Saturday, 16 July 2011

Writing for genealogy magazines

I’ve often had people get in touch and say “I’d love to write for a genealogy magazine” or “I wish I could write an article”. I’ve had a few articles of varying lengths published in magazines over the last few years, and twelve years experience of television documentary script writing before that, so here’s a few tips which might help. (Just to add, these aren’t rules - there are no rules!)

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.

Alternatively, go for a case study. This is basically a story about something that has usually happened in your personal family history, for which you will be the best expert by far. Magazines are always desperate for case studies! They are also easy to write – how often have you wanted to tell someone about something you’ve found in your tree?! But bear in mind that you are writing it for your reader, not for you. Give the reader something to take away from your story – what way did you research it, what resources can you recommend, how did you overcome a particular problem?

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.

v) Images

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.

vi) Publication

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.

Most importantly, make sure there IS a next time!

Happy writing!



  1. Excellent advice! My advice is just to start. Your local FHS magazine is always looking for articles, fillers, reviews of websites. Doing a case study on how you solved a problem or asking for help in how to solve a problem you are having and showing what research steps you have previously done to solve the problem.

    Writing is terrific fun and there are lots of people around who will help if you ask.

  2. Thanks Helen, couldn't agree more! :)


  3. Thanks for the encouragement in this post,Chris. I might just sharpen my pencil.

  4. I'm sure Inside History is just waiting to hear from you Jill!


  5. Much sound advice here. For what they are worth my comments based on over a decade writing for and editing magazines are:

    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)

    4. attend my tutorial on writing for family history magazines at the Society of Genealogists on 20 August. Details at

  6. I love the way you ended that with a plug Simon! lol

    But absolutely, jargon can be a real pain. The BBC used to take that unbelievably seriously when it came to script writing, though at times went far too far! A friend of mine once directed a documentary about the Kursk submarine disaster for the Horizon science strand on BBC2. In his script he was asked to define a submarine as 'ship that sailed underwater' by the executive producer. Thankfully, if I recall correctly, he told her where to go with that! :)

    And I hold my hands up to long sentences - that is the bane of my life at times! :)


  7. Thanks for this post and the tips. I write articles for genealogy and association magazines, and, I love sharing and expanding the a3genealogy blog. Magazines are always looking for fresh ideas, new writers, and interesting angles. The key, like any skill, is to practice expressing your ideas on paper.

  8. Another thing, sorry, is to submit your invoices when requested. On Ancestors it was a total pain when writers did not do this, as well as being extremely unprofessional. Curiously it was the 'seasoned professionals' who were worse at this than those who were just starting out. Personally I think the money is better in my pocket than in that of a publishing company!

  9. Good call Simon. Probably worth pointing out also that different magazines pay in different ways - some will want bank details, some will pay by cheque, and at least two titles I have written for in the past have paid by PayPal! Some will also want you to fill out forms in advance, but be careful of the questions - at least one form I've filled in has asked Who else have I written for in the last year - none of their business! lol

  10. Some good advice here Chris - I remember being really worried when I wrote my first article, but now I just go for it. Get your research right, know what you want to write and put it down on paper. I always try and encourage everyone to write if they can, I certainly find it very rewarding.

  11. Read your articles out loud - you'll be surprised how you will pick up errors that your brain 'ignores' when reading. :) My dogs are great listeners!

    (sorry, duplicate post, having trouble logging in with my WordPress account)