Where's the Beef? (Written narrative bios add so much enrichment)

+49 votes

As American entrepreneur Dave Thomas used to ask, "Where's the Beef?"  By the way, Notables Project volunteers, his profile could use some TLC and using him as an example befits the subject of this post.

We have many new WikiTree members and their additions to WikiTree are terrific. But, I see so many new profiles which have birth, marriage, death and where these occurred with little additional information. One of the great things about WikiTree is it is designed to have narrative biographies for each person found in WikiTree. There's not always a tremendous amount of information to work with to create these but there is often more to be found than is being used.

Many of us joined WikiTree and then went thru GEDCOMpare. Going back thru those additions to write narrative biographies takes time and each person works at their own pace and has their own system for doing this. That's not what I am writing about.

What I want to exhort all of us to do as we are creating single profiles is to please take the time to create written biographical narratives for these individuals. They all have stories beyond born, married, and died. There is so much more to be learned and so much more enrichment to your genealogical experience if we take the time to learn something about these ancestors and then share it with others.

For anyone looking for assistance in digging a little deeper in order to create narrative biographies, please send up a flare here in G2G and there are dozens of us who would be happy to assist you.  

Happy WikiTree-ing and thanks to Dave Thomas for the enduring memory.

(Leaders, feel free to retag this as you may see fit.)

in The Tree House by T Stanton G2G6 Pilot (251k points)
edited by T Stanton

This is one of the things that we set out to improve when we started the new join process for the Profile Improvements Project earlier this year. Prior to that, the Badge was a guarantee. 

Now we ask new members to take the Voyage and encourage members to review and, when possible, improve one profile from their own watchlist every week. We think it is a small step in the right direction.

[edited to revise wording as we have made a slight adjustment to the continuing activity]

Gee, we should at least have Wendy as a child listed.
Honestly Debi, while my own overall goal is to write well defined profiles by following PIP guidelines, that commitment is exactly why I haven't joined the project. I don't want to say i will do it and then not have the time.
Rather than derail this conversation, I have responded to Jonathan's comment over on the Profile Improvements join thread.


It includes my thoughts and asks questions about whether we have set the bar too high and, if so, to where it should be lowered. I welcome a conversation over there about PIP and the Voyage.
I want to thank you for encouraging members to write biographies and discover the lives of past families.   It is already my "thing" and what brought me to Wikitree.   I actually have to limit the time I spend here each month so I can work on other related projects.   I write family history books in print form for family members.   My current project is researching my parents and telling their story.  The grandchildren may not be terribly interested now, but I  did not start seriously working at family history until I retired.   I would have loved to find information written by a grandparent about their life and family.

As for the biography just being a rehash of "facts", I find that just the writing makes things come into focus.   Ie. I started this month with Peter Cushing of Hingham ,Massachusetts.   He was born,  married once, and died.   The story broaded to  he was only 9 when his father died leaving a large farm to be divided between 3 sons. His oldest brother was executor until the other two reached 21 years.   His middle brother died unmarried in his 20s and young Peter inherited the home he had built.  Peter married soon after receiving his inheritance and had ten children, nine of which survived at his death.   He died young without a will.  His oldest son age 20 and youngest was born afer his death.   I managed to trace and write biographies for each of the children.   Some had lots of information and others not much.  Some of the children already had profiles and I added the rest.  Hopefully a descendant will someday find it helpful and pick-up the story from there.

Sorry about rambling.   Just wanted to say thanks to all the biography writers out there... whether experienced or new.
I spend a lot of time reading chancery cases because they are chocked full of juicy meat. You can usually find out who could read and write, and the colloquial language really comes through especially in depositions. Plus it's good to stay on top of the various handwriting styles. Our ancestors sued each other like crazy! They referred to it as "lawyering", and it wasn't cheap!
"I find that just the writing makes things come into focus..."  I agree.  Most of the time when I start writing a bio and begin to see what is missing, I stop, do more research and often find more info & sources that fill in the blanks. Researching and writing for each family member provides much more writing material than just a direct line, comprehensive vs. focused. The writing is why I came to WikiTree, because FamilySearch doesn't emphasize writing.  Now I can copy my WT bio back to FS and even to Find-a-Grave for more exposure.

