Journalists and genealogists have more in common than you might think. Journalists are often expected to build a compelling story starting with only a series of bare facts. Genealogists and historians face that same challenge. Journalists rely on several tools to build their stories and some of those tools can be easily utilized by the family history writer: showing context, adding colour, applying a theme, and using transitions.

Context is one of the most important tools in the journalist’s toolbox. The word context means the circumstances that form or surround an event and help others understand and/or relate. Context is made up of setting, conditions and events.

Setting could be the time, place or culture (and this can be business culture) or a combination of two or three of those. Conditions in a news story are typically political, economic or religious. In a business story, economic, market or other business conditions can be used to provide context. Events could be a changing market, scientific inventions or advancements in technology. An event might also be a decision by a business to make an internal change that precipitates a process or operation. All of these can set the tone for you story and give the reader some idea of the context in which is occurs.

Although readers aren’t always aware of it, journalists often use themes to influence how the information presented is perceived. A theme is a unifying idea that keeps the story focused but also helps your reader relate to the subject. Using specific terminology can give a certain impression or trigger an emotional response. By incorporating carefully chosen words and phrases, you can influence your reader’s reaction to the story. A writer can find language that imparts a particular idea or theme, and then sprinkle that blatantly or subtly throughout the story. Themes based on traits include visionary, creative, persistent, strong, reliable, talented. An emotional theme might be frustration, hope, pride, wonder, triumph or even security. Whether you choose to make your theme understated or more obvious, there are dozens of possibilities.

Another journalistic tool is adding ‘colour.’ Colour in writing refers to descriptions and details that involve the senses: sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures. The easiest way to add colour is by using imagery. But when finding images to illustrate a story don’t limit yourself to real representations of your subject matter (although those can be used). You can also use metaphoric images. A photograph of a person climbing a mountain can illustrate the concept of overcoming obstacles. Running through the ribbon at a marathon can impart the idea of success. By thinking outside the box, you can give your audience more interesting imagery that just might keep them engaged longer.

To link everything together, you use transitional words or phrases, which can indicate additional information and present intentions or agreement with preceding material. For example, the terms accordingly, as a result, and subsequently are used to show that consequences are being introduced. To suggest a change of line or reason by signifying alternatives or evidence to the contrary use but, consequently, however, in spite of, or on the other hand. To provide time or sequence, words such as before, during, or finally can be used. Summarizing is shown with after all, in conclusion, and to sum up.

One final note about working with themes, context and colour. Remember to apply the rules of good writing. Your goal should be to mimic a magazine feature not poetry. Don’t get carried away with adjectives or flowery prose. Be judicious with your words using the absolute minimum you need to get your message across. And always tell the truth — but do it in the form of a compelling, engaging story.

Image courtesy of 

This and all material on this website copyright KM Lowe and the Relative Writer unless stated otherwise.