Report Writing for Professional Genealogists
By Anne Sherman, owner of Leaves Family History Research Services
When I first thought about becoming a Professional Genealogist, my main concern was the requirements of setting up a new business: tax, websites, brand and prices. What I did not plan was my research reports: what they should include, how long they would take to write and if I should charge for writing them. As I had no experience in report writing, this meant I was heading for a huge learning curve.
My first attempt at compiling a client report was created using a template on my family tree software, and I quickly realised that this was not a suitable system or format, so I did some online research, and found a wide range of suggestions and experiences. Although all professional researchers write some kind of report for clients, few discussed the formats they used. It was not until I came across the Genealogists.com website that I saw samples of research reports they use for their clients (https://genealogists.com/report-samples.html). Due to my lack of preparation, my first client report took over a week to write!
What I learned from other genealogical websites, was that there is no single format that everyone uses, so in many ways you can design your own report, however there are accreditation and research organisations that have their own expectations of what should be included and how reports should be written. If your work is for them, then you must follow their procedures.
The Research Plan
My first failing was that I had not created a research plan for the client, I had one written in my own notes, but this was not in any organised format I could give to the client. This plan should be the basis for the final research report, and should include the research objectives, what the client already knows, your analysis of the information given, the records and research strategy you plan to use, and any issues or limitations you may encounter.
The General Format of the Report
Although I have not found it expressly said, the look of your research report should match your branding and be easy to read in terms of layout and language. Each page should contain the details of your business either in a letterhead format or in the footer. Personally I use both on the first page, on subsequent pages the header holds the page number using the ‘page 1 of 4’ format, and my business details are in the footer. The page number is important regardless of how you send the report, as once printed pages can be lost or mixed-up, in which case the content could be confusing. Some researchers also include the date the report was written alongside the page number.
The report should be divided into easy to identify sections. I use following headings:
- Details of the client.
- Research Objectives.
- Background Information.
- What the client already knows.
- Research Undertaken.
- When, where and for how long.
- Research Limitations.
- Here you can discuss missing records (e.g. lost census records for a relevant village, or that UK civil registration only stated in July 1837)
- Records used.
- Depending on the research I use the tables below which I have developed for those used by Genealogists.com.
- This can be organised to match the objectives or by the Head of each generation for large multi-generation reports. In the case of the latter I found that sub-headings such as: Generation 2: Owen SMITH (1862 – 1902) Father of George SMITH, has proved useful to the client.
- This should also include any proof of your conclusions when necessary.
- Recommendations for Future Research:
- This can form the basis of a new research plan if requested.
With this format saved as a template, your report writing can begin before you start your research and you can add to it as you conduct the research.
For shorter research projects, such as a lookup of a specific record, you can adapt this report to a simple letter making sure you still cover the basics of record found and an analysis of the record/source.
Reports should never mention you as a researcher and should not be a record of your research process, e.g. “first I looked at this register and then I looked at another record”. It should simply state your findings and your analysis and conclusions.
The past tense should also be used. The 1851 census does not show that John Smith lives at 123 Main Street and has 4 children, but that he lived 123 Main Street and had 4 children.
The report should be written in a way that most people would be able to understand, this means no long technical words, and any acronyms and abbreviations should be written out in full the first time you use it. E.g. Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMD). I first came across the Flesch Reading score when I created my new website. This is a system which can calculate how easy text is for people to read, and it is part of the Microsoft Word proofing tools. (In Options, Proofing and tick the ‘Show Readability Statistics’ box.) Using this system a score of zero means it is unreadable and 100 means it is extremely easy to read. The minimum score for plain English is 60.
In this example the following sentence has a score of 38.4:
An examination of the BMD and parish registers was unable to locate the marriage of John Smith to Mary Brown during the first decade of 20th century.
Changing ‘An examination’ to ‘A search’ improves the score to 50.9, whereas a simple “A search of the records mentioned did not find the marriage of John Smith to Mary Brown” has a score of 80.
Another area you need to think about is the citations, and if you will include them within the text, as footnotes or as endnotes. I am not aware of any professional preference and I use different systems depending on the length of the report and how much space they take. I do not see the point of having a ¼ of the page of research and footnotes taking up the rest of the space, but the use of endnotes can make reading the report harder if the client relies on them. For one large multi-generation report I found it easier to include citations as part of the transcriptions, and used footnotes for the other citations.
Proof reading is another important part, and is best carried out a day or 2 after its completion. If you have the services of a proof-reader (even if it is your partner) that can also be an advantage. As well as checking the words make sure your dates are correct. A client will not be happy if you give a year of marriage as 1876 when it was actually 1867 .
Charging for report writing
Report writing can take often longer than the actual research, especially if it is done after the research has been completed. I found that some researchers let the client know how much time (and money) the report writing is likely to take, others just included it in the price, and a few did not charge for it at all, meaning they can spend hours working without being paid.
Not all clients appreciate the need for a report and may ask for just the research findings. One of my clients insisted that I simply type the results into an email. Reluctantly I tried this approach and found that even simply listing the results took 20 minutes. Once the client had read the email, I was then inundated with questions and my replies took the best part of 2 days to answer – time for which I had not been paid for. Had I written my usual report all of these questions would have been answered. Fortunately for that client I do not (currently) charge for writing email replies.
Research reports, regardless of who the client is, should cover all of the salient points related to the research request in an easy to read format, which identifies you as the researcher. Report writing is a necessary part of professional genealogical research and can be time consuming, so it needs to be properly planned and charged for.
- Association of Professional Genealogists (APG):
Work Samples by Elizabeth Shown Mills
- Board for Certification of Genealogists: Work Samples
- Genealogists.com: Report Samples
- How to Write Plain English by Rudolf Flesch
- Society of Genealogists: Hints & Tips Sixteen: Writing Genealogical Reports
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[Editor’s Note: Anne Sherman is the owner of Leaves Family History Research Services.]
About Leaves Family History Research Services
Leaves Family History Research Services is a genealogical business covering England and Wales, with an emphasis on the counties of East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the East of England.
Its owner is Anne Sherman, who has over 30 years’ experience of family history researching and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies, from Strathclyde University, and is a qualified and registered tutor.
Leaves Family History caters for any family historian, from those who want someone to do the research for them, those who would like to learn how to do their own research, and for other researchers who require specific information to be looked up in the archive offices covering East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
Leaves Family History has clients from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and America and has researched families across England from Cornwall in the South West to Northumberland in the North East. As well as the popular 19th and 20th century research, we have undertaken two projects involving Yorkshire and Lincolnshire residents who migrated to America in the 17th Century. The business was also chosen by the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? (UK) to research part of the story of a well-known celebrity, who must remain nameless until the episode is shown on TV, and has conducted research relating to a probate case and a divorce case in which a previous family inheritance played a part.
Anne also teaches and coaches family historians who are either beginners or need help with a brick wall. This can be done in person or online, and she has recently produced a six module online course which can be completed at any time. Unlike many other online courses this course is closer to a physical class in that there are written texts supported by lots of practical activities using the free UK family history websites, and support in researching your own family history during the course, and the opportunity to discuss any aspect of the course with Anne via email.