Writing and Publishing Your Family History

Penny Stratton


Why is it important to write your family history? Think about the legacy you will be leaving if you write and publish your own family research: not only a legacy for current and future family members, but an important resource for current and future genealogical researchers. If you’ve been researching your family for any significant length of time, probably no one knows your family story like you do. The ease and affordability of digital printing give you all the more reason to write and publish! This subject guide provides information, tips, and resources for the basic steps of writing and publishing your family history.

Ten Steps to Writing & Publishing Your Family History
Live broadcast: Jan. 29, 2014
Presented by: Penny Stratton
Level: Beginner Running Time: 1:02:20
Description: Whether you are just starting your research or wrapping up years of genealogical investigation, you're probably thinking about how to share your findings with family, the greater genealogical community, and generations to come. Consider writing a book! This webinar will give a brief overview of the key steps to writing and publishing your family history.

How-To Guides

Printed Resources

The Chicago Manual of Style (available in print or online)
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference Z253 .U69 2010
The bible of the book-publishing industry, “CMS” will help you with everything from capitalization to punctuation to reference style to guidelines for book production.

NEHGS Guide to Genealogical Writing edited by Penelope L. Stratton and Henry B. Hoff, CG, FASG

Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference and Microtext Floor D5 .M55 2007
A comprehensive guide to citing genealogical works in particular.

Genealogy and Indexing edited by Kathleen Spaltro
NEHGS, 1st Floor CS14 .G474 2003
Practical advice for indexers of family histories, published by the American Society for Indexing.

Portable Genealogists on the topics of writing and publishing, various authors
Four-page laminated guides on different topics relating to writing and publishing: building a genealogical sketch, genealogical numbering (including how to use Microsoft® Word to automatically number your Register-style manuscript), editorial stylesheet, indexing, reference notes, creating a bibliography.

NEHGS, Research Library CS9 .P679 v. 1–6
Available for purchase singly or as a compilation (includes how to apply to lineage societies)

Online Resources

Basic Steps to a Completed Publication

  1. Shift mental gears.
  2. Consider your audience and time frame.
  3. Choose a genealogical format
  4. Define your scope and write a table of contents.
  5. Create a style sheet.
  6. Write! (Or export from your genealogical software into Microsoft® Word.)
  7. Add narrative and images
  8. Read, refine, repeat.
  9. Index.
  10. Print or publish.

Genealogical Formats

There are two commonly used genealogical formats: Register style and the ahnentafel. You may choose to follow the standard formats or adapt them to meet your own vision. If you modify the format, just be sure to be clear and consistent--your readers will thank you! The examples below are from the book So Proudly We Hail, which includes both a Register style and ahnentafel portion.

Register style

Register style begins in the past, with a common ancestor (often the immigrant to America) and comes forward in time. It gets its name from The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, which developed the format more than 100 years ago. An article or book can treat descent from a common ancestor; a book might also contain several sections or multiple chapters, each traced from a different ancestor. Download the template.

The basic building block of Register style is the family sketch, which treats a couple and their children in a standardized way. With a numbering system that organizes the data and clarify who is who, each main person has a distinct number. For each person, you give the following information in the order listed:

  • Place of birth/baptism and birth/baptism date(s)
  • Place of death/burial and death/burial date(s)
  • Place of marriage and marriage date

The same information is provided for each spouse and for each child. Read more about Register style and citation formats.

Register Style Numbering

How to: Number in Register Style
with Penny Stratton
Level: Beginner
Running Time: 3:39, CC

Register style example


An ahnentafel, or ancestor table, begins at or near the present and follows a direct line of ancestors as far back as is traceable or for a certain number of generations. Each person is numbered. If you are tracing your own ancestry, you would be number 1, and each person would be numbered in a particular order from there.

Your father would be number 2 and your mother number 3; his parents would be 4 and 5; her parents would be 6 and 7, and so on. Men are always even and women are always odd. You double a person’s number to get his or her father’s number; you double the number and add 1 to get his or her mother’s number. Download the template.

How to Ahnentafel

How to: Number an Ahnentafel
with Penny Stratton
Level: Beginner
Running Time: 2:39, CC

ahnentafel example


Organization Tips

  • Define your scope: Do you want to write about one particular ancestor, or do you want to try to touch on everyone in your family tree?
  • Create an outline by drafting a few different table of contents.
  • Appendixes are good places to tuck things that are of interest, but do not necessarily fit in the main part of the book!

