Monday, November 12, 2012

Writing an Engaging Intro

I'm going to switch things up on you. Many moons ago, I wrote an article that I meant to do something with and never quite got around to it. I recently submitted it to the Illinois State Genealogical Society's Education Committee. For those of you who won't see it from that source, I thought I'd publish it here. The article is about writing an engaging introduction...usually the hardest thing you'll do whether you're writing an article or a book. So here it is.

Writing an Engaging Intro

Writing articles is the natural outcome of any research project. If you are only doing the research and not reporting your conclusions, you're doing only half of the job. However, the thought of writing anything causes many people to have flash backs of miserable academic experiences, and so, they put off that part of the task. That's unfortunate because when the facts are fresh and you're inspired by what you've found out, you're likely to write the best piece of your life. 

Writing is a learned skill. The more you do it the better you get at it. I have found that many times people simply need a nudge to get them started. You don't have to be a great author to write an article about your family and have it published in a quarterly. Most society quarterly editors are begging their members for articles. With a little care and an analysis of what you know, you can write an article with a great introduction, which is half of the battle.
A well-constructed introduction draws your reader into your article. Unfortunately, too many authors are stuck in the chronology mode, thinking that they must start at the beginning of a person's life. Family-related writing frequently starts with this type of sentence, "Henry James was born in South Carolina on 5 September 1835." The introduction frequently continues with a dry recitation of facts. Your readers will read your article because they want the information. The problem is that they aren't going to enjoy it. In this article, I'm going to try to change that for you by giving you some suggestions that might help you write engaging introductions.
When I start writing, I use a few premises as a guide. The first premise is that every person's life includes drama, happiness, loss, silliness, tedium, fun, and work. The second premise is that people's lives frequently follow a pattern or illustrate a theme, which can be summed up in a word or two. The questions I ask myself are:

  1. Can I interpret the evidence I have to identify a theme?
  2. Can I state that theme in just one or two words?
  3. Can I write an introduction that supports the theme?
Let's start by looking at the timeline of a person's life--in this case, one Agnes (McKee) Anderson. 

  • 1802 Agnes is born in Ireland.
  • 1830 Agnes marries James Anderson.
  • 1830 to 1837 Agnes and James have children in Ireland.
  • 1837 everyone in McKee family except Agnes moves to the United States.
  • 1851 Cheshire, England census shows Agnes and family working in cotton weaving industry.
  • 1854 Agnes' husband James dies, leaving her with four children.
  • 1857 - 1859 all of Agnes' children marry in England.
  • 1860's brings grandchildren and Agnes is making her home with her oldest daughter.
  • 1864 Agnes' son-in-law dies leaving her youngest daughter a widow with two small daughters.
  • 1867 Agnes (age 65) emigrates from Liverpool, England to New York City, and on to Illinois with her youngest daughter and two granddaughters.
  • 1870 Agnes is living on a farm in Galum, Perry County, Illinois.
  • 1870's Agnes dies sometime after the 1870 US census.
Can I interpret the evidence I have to identify a theme?
A few years in Agnes' life are pivotal. In 1837, Agnes is having her youngest child while her entire family is packing up and moving to America, leaving Agnes behind. Some time between 1837 and 1851, Agnes packs up and moves from Ireland to England, leaving behind everything she knows. In 1854, Agnes' husband dies and Agnes moves in with her oldest daughter. In 1867, Agnes packs up and moves to America, leaving her urban English home of many years and her older children and many grandchildren in England. She moves from urban to rural life.
Can I state a theme in a just one or two words?
The fact that jumps out to me is that Agnes is always separated from family members, and once separated, she frequently never sees them again or at least doesn’t see them for long periods of time. When the McKee's move to the United States, Agnes' father dies before Agnes makes her way to the U.S. When Agnes leaves England, she never sees her older children or her English grandchildren again. The word I would choose to define Agnes' life is alienation. That's not to say that Agnes was never happy or satisfied; but, one could observe that she is always being left or leaving. The people she cares about are never in one place.
Can I write an introduction that supports the theme? 
My first task is to find a starting point and construct an opening sentence. Any one of the movements would work. When Agnes' family left Ireland for the United States, Agnes must have felt deserted. Can I empathize and imagine what she must have felt and remain true to the facts? The move from Ireland to England must have been frustrating for Agnes. She is leaving everything she knows for a place that is farther from her family in the United States. She seems to accept her fate. But life held one more move for Agnes. The move that is perhaps the most traumatic of all when circumstances force Agnes to move from her English home at an advanced age when she probably least expected it. Agnes dies in the bosom of her family but also as a stranger in a strange land bereft of her English children and grandchildren. The last move is the move with which I chose to start the introduction. 

