what they didn’t, so that I could learn for the next effort. We all make mistakes, the trick is to learn from them, take it on the chin, and produce an even better article next time!
Writing is terrific fun and there are lots of people around who will help if you ask.
1. have in mind some individual whom you are writing for, ie a family member or a friend. Ask yourself what do they need to know, why they need to know it and how are you going to explain it to them.
2 to enhance readability write short paragraphs and short sentences. Anglo-Saxon words are better than Latinate (ie 'ask' not 'request'). Avoid jargon at all times.
3 subjects to avoid: how I traced my family tree back to Adam and Eve, my favourite ancestor (unless they are really, really, really interesting); very technical subjects that only you and two other people in the history of the universe are fascinated by; very broad overviews of very wide subjects (such as a history of roads in 1800 words)