Example #1: Table of Contents from The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts

Sample TOC_Lowell

Example #2: Table of contents from So Proudly We Hail: Ancestors and Descendants of Harold and Elsie Cole (Whipple) Morgan Five different families are covered in parallel sections, each in Register style, each traced from a common ancestor.

Sample TOC_Seligman

Writing Tips

  • Be clear. Be consistent.
  • Create a stylesheet.
  • Cite all your facts, with clearly stated sources!
  • Make sure you understand the numbering system for your format, and implement it correctly.
  • Interpret and present data clearly and chronologically within each entry.
  • Incorporate narrative where appropriate.
  • Incorporate images to help bring your ancestors to life. List of selected online image sources
  • Become familiar with commonly used abbreviations, such as the ones below:

Ab./abt.aboutint.intention of marriage
Æ, aeage m.married
b.bornnéemaiden or birth name
bap., bp.baptizedn.f.r.no further record (after marriage)
bur.buried, burialN.S.New Style (Gregorian) calendar
co.county, companyO.S.Old Style (Julian) calendar
d.diedsiccopied exactly from original
d/o, s/odaughter of, son ofunk.unknown
d.s.p.decessit sine prole
(died without issue/children)
d.y.died youngyeo.Yeoman (farmer)
et al.and others

Editing Tips

  • Cross-check all your data.
  • Read, revise, repeat.
  • Have someone else read.
  • Don't forget to check citations!

If you’re exporting data from genealogical software, this step is even more important as missing data can create some interesting sentences! This handy editorial checklist can help guide you through the process and make sure your elements are consistent.

Layout Tips

  • Microsoft® Word can:
    • Automatically number a Register-style publication
    • Establish certain styles for genealogical formatting
    • Add index tags and automatically generate an index
    • Be difficult for insertion of images
  • Images
    • Scan at a high enough resolution for print (300 dpi).
    • Either insert images throughout text or make one or more photo inserts.
  • Size and format
    • 6 × 9 is a standard “trim size.”
    • Determine pricing of different formats, including pricing of color pages, with your printer before setting up your file.
  • Print-ready PDF is needed for printing.

Indexing Tips

  • Main entries are surnames, with given names as subentries.
  • Consider including place names as well, with country or state as main entry and city and/or county as subentries.
  • Index women under all surnames they have ever had.
  • Index only after final page numbers are known. Note: If your final layout is in Microsoft® Word, you can insert index “tags” in your Word file and automatically generate an index; this tagging can be done at any time.
  • The indexing process will uncover inconsistencies—be prepared to make additional revisions!

Example #1: Indexed surnames

Index sample_names

Example #2: Indexed place names

Index sample_places



What publishers can help with:

  • Editing
  • Book and cover design
  • Page layout
  • Photo/image scanning
  • Indexing
  • Preparing files for the printer
  • Warehousing and distribution (mailing/shipping)

Some publishers and publishing services have a physical "brick and mortar" presence and work more traditionally; others have an online presence only.

Some brick-and-mortar publishers services have expertise in genealogy and family history:

To find others, search for “genealogy publishing” or “assisted self-publishing.”

Online printers/publishers

  • “My Canvas,” from Ancestry, MyCanvas.com Export from your Ancestry tree into book format. Note: With this service there is no possibility of editing text.

Examples of online printing/publishing services with no particular expertise in genealogy or family history:

Finding help from professionals

Need help?

Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.

Meet one-on-one with our genealogists

Want research guidance from a professional genealogist? Our experts provide 30-minute to two-hour consultations in person or by phone.

  • Find elusive ancestors—Whether you are searching in the U.S. or abroad, in the 17th or 20th century, our genealogists have the knowledge to assist you.
  • Locate and use records—Vital records, military records, deeds, probate, and more—if you’re wondering where to look for them, how to read them, or what data you can find in them, we can guide you.
  • Get more out of technology—Feel like you could be making better use of your genealogy software? Curious about websites and databases that might be relevant to your research? Let us help!

Schedule your consultation today or contact consultations@nehgs.org.

Hire our experts in Research Services

Whether you are just beginning your family research or have been researching for years, NEHGS Research Services is here to assist you. Our team of experts can:

  • Conduct hourly research
  • Break down “brick walls”
  • Retrieve manuscript materials
  • Obtain probate records
  • Research and prepare your lineage society application
  • Organize your materials and files
  • Write narrative biographies about your ancestors
  • Create customized family charts

Hire Research Services today or contact research@nehgs.org, 617-226-1233.