Here's the opening of an article about Agnes (McKee) Anderson.

In the fall of 1867, a 65-year-old Irish widow named Agnes (MCKEE) ANDERSON boards the ship Helvetia at Liverpool, England. Traveling with her are her young widowed daughter Mary Jane (ANDERSON) ASHWORTH and two orphaned granddaughters—Mary Louise Alice and Agnes Eleanor. As Agnes sails from Liverpool bound for New York, she leaves behind her English home of many years, her older children, in-laws, and many grandchildren. Her familiar world and her family simply slip away until they are no more.

Agnes is fleeing the deteriorating conditions in County Cheshire, England. As the Civil War raged in the United States, cotton shipments from the former colonies stopped, unemployment at English cotton mills mounted, and the food riots started. By the time Agnes leaves, the English government—in an effort to ease pressures in the Cheshire area—was paying passages to anywhere outside of England. I’m guessing that Agnes, Mary Jane, and the children took advantage of the government's offer and naturally decide to join the remainder of the Agnes' McKee family in Randolph County, Illinois. The fact that Agnes knows exactly where her family is hints that a thread spread across the Atlantic 30 years earlier when Agnes’ family left Ireland is still holding strong and fast.

The women arrive in New York on 30 December 1867. Agnes, Mary Jane, and the two small granddaughters must find their way through Castle Garden. Immigrants can stay at Castle Gardens if they have no other accommodations. Many immigrants do and describe parts of Castle Garden being covered with maps. They explain that agents list your options for going west and tell you the costs. Immigrants also describe the high walls that prevent the predators of New York from gaining access to unsuspecting immigrants with an eye toward stripping them of anything of value. The scene must have been dizzying for a woman of 65 with her daughter and granddaughters in tow.

The idea is that when you start an article at an interesting point in a person's life, you jump into that person's life with both feet and take your reader along for the ride. With your reader on board, you can then write a transition that allows you to begin a chronology-based history for the person. For example, I could start the next paragraph with, "Nothing is Agnes' early life hints at the alienation that awaits her later in years. Agnes' life begins in Ireland where she is born 3 July 1802. The oldest daughter of Alexander and Mary Jane MCKEE, Agnes grows up on a farm in blah blah blah blah..."
By the time you start writing about the more mundane facts of the person's life, your reader is hooked and can't put your article down. As you write your article and get to the part of the person's life that you started your article with, you will have created a frame that allows you to bring the person's life full circle. You can then write about the remainder of the person's life and state any conclusion you have come to based on your research. 

So fire up your word processor and use the questions from this article to create a framework for your next article intro. With a little thought, you can write an intro that will have your readers begging for more. With a little practice, you can write an engaging introduction for every article you write, and well written articles are always a welcome addition to society quarterlies. 


  1. Loved your article! Informative and kept my interest! ;-)

    1. Thank you. I've been thinking about doing a few of these. I've had people ask me because they know I write for a living.

  2. Too funny...I had it scheduled to post Thursday! Maybe I'll swap it with one of the others you sent and do this one next month.

    1. Oh Julie--Sorry I messed up your schedule! I've been thinking about doing a few of these. I'll try to submit them to you first and not have such itchy fingers!

    2. No worries. We had so much going on with the conference, I wasn't doing much posting. Planned to start posting this week since things slowed down.

  3. I've been over-thinking for a year how to do a character sketch of my mother. I see a black cloud of sadness and don't want her remembered only that way, especially for my children and grandchildren who never knew her. You've helped me see a way through the cloud. Eventually I want to do a sketch of my closest ancestors as an alternative to a boring (to them) chronological, sterile timeline. Thank you...good essential writing advice.

    1. Hi Janet--I have what appears on the surface to be many a sad tale to tell for members of my family too. I have to remind myself that in spite of dire circumstance everybody's life has joyous moments. I try to stand in the person's shoes and write in the present if I were the person telling my story in the here and now. Sometimes that isn't easy to do but the resulting text can become compelling. I'm happy to know that I've helped you. I write this blog in an attempt to be part of solutions.