Re-Visioning and Editing Your Family History Narrative | The Armchair Genealogist
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Re-Visioning and Editing Your Family History Narrative

Today's post is courtesy of our guest author by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG

As a writer, you should look upon the act of revising not as unavoidable drudgery, but instead as a blessing, a luxury…. Most people look at revision as “fixing” mistakes. For them revising is not a luxury; it’s a pain. But when you believe in what you are writing, when you’re interested and invested in the words you put down, … revision is no longer punitive.
—Ralph L. Wahlstrom, The Tao of Writing: Imagine. Create. Flow.

In my graduate course on creative nonfiction writing, many of my students dread the final assignment: Substantially revise one of the essays they’ve written for the class. I tell them that the idea is to tighten and focus, while improving with new material, new structure, new shape, or new or deeper meaningYes, it’s a challenge, and that’s what I love about revision. But many think that revision is editing, or editing is revision. These are actually two unique and important processes.

Editing vs. Revision
When you edit, you are checking for proper capitalization, word usage, punctuation, and spelling: the mechanics of the writing. While it’s beneficial to learn how to be a good self-editor, this is a task that should also be delegated to another pair of eyes. We’re too close to the text, so it’s a wise idea to have someone with good editing skills review your manuscript. But revision, ah, that’s all up to you!

The word “revision” literally means to “to see again,” to “re-vision” your work. When you revise, you’re adding sentences and words, but you’re also removing unnecessary sentences and words. You’re moving and changing the placement of sentences or words. And you might be completely restructuring your narrative from say a chronological, this-happened-then-that-happened arrangement to something more interesting and creative.

Where to Begin Your Revision
Like writing, revision is also an art. Or, as Michelangelo allegedly said about sculptures, “You take a rock and chip away all the parts that aren’t the statue.” You take your writing and delete all the parts that aren’t part of the family history’s focus. What could be simpler?
Stephen King’s formula for revision, as he says in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is “2nd Draft equals 1st Draft minus 10%.”

Or, here’s advice from Dinty Moore, author of many creative nonfiction writing guides and editor of Brevity, from an interview he did for The Fourth  River,

Here is what to eliminate: anything that doesn’t make your essay better, or anything that you’ve said elsewhere in the essay in a better way. You know you are done when you can read the entire essay aloud to yourself and not stumble over a single sentence or idea; when you read it all the way through and honestly feel a completeness.

Granted, he’s talking about essays here, but can you do the same thing with each chapter of your family history.

Here are two additional ideas to help you determine how and what to revise:
  1. Write the back cover copy. Imagine your family history is going to include a summary on the back cover that tells readers what the book is about. This summary should be no more than 150 words.
  2. Now cull down the summary even further—into one sentence! Imagine your book is going to be listed in the New York Times Bestseller listing. What is the book about? What is the main point or theme?
Let’s look at an example from Rebecca McClanahan’s The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). Here is the back cover copy. It’s 134 words.

Are we responsible for, and to, those forces that have formed us—our families, friends, and communities? Where do we leave off and others begin? In The Tribal Knot, Rebecca McClanahan looks for answers in the history of her family. Poring over letters, artifacts, and documents that span more than a century, she discovers a tribe of hardscrabble Midwest farmers, hunters, trappers, and laborers struggling to hold tight to the ties that bind them, through poverty, war, political upheavals, illness and accident, filicide and suicide, economic depressions, personal crises, and global disasters. Like the practitioners of Victorian “hair art” who wove strands of family members’ hair into a single design, McClanahan braids her ancestors’ stories into a single intimate narrative of her search to understand herself and her place in the family’s complex past.

Based on that description, do you have a good idea of the family history’s focus? Now here’s a one-sentence blurb from Kirkus Review:

The account of a writer’s quest to understand her place in the grand generational scheme of her family.

While not as in-depth of course, this one sentence sums up the main idea of the family history.

Once you’ve summarized your family history, then reread your entire manuscript. Keep referring to your summary and one-sentence blub. Now revise to ensure everything points to your primary theme and focus.

Naturally, one of the most difficult parts of family history writing is the temptation to include everything. This is why I suggest to my clients and students to write a two-part family history with the narrative story as part one and the compiled genealogy as part two. By having a compiled genealogy that records everything, you won’t feel as driven to include every fact and every person in the narrative. You can focus the narrative, or story, more tightly.

As Rebecca McClanahan said in an interview I did with her, which will appear in the March 2015 issue of Writer’s Chronicle and will be available to read on my website,, after the print issue is out:

Though I labored to stay true to fact—by citing precise dates, census records, historical events, interview responses, specific documents, or artifacts—my first allegiance was always to the larger story, the journey of the family tribe, which I suspect is the journey of other families, other communities. To stay true to the larger story, I had to exclude most of the facts I’d gathered.

Those facts can all go into the compiled genealogy of your book, so you, too, can stay true to the larger story of your ancestors. Keep the focus of the larger story in mind as you revise your manuscript.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Additional Reading
For more on editing your family history, here are two helpful articles:
  • “Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps,”
  • “25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy,”
For more on revising your family history, you may find these articles helpful:
  • “Shape in Writing: What Is It and How Do You Achieve It?” by Paulette Bates Alden,
  • Tips on Revising Creative Nonfiction,
  • “The Revision Process: How I Prepared My Book for Publication,” by Chuck Sambuchino,

Sharon CROPPEDb (2)Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is the author of eighteen books and hundreds of articles, essays, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every major genealogical journal and publication. Some of her books include You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research.
Sharon’s work has also appeared in numerous literary publications: Creative NonfictionBrevitySteinbeck ReviewPortland ReviewHippocampus Magazine (where her essay, “Switched at Midlife” won “Most Memorable” and was selected for the Best of Hippocampus, May 2013), and Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art (where her essay received Honorable Mention in the 2012 Creative Nonfiction Contest). Sharon’s essays have also been finalists in contests for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and in Creative Nonfiction’s True Crime contest (“The Ghoul of the Queen City”), and for publication in River Teeth and Calyx.

Sharon teaches graduate courses in Creative Nonfiction Writing for Southern New Hampshire University’s MA in English and Creative Writing Program. She is also part of the adjunct English faculty for Ashford University, and she teaches personal essay and memoir writing online for Writer’s Digest University. Additionally, for Family Tree University, she teaches Irish genealogical research, and for Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy program, she teaches the Immigrant Origins course and a new course in Genealogy and Family History Writing.
She can be reached through her website,