13 Answers

+18 votes
Best answer
Todd, perhaps it's not readily evident what additional information could be found.  I've recently been learning more about that when trying to untangle or confirm relationships.  Who lives nearby (such as brothers or a married sister) from a census, or who else lives in the household such as an elderly widowed mother or multiple generations in a household.  The Acadian censuses have the amount of land and number of animals, or sometimes that the family was very poor with only a couple of chickens.  Many records have the occupation of those being married, or of the parents.  Recently on a blended family (second marriage) we saw the older children of the first marriage as godparents or witnesses to the events of the younger children of the second marriage.  These are all interesting things that could be added to a biography.  Not mandatory, but available if you are aware of where and how to look.

Also contracts of land or business sales, inheritances, lawsuits, etc. could be used to fill in the gaps between the "main events".  Even something such as the four children died within months of each other from smallpox (can you imagine the anguish).  Or a series of babies who died in infancy.   Occasionally there will be a mother who died after childbirth, and now imagine that family growing up without the mother - the father trying to manage, and how quickly he remarries (or who is taking care of the eight children if he doesn't).  All of these things bring color to the lives of those profiled.  I enjoy the biographies that bring in what life was like in the times - wars, family life, who worked for whom, merchants and trading.   I like that WikiTree has this capability compared to the dry tree on Ancestry.  I don't think I am an especially good writer, but I do enjoy adding flavor to the lives of those people when I can, even if just a phrase or two more along with the source.
by Cindy Cooper G2G6 Pilot (221k points)
selected by Culley Schweger Bell

All excellent advice, Cindy, and why I suggested people send up a flare in G2G when they'd like to learn how to dig a little deeper or as Anne B says join up with bio builders who can also help people with this wonderful way of learning more. There is often so very much just under the surface if we've learned a few tools for digging.

One story that breaks my heart in my ancestry are a direct ancestor and his brother, both children, who came over to the Penn colony. The father died on the voyage and the mother just a few days after arrival. Only through the kindness of complete strangers were those two undoubtedly anguish-ridden boys almost immediately adopted, treated as biological children of the adoptive parents, educated, and given a path in life. One of them later in life wrote of his life-long amazement at what his adoptive parents did for them.

These are the stories that need to be told!
When we tell family stories or other stories to our kids, siblings and other family members they are valuable because those people now are real people to the listeners.

For years members of my family asked why I had become so obsessed with the family history, they said; It's a bit like history class, lots of dates and names and then but who were they, what did they do, why were they living there.

After many years of searching for the parents and family of my 4 x grt grandfather and thinking he was perhaps an orphan who had been adopted by the Ross family, or in my opinion more likely that he had been beamed down to earth by aliens; I of course when I was looking for something else entirely, found a record that eventually told a very interesting story.

I think I am probably a story teller at heart and the formal records are just the jumping off place.

This does not mean that the BMDs and censuses are unimportant they provide the roots and branches that allow me to tell the stories.

And I really appreciate the people who find and collect those records; it allows me and others to dig a little deeper and tell the stories
+29 votes
I am one of the people guilty of making sure that all of the information is correct and sourced and then not bothering to write a biography. This is about to change! I fairly recently came across an interesting tidbit about one of my ancestors but because they didn't have a biography, I didn't add it. I didn't want to have just this little anecdote all by itself. I fully intended to come back and write a biography including this extra information but I have forgotten where I got the information from! I will still add it to the biography but I don't like adding anything without a source. Short version of this: Write the biography as you create the profile!
by David Carlson G2G6 Pilot (207k points)
I have done the same. Now I jot the note down with the source under Research Notes or another appropriate heading so I can find it later. We all learn the hard way, don’t we?
+27 votes
Biography and genealogy are different things.

My hobby is genealogy. I like finding the weird connections and making sense of the complicated patterns. I also enjoy the "crossword puzzle" detective work ("if [a], then [b], which rules out [c]", etc.), and I have a completionist streak (for both people and sources). Between myself and my spouse and all of our unindexed Lutherans in Hungary, I have gracious plenty to keep me busy without straying from the things I enjoy.

