Things I’ve Learned in Ten Years of Newsletter Editing, by Juliana Smith

ten.bmpThis week marks a big milestone for me. It was this week ten years ago, that I was hired on full time at Ancestry as editor of the Ancestry Daily News (this newsletter/blog’s predecessor).

Wow, have things changed! had a few hundred databases online when I started in 1998, but there were no censuses or record images online at that point. To search those records we would have to travel to repositories that held the microfilm and we were thankful for the head-of-household indexes that were available. Of course they weren’t online yet either–we didn’t get head-of-household census indexes online until early March 1999. Census images began being posted in 2000 along with Civil War Pension Index Cards. There was no, although was a popular and fast-growing online resource. And DNA testing? What’s that about?

When I first took the job, I had a young toddler in the house. Now my beautiful daughter is proud to tell people she’s almost as tall as I am and will soon pass me up! Over the years I had to learn to find a balance between work and family, although I still occasionally burn dinner when I get caught up in my work. Fortunately my office is next to the kitchen so I can smell the damage before flames erupt.

As I’m in a reminiscent mood today, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years here at Ancestry.

Finding Holes
If I ever want to find a hole in an area of my research, I should plan an article around that very topic. Never fails. As soon as I start writing about how I made this amazing find, I’ll find holes in my logic. But it’s a good way to keep my research on track. Try it. Write up a brief summary of the research steps you’ve taken and keep it with your research log. Not only does putting it in writing help you to better analyze your research, but years from now when you’re wondering how the heck you came to that conclusion, it will be right there for you.

Trial by Fire
If you want to learn about something, try to write about it. I guess that’s why they made us write reports in school. The best history class of my life has come in the past couple years by writing The Year Was… columns for the newsletter. Try it with one of your ancestors. Research the year they were born, immigrated, married, etc. As you learn about the events of the time, you may find that you better understand what prompted their decisions.

When I was researching The Year was 1902, I found that a huge coal mining strike occurred in the United States. My great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in 1902. He even went back home and came back again with more family members. He was a coal miner, as were the other family members, and it’s possible they were recruited to fill in for striking miners.

Be Yourself
I reviewed some of my earliest articles this past week and one thought struck me. Bo-ring! I was working so hard to be professional in this serious business of writing, that I was leaving no room for fun. I remember wishing I could get some kind of response from our readers. But one day I decided to do a funny piece on those virus hoaxes that were circulating and I was amazed at what a little levity did. It also made it much easier to write because I felt like I could be myself and still do a good job (hopefully) of sharing information.

If you’ve been having a hard time writing your family story, don’t try to make it sound like you’re writing an encyclopedia. Insert some of the passion you have for your ancestors when you tell their story. When you are writing what you feel, you’ll find the words come more easily and the story will be much more interesting to your family.

Take Chances
Don’t be afraid to take chances. Mistakes are the best way to learn something new. Explore new resources. Experiment with new tools. (Just create a backup first.) Everyone is a newbie when new technologies appear or when our research takes us into uncharted waters. Dive in! The worst that can happen is that you’ll learn what doesn’t work.

Simple Can Be Best
Sometimes the old fashioned way is the best way. While technology is great, sometimes it’s good to go back to “simple.” When I’m in a writing rut, I’ll take a pad of paper and a pen and abandon e-mail and the Internet for a sanctuary away from technology. It can be a comfy chair in another room, my garden, or even in the car waiting for my daughter. Brainstorming and writing outlines on a simple pad of paper has broken me through research brick walls and writers’ block countless times. Try it the next time one of your ancestors has you stuck. Step away from the distractions and write down notes, theories, steps you’ve taken, and steps you want to take. Then with your notes in hand and a clearer head, you’ll be better prepared to attack that brick wall again.

No matter how many articles I write on staying organized, I’ve learned that it will remain an ongoing challenge. Don’t get down on yourself if your office gets cluttered once in a while, or if you’re behind in filing. Stuff happens. Schedule a few minutes a day to do a little grunt work and you’ll find that soon you’ll be back on track.

If your current filing system isn’t working for you, consider revising it. Break down large files into smaller more manageable ones. And the best part? Reorganizing is a great way to review your files and you may end out making progress in your research, which will of course lead to more filing, which can lead to more finds. And so the circle of life continues.

