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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Genealogy Research Planning is Easy

text: Create an Easy Genealogy Research Plan image of woman writing a research plan

This post was originally the second for the Family History Month 2019 Collection. It has been updated to work with The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap (because it followed the Roadmap, even back in 2019. The Roadmap is a proven path to genealogy success).

The 2019 freebie was a printable "Research Plan Creator" designed to simplify research planning for the research planning newbie. The 2019 Collection is no longer available but the Creator is now part of The Brick Wall Solution Project to Plan Guide.

In a nutshell, the Creator will have you go from a "goal" that is too broad (which is why so many people think planning their family history research is hard) to an actionable research question and planning. The creator is really simple but a good reminder if you keep trying to skip planning or dread it because it's too hard.

Beginning Research Planning for Genealogists

Basically, there are only two parts to the Research Plan Creator.

  • Narrowing your goal to something actionable is the first part.

(FYI, the "goal" is step 1 in The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap, the actionable research question is part of step 4, understanding the difference is important and why I created the Roadmap.)

  • Planning how to answer this actionable research question is the second part.

There are some subtleties you can add to a research plan to improve it but those should be added naturally based on your skills. The more experience you have, the better your plan should be. That means if you are a newer researcher, a simpler plan is OK.

This is like in school before you learned multiplication. If you had three groups of three, the teacher didn't say "what is 3x3?" You didn't have the skills, yet, to answer that question.

Instead, you were lead through a skill-appropriate set of steps like counting the items or adding 3+3 and then 6+3. Multiplication is a faster way to get the answer but until you learn to multiply, you just can't do it. That doesn't mean you couldn't get to the right answer, though.

Research planning is the same. Your plan may be simpler or require more steps because you don't have certain skills, yet. That's OK.

You can still get to the answer even if you don't have the skills to take the most efficient path.

By-the-way, this is why good note-keeping is so important.

Sometimes our plan leads to the answer but we don't have the skill to see it. If you take good notes and are organized, later you can review your research (step 2 of the Roadmap). The version of you with improved skills will recognize that the answer has been sitting in your filing cabinet or on your hard drive all this time.

But let's get back to creating a research plan. The printable Creator in the Family History Month 2019 Collection Project to Plan Guide is very simple on purpose.

There is an extra "step" I recommend everyone do, but it is too complicated to summarize in a form.

This important step is reviewing your background information (step 2 of the Roadmap).

Genealogy Reports for Research Planning

In an ideal world, we all create a research plan, do the research, and write a report about what we found.

Yeah, I know how often that happens.

Your reports provide the background information for future research plans. If "report" scares you, focus on creating a summary of the research you did (and it's much easier to consider summarizing research sitting in your filing cabinet rather than creating "reports" after the fact, too).

I've found as an extreme Occasional Genealogist, when I did try to write formal reports for myself, I'd often get interrupted and essentially never get back to what I was doing.

The best solution is to use a plan to notes to report system. All a plan to notes to report system is, is taking your notes on your research plan and then writing a brief summary at the top when your research session is done (a template for this more advanced option is also provided in the Project to Plan Guide).

Professional Genealogy Reports vs. Summaries

As a professional genealogist I usually do more to create a report for a client but those steps aren't necessary when you're researching for yourself. When I research for myself, I find most of the "extra" is either unneccesary (such as explaining something I know to the client. If I know it without looking it up, I don't need to explain it to myself) or is somewhere else (i.e. not in the report) and I prefer it there.

I mention this because nearly all the early lectures I went to about research planning and reporting were for hobbyists but focused on professional style planning/reports. Often the examples you see are the same because those are succinct and include everything in a compact format.

The fewer skills you have, the more involved your report/summary needs to be. You can still just summarize. You don't need fancy formatting.

What "more" you need to add to a report/summary is pretty simple. It's just like me explaining something to a client. You are both researcher and client so write your summary to your "client." This means if you need a reminder of what something means or the specific idea you had or you had to look up what something was, include it in your report. As professionals we're told it's better to assume the client doesn't know what we know and should explain it. Treat your future self, the "client" that will reread this summary later, the same way. Don't assume you'll retain what you just learned. Tell yourself again.

Realize the same applies to planning.

You may have questions while planning and need to look up the answer. This is the type of information that goes in your plan or summary (as appropriate) so you remember it when you are planning, researching, or reviewing later.

When you are getting started, include anything you need to look up or any questions you have. It doesn't matter if it is something a professional would include, include what YOU need!

Having summaries you can quickly review before you create your (very easy) research plan is more important than a fancy report. Make sure you take note of any small details you may not remember later. These occur during and after research but also while planning research. There will be more of these if you have less experience but even the most experienced researcher needs to keep track of their specific train of thought.

I may not need to record basic details like which month a census is supposed to be enumerated, I've researched long enough I remember most of them (and if I don't remember, I do make a note if it's important). But if there's a small clue I've just noticed, you bet I'm making a note so I can use it later.

The odds of remembering a small clue are not good. Write it down including why you think that clue is important. It might be your frame of mind---after doing that exact planning or research---that made the clue jump out at you. Later you might wonder what you were thinking!

Next week I'll talk more about plan to notes (here's that post) and I have a new template to help you go from plan to notes to summary (UPDATE: once again, the 2019 collection is no longer available but an equivalent template is in the Project to Plan Guide).

Let's wrap this up!

Keep it simple, just create multiple plans when needed.


  • Research planning is easy.
  • You have a broader goal like finding someone's parents, finding a marriage date, or finding a place of death.
  • Your plan needs the broad goal narrowed to a research question or a hypothesis to test. That's how creating a plan will be easy. Try and answer a narrow question with just a few sources. If you don't find your answer, ask a different question and create another simple plan.

I'll say it again, research planning is easy.

Don't try and tackle a massive amount of research with a single plan. A plan can be checking one source.

Write down your plan, take notes on the plan, and summarize your research findings on your plan. Now you've done the complete research process and have great notes! (Learn more about this process in this research planning post.)

The other topic we haven't covered that is very related is keeping a research log. Here's the post about research logs.

You can grab your FREE copy of The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap, here. You can purchase the Project to Plan Guide, here.