Writing a Family History Biographical Essay, Part 3

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Part 3:

Organize  Your Writing Plan

Once you have your subject and essay concept or main idea, it is time to develop your writing plan. Jump into the planning whether you have all the content you need or not. Remember, writing is a messy process, and you will probably weave in and out of the steps we suggest many times as you develop and revise your work.

During the process of outlining and writing, you may narrow your focus, identify new gaps or needs in your research, or even change your concept altogether. As I stated in a previous post, my favorite writing quote is E. M. Forster’s: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” You never know when an insight will occur, so remain open to the muse, even if it requires revising your outline or work in progress.

Part 3: Organize  Your Writing Plan

Once you have your subject and essay concept or main idea, it is time to develop your writing plan. Jump into the planning whether you have all the content you need or not. Remember, writing is a messy process, and you will probably weave in and out of the steps we suggest many times as you develop and revise your work.

During the process of outlining and writing, you may narrow your focus, identify new gaps or needs in your research, or even change your concept altogether. As I stated in a previous post, my favorite writing quote is E. M. Forster’s: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” You never know when an insight will occur, so remain open to the muse, even if it requires revising your outline or work in progress.

Step 1: Deciding Your Organizational Approach

Consider the following prompts to determine your readiness to develop a writing plan for your biographical essay.

  • Go back to your purpose to focus your thinking. Are you clear on your purpose for writing the essay? Can you explain what it is in one or two clear, direct sentences?
  • Think about your audience: What do they need to know to understand your essay and why you are writing it?
  • Do you have enough supporting details to bring the subject of your piece to life?
  • If you are writing a narrative of a specific event in a specific time and place, does your story have a larger point? Do you know enough about the person, time, and place, to bring the story alive for your readers?

Next, decide on your organizational approach. Most family history writers will use some form of chronological organization. However, to make your biographical essay or narrative memorable, you should also have a conceptual approach, point, or theme reflecting your purpose. If you are telling a story of how a young man changed over a specific period of time, you are likely to use a chronological approach coupled with a coming-of-age theme. Your readers will not remember dry details, but they will remember personal qualities, “big ideas,” and stories they can easily recall and repeat.

As I explained earlier, I am developing a biographical essay in which I explore my grandfather’s passion for Percherons and how his involvement promoting the breed reflected and inspired who he was as a young man. In addition, I plan to include a short narrative (vignette) of the day he won Grand Champion Stallion with his prize Percheron horse, Cylaet. This means I have to think about how to support or build to a key point in the essay while making sure my vignette within has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Step 2: Create a Flow Chart or Working Outline — or Both

While there are many ways to organize your essay, two effective strategies include filling in a mind map style or flow chart organizer and creating a working outline. If you are very detail-oriented and have a lot of research to include, I recommend outlining. If you like to capture a concept or idea, make a few bullet points, and then start writing, you might prefer a more general flow chart approach as depicted below. Personally, I often will do both, creating a conceptual map first, then generate the more detailed working outline, but remember, there is no one, right way.

Flow Chart Organizer

Try creating a loose organizational map or flow chart like the one below, then use it as a guide to form a more detailed outline.  Don’t worry about the format of your organizer – just make sure you have clear organizational sections for your introduction, key time periods, and points. I show four central sections here; however, you might have two or eight — whatever is right for the content development in your biographical essay is fine.

Organize and Plan Family History Biographical Essay

Listing and bullet pointing under key section headings like I did in my example below will help you keep your supporting details where they belong.  Like many of our brainstorming and content development strategies, creating an organizational map or flow chart should be done quickly. You can dig into details once you begin a detailed working outline — or, if you are what is known in the fiction writing world as a “pantser,” you can dig in and start writing by “the seat of your pants.”

Graphic Example for Organize and Plan Family History Biographical Essay

Working Outline

The outlining process helps you stay focused on your main idea, avoid “filler,” and get to the “good stuff” — the specific, concrete details, examples, and stories that will engage your readers. The maxim, “plan your work and work your plan” comes to mind.

For example, below is the working outline I created, based on the organizational chart above. I developed this outline by creating key overall headings for major sections of the essay, then I added in content, research, family memories, quotes, and other relevant, detailed content under each heading. I am sure to make many additions and deletions to the outline as I work, but the important thing is to START WITH A PLAN.

Plan Family History Biographical Essay

Don’t worry about using tiered numbers and letters on your outline if formal outlining is unfamiliar to you. You can list or bullet-point your content for each section if you find outlining confusing or cumbersome.

A good working outline is never set in stone, but rather a set of dynamic guidelines

A good working outline is never set in stone, but rather something to view as a set of dynamic guidelines. When you start writing, you will find new insights, research, and voices to include, and you want to be flexible enough to work them into your organizational plan. Whether I am typing madly way on a draft, scanning old family letters, or researching online, I want to make quick annotations and keep my focus and flow on the task at hand.  Later, I will add the new content to the outline and make a fresh print out for the next round.

Step 3: Start Writing!

One last note, even if your outline is not complete with every detail, quote, vignette, or researched fact necessary to support the overall idea of each section or “container,” you can and should start writing. In the process of writing, you will find inspiration and clarity to inform additions and edits to your outline.  For example, if you are not sure how you want to begin your essay, don’t fill out the details for the introduction; just note your main idea and move on. After you see what you’ve written, the right introduction approach will come to you.

The next scheduled post in this series is Part 4: Research Your Subject’s Historical and Social Contexts. It will help you place the subject of your essay in the contexts in which he or she lived. In fiction writing, we call this the story world. Your subject’s story world, or authentic life world, is equally important in non-fiction historical writing.

 

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Cynthia is a twenty-year plus teaching veteran with expertise in teaching writing, literature, and research to students of all ages. In addition to her passion for teaching, Dr. Kiefer is an American history buff, artifact aficionado, and historical fiction writer and researcher.

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