7 Takeaways from the Family History Writing Challenge

7 Takeaways from the Family History Writing Challenge

If Lynn Palermo,  The Armchair Genealogist and host of the Family History Writing Challenge, had been able to channel my thoughts over the last 27 days, she would have heard me say some bad words. She would  also have heard some philosophical mutterings, along the lines of “What does not kill you makes you strong.”

Today I offer aloud and in public my final summation: Thank you. I never would have done this on my own. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again. But it was a great experience and I learned (or remembered) a lot, both about blogging and writing in general and about my blogging and writing habits in particular.

To wit:

1. Blogging every day and writing in private every day are two very different things. It’s important to decide which best serves your ultimate family history writing goal.

By committing myself to blog every day, I committed myself to public scrutiny. In some ways that feeds into my worst perfectionist writing habits. I don’t write first drafts but, rather, edit as I go along.  I work hard to make my writing look easy. There is no way I am going to post something I am not reasonably happy with.

But daily deadlines are good for me. They can’t change my perfectionism but they force me to try to be perfect more quickly. And if you are going to write a book for the general public, as opposed to for your family or other more private audience, it’s good to think about both public scrutiny and meeting deadlines.

2. Realize that there may be different goals for your writing and that’s okay.

In my case, I want to write a book but I also want to grow an audience for it beforehand with a blog. So less than halfway through this writing challenge I realized that putting up posts without pictures would not serve one of my goals, that of publicizing my writing. What good is working hard on my sentences, if no one is inspired to read them?  So I decided I needed to take the time to find and edit pictures for my posts.

Today, however, I’m providing information that doesn’t require illustration. I think. I may be deluding myself. You may have stopped reading by now because I didn’t put up any pictures. Oh well.

4.  When you have conflicting writing goals, decide which is the most important.

I started out with a notion that I had to put up my posts the night before and schedule them for 3:30am because that would be better for blog traffic (I’m not sure if this is true or not). Posting the night before would therefore meet the goal of using this challenge to generate blog traffic, thus publicizing my book.

But I realized that I am much fresher for writing in the morning. So if I wrote most of a post the day before and worked on finishing it the following morning, the post would be better. Would anyone notice? Maybe not. But I would.

4. Figure out your writing strengths and allow yourself to go with them, at least some of the time.

Some topics may be easier for you to write about than others. Allow yourself to write about them rather than imposing on yourself an artificial idea of what you should write all the time.

For example, for this challenge, I decided to write about two members of my family, Ezriel and Viktor Kornmehl. I found the focus extremely useful and will try to incorporate the one-subject-at-a-time method when it comes to book research. But I find writing about personal topics, things that I have some passion about, far easier than trying to render research findings coherent. So when I realized that Feb. 22 would have been my mother’s 100th birthday, I allowed myself to write a personal post. It was a good break, a mini-mind vacation.

5. Be willing to be flexible and change in midstream, whether on short or long projects, in public or in private.

I mentioned before that I started putting up posts with pictures because that was a better way to meet one of my writing goals. Similarly, when I realized that my writing was better when I finished posts in the morning rather than struggling to post them the night before, for some elusive goal of generating more traffic, I made that shift too. It both cases, it was better to change mid-challenge than to be consistent for consistency’s sake (though that’s always a temptation if you are an editor as well a writer, as I am).

This piece was going to be titled 10 Takeaways from the Family History Writing Challenge. It was far easier to change the title than to struggle to find more examples because 10 seems like a better number. That’s really OCD. And I was really tempted.

6.  Allow others to help if they’re willing.

Another of my temptations is to hole up and do everything entirely on my own. Isn’t writing a solitary pursuit? Well, yes, but research doesn’t have to be. And I’ve been extremely lucky in knowing two people, Jill Leibman Kornmehl and Lydia Davis, who are interested in family research in general and in researching my family in particular — and who are willing to share their findings with me. Thank you both.  I literally couldn’t have done this without you.

7. Realize there are some things you can’t change and that’s okay too.

I can’t entirely change my basic habit of revising as I go along rather than writing a rough first draft.  But why do I need to try if it works for me? Find your own truth, your own writing comfort zone. You may need to go outside of it sometimes and in some ways, but you also need to honor who you are as a writer, however annoying that person may sometimes be.


That’s if, folks. Thanks for coming along with me on this journey.  I’ll continue to blog, of course, just not as often. I have other work to do and find, the kind that pays the bills. And — big news — I’m planning to write a book proposal. This challenge not only helped me find a better focus for it, but also gave me more confidence that I know my way around this topic and that I’ll know where to look for help when I don’t.

