Writing an effective report of your research, to a client or yourself

When you research your family (or a client’s family, if you are a professional) how do you write up your research? Or do you write it up at all?

There are a many different formats that one can use in this process. But, regardless of format, your report should have the same parts to be most effective.

The first part is to define the scope of the report. Why are you researching? What are you looking for? If you have not defined a specific goal or a specific research question, how can you expect to find the answer–or know it when you do?

The next part is to identify and detail the relevant information you have already located. This is your starting point. You will want to note every piece of information or potential clue that you will follow in the course of this research.

The third part of your report should be the actual results of your research. This should be fully documented with full source citations of every record consulted. Including all negative searches. If you looked in Book A, Record Group B, and Microfilm X, then you need to note all of these sources with the information, if any, they contained. Be careful to also document exactly what you searched for. If you looked for specific names in an index, for example, record these names. You may have to go back to the same sources in the future to look for other names.

In this section you should also fully analyze and evaluate each source, correlating the information with the information found in other sources, noting and reconciling any conflicting evidence, etc. If you are able to reach any conclusions, you should write out a source-cited proof summary or proof argument.

It is also useful, at the end of your report, to create a list of Sources Used. I will admit, I do not always include a separate source list in every report, because all sources are cited independently in footnotes within the body of the research results. But it can be helpful to include a separate list that collects all of these sources into a single list that can be more quickly consulted.

The final part of a research report should be to make Suggestions for Further Research. If you have constructed a conclusion that meets the Genealogical Proof Standard, you may skip this part. However, if there are sources still left unsearched, or clues left unfollowed, or conflicts left unreconciled, this would be the section where you will note the research that still needs to be done to conclusively prove your case.

By following this practice, even genealogists by hobby rather than by trade can research more efficiently and more effectively. You will no longer search the same sources for the same names time after time (with the same results). You will no longer bounce around with no true purpose and no true conclusions. And best of all, in many cases, simple organization in this manner may be enough to allow you to identify the information you already have, and break through brick walls that didn’t really exist after all!

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Very helpful! Thanks for the tips. It’s so easy to think, “oh, I’ll remember this,” but then time goes by and we don’t. Documenting information is so important!

    Reply

  2. I like the idea of including a List of Sources Used. I’m going to start doing that. Thank you.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Teresa Fraser on November 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Michael,

    Interesting topic. I noticed how well your post is layed out and easy to follow. Good idea to bold the different parts of the report. I look forward to reading your next post.

    Regards, Teresa Fraser

    Reply

  4. [...] This is the best blog post I have read in some time. I have written quite often about the need to form written conclusions in our research, but here Harold describes why so few genealogists appear to do so–or at [...]

    Reply

  5. Thank you so much for this post :)

    Reply

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