On WikiTree, I write mostly one-sentence biographies: "X was a y in Z". Well, OK, it's actually two sentences, because I repeat it: "Á b volt Cben".

Writing a narrative version of the list of source citations would be a tedious waste of energy. A proper biography tells a story, but storytelling is fraught with all of the problems that writers struggle with, from word choice and connotations to reader expectations and cultural baggage. I prefer not to get into any of that, in any number of languages. That's not my hobby.
by J Palotay G2G6 Mach 7 (70.1k points)
Well said. As a practical matter, newcomers want to see their families represented first and foremost.

As of August 2020, WikiTree listed 24.2 million profiles.

The estimated world population in 1900 was 1.6 billion. Those people are all dead as well as everyone that passed before them and at least half of those born since 1900.

Current status: raindrop in a canyon.
J, I understand that some view genealogy as nothing more than John begat Jason who begat Joseph. I'm not at all suggesting writing a narrative version of the list of source citations as that would be a tedious waste of energy. I'm suggesting that digging a little deeper, which I understand is not always possible, can provide some context and knowledge beyond birth, marriage, a child and death.

T, you're absolutely right that recording the stories is not wasted effort, and if I find one, I do record it -- but I don't categorize that as a biography, because I don't bother to write anything about the rest of the person's life. And sometimes by the time I'm done transcribing the source for the citation, I feel that the story has been told well enough, and I don't repeat myself in the narrative section.

One of my favorites so far is my great-grandmother's brother: "István Heitler was born in Bábolna, went to high school in Felsőlövő, got married in Szolnok, and died in Keszthely." (You can see how far apart those places are on his Time Line on FS: https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/timeline/LBCC-KGS.) I haven't added his occupation (railroad stationmaster) to my one sentence, as it's there multiple times in the sources, and I even highlighted it in his son's birth registration. (It occurs to me that I should add translations of the sources, though, because said son lived in Austria, so his descendants -- if he had any -- may not speak Hungarian.)

I agree with this, and checked my close profiles today to be sure I do have added meat in the relationships I've physically known. Beyond those there are only facts. To speculate is only that.
I did a little research. Collins Dictionary describes genealogy as 'the study of the history of families, especially through studying historical documents to discover the relationships between particular people and their families'.  Cambridge Dictionary reads 'the study of the history of the past and present members of a family or families'. Either suggests genealogy includes biography, but a biography does not necessarily include genealogy (many Wikipedia articles bear that out).  To get that story needs much more than bdm details; also essential are places of living (geography), work, philanthropy, leisure interests, hobbies, etc. Otherwise, we still don't really 'know the person'. We don't have to write 2,000 word essays on every profile, just put the bland facts into legible sentences. It's amazing how quickly and simply 100 or 200 words come together as a beautiful way of honouring our predecessors.
+24 votes

I'm one of the many bio writers here on Wikitree. Is it my favorite thing about genealogy? Heck no! I like the sleuthing part much more. But then I've spent the time to untangle the knots, so the untangling should be documented. And the facts should be stated (with sources). Wikitree's biography section is a marvelously easy place to write a biography.

If you're another bio writer, let me encourage you to join the bio builders challenge.

by Anne B G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
I learned much about untangling and bio writing from Anne B. Yet another thanks to Anne B!
It's MY favorite thing. A narrative biography can tie an individual to the person's place in history and make the history come alive.
Lois, I've noticed what you've done with biography writing and I think you do excellently!  Thanks for your work here.
+19 votes
I'll be honest. I don't spend my time creating narrative biographies because it's tedious, not my happy place, and not where my specialties lie. I am a researcher. I spend a great deal of time researching before adding people to WikiTree. I can add at least 5 well researched profiles an hour to WikiTree. If I try to build biographies, that will be 5 profiles a week at the most. My time for WikiTree is better spent adding profiles without narratives and letting people who enjoy that sort of thing to add them instead, especially if they have a list of sources I provide for them to work with.

