How do you write your family history?

I was amused recently by a discussion on a genealogy forum about whether we can use family tree software or a word processor to write our family history. A family tree program such as The Master Genealogist or Family Tree Maker or one of the many other excellent programs can keep track of our names and dates but it cannot be used to write reports or stories for our relatives and others.

Most family tree programs will write a report for us if we click the right button. The sentences may be a bit stilted but they get the facts across. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples; here’s one:

Mary SMITH was born to John Smith and Elizabeth Bennett on 03 April 1856 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1861 census in 45 Shuttle Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1871 census in 21 Park Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She married John McDonald, the son of James McDonald and Jean Simpson, on 09 December 1878 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1881 census in Lewis Lane, Glasgow, Scotland. She immigrated on 26 July 1883 in Sydney, NSW, Australia. She died on 31 January 1903 in Penrith, NSW, Australia.

The children of Mary Smith were:

And so on and so on. It’s very uninspiring but it does get the facts across. Of course, it may be missing much of the story that you have stored elsewhere as notes.

There are alternatives. Some prefer to sit down and write the whole thing from scratch in a word processor such as Word. Depending on the skill of the writer it is likely to be a much more interesting read, and will probably contain much more of interest than just these bare facts, such as her nursing of local children, her other relatives on whose advice she moved to Australia, and the death of her eldest son on the voyage out here, and other such examples.

Many family tree programs allow the inclusion of this sort of information as well. The program that I am most familiar with is The Master Genealogist (TMG). It not only allows me to decide which facts will be included in a narrative, it allows me to determine how those facts will be reported. I can craft sentences to my own satisfaction and skill as a writer.

The discussion in the forum, as you can probably imagine, was about the ability of a family tree program to write narrative as well as you can yourself in a word processor. The answer, of course, is no. If the question is, can the program automatically generate prose that looks as though I wrote it myself from scratch, then of course the answer is no. You have to spend a great deal of time looking at the sentences it generates and changing them until they make sense, follow on smoothly from the sentence before, and do not appear as though they’ve been generated by a program. So who has written the prose in this case, you or the program? You have, of course.

TMG can do this, but it takes time, with a lot of trial and error. The most recent version of the program allows you to display a preview of the sentence when you are creating or updating a fact. You can update the sentence for that person only, or you can update a “master” that will use it everywhere that the same type of fact appears.

The only good reason that I can see for doing all of this work is if you are going to be generating multiple reports with at least some of the same people listed for different relatives. The same text will come out for each person no matter how often you run reports for different branches of your family. You may do some tweaking in your word processor once the report has been generated but you don’t have to write it from scratch every time.

If you are just going to do it once, as a professional genealogist might for a client, then it is not worth the extra work of setting up sentences in the family tree program, and you are better off doing it directly in the word processor.

Another advantage to using your family tree program is that it will probably generate a list of sources for you, and will cite them, if you wish, throughout the text. This is much less hassle than making sure you are quoting the right source with the right number every time you make a change, and keeping your superscripts correctly numbered.

That’s my two cents worth, and that was my take-away from the long discussion on the forum.


APG-L Archives at, February 2008.

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