Thanks again, Lynn. You’ll channel no more bad words from me.

12 Responses to 7 Takeaways from the Family History Writing Challenge

  1. Lynn Palermo says:

    Thank You Edie for participating in the challenge. I’m happy you found some value in it and I truly enjoy your writing and following your stories. I love your takeaways from the challenge, I found myself nodding in agreement. Perhaps next year you can be a guest author telling us about your book, how’s that for a carrot? Did I just hear another bad word?
    Lynn Palermo recently posted..Writing Family History with Author Ryan LittrellMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Well done, Lynn — you’ve combined both a carrot and a stick! It’s great to have your invitation to write about my book next year as an incentive, and if I don’t have a book, I’ll have that invitation on hand to beat myself with ;-).

  2. I participated in a 30-day blog challenge in my first year of blogging, and you’re right, it is very good for you, even if it sometimes tastes like castor oil as its going down. We were encouraged to swap guest posts with others, so although some of the material on my blog was written by others, I still had to spend time writing for someone else. But the best outcomes was the wealth of material it added to my baby blog. That solid foundation pays off.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Nature Is Ready For Her Close UpMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Oh, you’re a braver woman than I — a month with 30 days in it, rather than 28! And what a great idea to swap guest posts with someone else. Yes, having a months’ worth of posts and a solid basis for research methodology is a very good thing, especially now that it’s behind me.

  3. Kristine says:

    It looks like you learned a lot and if that helps your final goal of publishing a book I think it was time very well spent. Even if it didn’t pay any bills.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. No matter the subject, writing is writing. I hope I can use some of these lessons in my own way.
    Kristine recently posted..Less Wordy Wednesday – Look for the LightMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      You’re welcome. And, yes, writing is writing, no matter the topic. I’ll be glad if this helped you in any way but the real takeaway is that everyone has to find her own path.

  4. Anna Redsand says:

    Interesting reflections, Edie. I nearly always enjoy reading what other writers have to say about their writing process and love talking with them about it. I do not need pictures; I’ve had to get used to how bound people are to visual images these days and make myself include pictures. I’m a word woman. I especially related to #2, as I’ve been working with an issue of having different goals for my writing–namely, separating my writing goals from my publication goals. Congratulations on completing this challenge!
    Anna Redsand recently posted..A Weekend in Santa FeMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Anna! It was wonderful to have your post to give me a day’s breather. I thought of including the fact that I allowed myself to “cheat” by that means. But I couldn’t think of a good “takeaway” for that. Make friends with talented writers because you never know when their topics will become your topics? Don’t be afraid to ask other people to write guest posts…? I suppose those are both valid. But anyway, it was great to have your your participation again and your input now.

  5. Jill says:

    It certainly has been an wonderful journey this month. Thanks for taking me along for the ride, it was quite a research challenge too. But in the end….a huge success. You did a marvelous job giving the Doktors Kornmehl a new life ~ they turned out to be so interesting.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      The trip wouldn’t have happened without you and your initial Doktors Kornmehl piece, so you couldn’t have not been there. They really did turn out to be fascinating, and the team research effort was a huge success.

      More to come of course… this was just one of the more intensive journeys!

  6. I enjoyed reading about your writing habits! One sentence here is my favorite: “deadlines . . . force me to try to be perfect more quickly.” That is priceless, and I agree! There’s only so much re-casting of phrases that can be done in a given amount of time, and that’s a kind of relief.

    On one point I’ve come to the same realization that you have — I like to write posts the day before and then “finish and polish” in the morning, and post them in the morning. No matter how hard I try to concentrate on details in the evening, I can’t re-create my morning self. Everything looks clearer in the morning, and my previous night’s work always startles me with its repetitions and circumlocutions. Biological rhythms rule!

    Blog traffic is a mystery to me, still. It just surges back and forth like the tides, and there’s no predicting. I just try to post every hour when I’m awake. I try not to think too much about it!

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us!
    Mariann Regan recently posted..The Church Was Black and White. Your Thoughts?My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you for coming by! I’m glad you enjoyed — and could relate — to several of these writing habits. It’s funny how much of my life I spent not realizing I was a morning person (really, the part before I moved to Tucson, where everyone goes to sleep at 10pm, from NYC, where I had to beg people to eat dinner before 8)!

      Not thinking about times of posting is very wise. It’s just something else to worry about when we’re not trying to be perfect, right!?

      I remember our mini-chat on Twitter. Hope the mysteries of WordPress are all being revealed…

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