I create a great deal of profiles so we can make more connections which is very important. I also connect all the profiles I can as I add them. More profiles also attracts new people. I get emails all the time from nonmembers about profiles I've added.
by Emma MacBeath G2G6 Pilot (937k points)
+16 votes
When I joined WikiTree almost a year ago I was very surprised at the number of profiles I saw that don't have a biography.

Apart from the cost etc of other family history sites I belong to, none of them allow the user to tell the story of their ancestors. The BMD and census records are just the bare bones of that person's life.

Looking at my ancestors Silas Richards and his wife Martha Crosby, they had 4 children die between 1869 and 1873, due to an outbreak of smallpox. This is part of their life story and a story of the time they lived in. Without investigating the deaths of their children, half of the story is missing.

Every time I edit a profile I add to the story of that person's life. This doesn't mean all of the profiles I have created have a narrative biography. I am working on it.
by M Ross G2G6 Pilot (396k points)

I totally agree.  While there is a tiny bit of merit in adding a gazillion profiles with BDM only--yawn!  It isn't until you write a biography the person comes to life and the problems in your research become apparent.

So, why did István Heitler, who was born in Bábolna, go to high school in Felsőlövő, marry in Szolnok, and die in Keszthely?

Part of the point is that I don't know the "why".

He worked for the railroad, which may explain why he moved around a lot as an adult, but I have no evidence of that causality. There were railroad stationmasters who never moved, after all. The detail about his employment is there in the sources; anything more would be ...embroidery.

I know why I was looking at the school records in Felsőlövő: it's where my _paternal_ great-grandfather was from. (István's sister was my maternal great-grandmother.) But I really have absolutely no idea why the son of a Catholic and a Calvinist  ended up at a Lutheran secondary school three counties west of his home. I can theorize that he must have done something spectacularly awful in elementary school, but such flights of fancy have no place on WikiTree.
Maybe the kid did go a distance from school because of misbehavior and maybe not. In Guam for example, the private religious school had a better educational opportunity then the public one or so I was told. If the child was bright and the parents cared, maybe that was the best choice.
+10 votes

The beef, or at least some it, is in the monthly BioBuilders Challenge. As Anne B said, it’s a great place to flex your writing muscles. Come join us. There’s a new theme every month.

by Bob Keniston G2G6 Pilot (225k points)
edited by Bob Keniston
+16 votes

I hate bare bones genealogy, the sites that record names of who begat who leave me completely cold. An advantage of wikitree is the ability to add a biography.

One of my favourite historians famously wrote

'I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.' ( E P Thompson)

As family historians that is exactly what we can do. The history books will tell us about Henry VIII or George Washington. The pedigree books and visitations will tell you about those with wealth and 'gentility'  A  family historian has the opportunity to document and write about the people that don't appear in many history books but are part and parcel of 'total history'. 

Amongst my ancestors are  lacemakers aged five,  a gunmaker  who  lost his job when the US civil war stopped and reduced the demand for guns.  I don't think I have any   followers of Joannah Southcott but there's the man who got thrown out of the strict baptists  and  the young woman who  upped sticks and left her family for America, married and then went on the trail to Utah. I have a highway robber (nothing like Dick Turpin) who was transported to Australia. His son was hung for murder.  You want political history, I can document those who tried to get the vote as the franchise was extended only to be denied it when challenged in the local court. I've stockingers (or framework knitters) and a few hand weavers. One of them was the parish clerk for 50 years.  I've got canal workers, shepherds and  cobblers. There's the woman left to fend for herself ,working in the fields to support her family whilst  her husband left her and started another family elsewhere.  What about the role of women? One of my (great x ?)   got away with stealing because of the the laws on coverture (the court reporter thought she was a 'a bonny, finely-grown athletic Gitana') Another after having been widowed at a young age seems to have gone from man to man to enable herself to survive. 

These stories are worth telling, no-one else is likely to tell them.  I only wish I had more talent for writing 

by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (390k points)
Well said, Helen.

Helen, "the young woman who upped sticks and left her family for America, married and then went on the trail to Utah."

you do have a talent for writing.