Genealogists Rock!
One other thing I’ve learned is that genealogists are generous to a fault. This is a community that gives selflessly to its members in the form of tips, moral support, preserved records, random acts of kindness, stories shared, recognition of accomplishments, a kind ear, and in countless other ways. Family historians revel in their fellow researchers successes and are thrilled to see photographs of your Great-aunt Madge or hear how you found Grandpa Henry. I am truly blessed to have been in the company of such people for the past ten years and hope to be in this family-oriented community for the rest of my life.

Thanks to all of you who have written to me and been supportive throughout the years. Special thanks to all of the columnists that have written for the newsletter throughout the years and have made my job easier, and also to all of my co-workers who make The Generations Network a great place to work. I count you all among my blessings, my friends, and my family. I hope to continue putting out newsletters for many years to come.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

9 thoughts on “Things I’ve Learned in Ten Years of Newsletter Editing, by Juliana Smith

  1. You mentioned RAOKG.
    I found this resource through a recommendation which I obtained from a contact that I obtained through find a grave website. It was the easiest and most informative return. This is not a free service (nor should it be), but the cost is simply a charge of costs incurred by the volunteer (copying, mileage, etc.).
    However, in my case I was not charged although I had asked what I owed. It was suggested that I simply make a donation – which I happily sent $50.00 a a HUGE thank you.

    You see, my mother in law only knows her biological fathers name, maybe place of birth and the marriage date of him and her mother. Then nothing. Her birth certificate has no information (New York City, NY). No date of birth, birth location, nothing – just his name. This service was able to provide confirmation that they were married in CT all the information from the certificate and went a step further and found her step father and her mothers marriage – which she did not know the date. ROCKS and I WILL utilize the service again.

    Thanks for mentioning it. Apparently, volunteers are always welcome and you can select what you are willing to volunteer for.

  2. Thank you, Juliana, for your always readable and educational article ideas!

    I look forward to the newsletters and have told countless people to sign up for them.

  3. Congratulations, Juliana! I know from traveling the country that EVERYONE loves you and your articles and newsletter! And we all fervently hope that you’ll continue to include us in your Family History Circle for many decades to come!

    Take care,

  4. Juliana, I have enjoyed your publications for a long time and never took the time to comment. Your Ancestry Daily News articles helped me so much in my earlier research and I really missed them when they went away!
    I’m thankful I can still read your articles here and will continue to frequent here as long as I can!
    Thanks for all your contributions to so many!

  5. Dear Juliana,

    I loved your article!
    A friend of mine sent it to me via email today, knowing that I am interested in geneology
    and writing.

    I have to confess that this is the first time I have read one of your articles.
    Facing about 2500 emails in my inbox every day and running several sites,blogging and my own newsletter, I tend to delete anything that does not need my most urgent attention.

    Therefore even though I have probably received your newsletter several times, I am afraid I did not read it. Rest assured from now on I will be looking out for your articles.

    Also if you have a direct link to your articles I would like to place it on the website. for my readers to enjoy.


    Kitty Jellinek.

  6. Congratulations on 10 wonderful years, Juliana! It’s hard to believe I’ve been reading your articles that long – how time flys! Your funny, witty words always make interesting reading, and I’ve learned quite a lot from your excellent advice and insight through the years. Thank you for being a part of our lives for the past decade and, hopefully, many more decades to come!

  7. Hi, Juliana,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your article, as usual, but the paragraph on writing your story caught my attention, since I have bee pondering how to put stories and family trees together. I have many stories (of my own life and my own recollections–some with photos). These are now only connected chronologically, and my attempts to use some software programs leave me with more problems than solutions in editing. I wonder what others are doing?

  8. Thanks so much to everyone who posted here and to all the folks who wrote via email. You all truly made my week!

    Hope yours is happy too!

  9. Several years ago I read several of your articles on organization suggesting that we use a separate file folder for each family group. You also suggested that we write down what’s in the file, what research needs to be done, and conclusions that we have come to. That bit of advice did wonders for my organization, and when I read this article I thought I should let you know what a great help it has been. I would add, though (and maybe you did), that we should date those notes in the event they get mislaid. I really like the Weekly Journal’s new format.

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