+19 votes
Some people apparently don't want to spend their time on biographies, others do.  One of the things that make WikiTree special is that it encourages biographical narratives.

The minimum is not a biographical narrative, but sources.  If you do the research and document your research with good sources, and hate writing complete sentences, you're welcome on WikiTree.  Someone else will eventually complete the sentences.

But if all you want is names and dates and no sources, then you shouldn't have signed our honor code.
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (385k points)
+9 votes
There's a lot more to family history than birth, marriage and death dates/locations. When I dig around for more, I find all sorts of unexpected treasures. These have confirmed suspected relationships, named a father in a murder trial who was not named on a child's birth record, and have revealed more relatives that were previously unknown, or revealed proof of emigration. Background information on occupations can in some cases reveal a lot about a person's life. Some wills can provide lots of details previously unknown. Many of these finds provide clues of other places to look for information, as does understanding local history and customs of the time. Bio writing is a learned skill. Read widely of the genre narrative non-fiction. Practice writing as regularly as possible. You will find your skills improve with increasing practice. The benefit of Wikitree is that bios can be edited as writing skills improve.
by Living Ford G2G6 Pilot (147k points)
Well said Leandra, wills can be fascinating, an ancestor from the early 1800s, left his wife all the dishes and blankets, food and consumables in the family home, but specifically said all liquor and other alcohol was left to his sons.

Did she have a drinking problem or was he of the opinion that women should not drink. I'll likely never know but I certainly would like to
+6 votes

Dave Thomas

[[Thomas-45711|Dave Thomas]]

[https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Thomas-45711  Dave Thomas]

biography as requested.

by Living Britain G2G6 Mach 2 (25.3k points)
Thank you, B! And the link to Dave's Legacy was the right thing to do. What Dave Thomas did to aid in the adoption of foster children is monumental.
You're welcome, T.  After all the discussion about narrative biographies, I figured it might be a little intimidating to 'just do it,' so I just 'did it.'  Now, in the 'spirit of collaboration,' all with good intentions, people within the community would add/substract to/from the profile as the 'spirit' of WikiTree continues.
One minor error in that biography, Dave did not start the phrase "Where's The Beef?", That was Clara Peller. I do not recall any commercial where Dave actually used that line.

Thank you.  What a fun lady!

+2 votes
I, personally, focus on finding records for ancestors, relatives, and persons of personal interest.  I am a researcher, not a biographer.  I leave it to those who share my tree and those other trees I research, to write the biographies, based on the records that I provide.
by Mark Weinheimer G2G6 Pilot (940k points)
As it happens, a recently found relative has chosen to update the biographies of our mutual relatives.  This is the wonder and joy of WikiTree,

It's great when we find a 'complimentary' member, isn't it? I love researching and am good at editing, though I don't mind writing the bios (but don't love it). So working within a project helps - others can write the bios and I'll put my editor hat on and make corrections and additions after they've put in the meat of the subject. We all bring our own skill set to WT.

+6 votes
To me it's like building at the frontier: when a family is not represented at wikitree, you get the scaffolding done first, then later you (or others) can add stories. If you shame people who are putting their families on the site for the first time you will lose them. When I come across a good story about ANYBODY's family I add it to the profile and I hope others will do that for the profiles I have added.
by Jane Peppler G2G6 Mach 3 (31.5k points)

The intention of this year-old post was never to shame anyone. If you read the original post, it reads,

"Many of us joined WikiTree and then went thru GEDCOMpare. Going back thru those additions to write narrative biographies takes time and each person works at their own pace and has their own system for doing this. That's not what I am writing about.

"What I want to exhort all of us to do as we are creating single profiles is to please take the time to create written biographical narratives for these individuals. They all have stories beyond born, married, and died. There is so much more to be learned and so much more enrichment to your genealogical experience if we take the time to learn something about these ancestors and then share it with others."

While bio writing is not my forte (sourcing and linking is more my thing), I took a stab at improving this profile. I work on other notables from time to time.

I agree with others, that at times it is tedious to write a bio.  I often look at the profiles that I have created when I first started and shake my head as my skills have grown a lot since then.

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