about me
blog author
Meet the Author
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.

Read These Posts First

Posts contain affiliate links. See my disclosures page for details.


Creating Custom Genealogy Forms

genealogy form on a desk
Forms can really help you out in genealogy. They can remind you of all the "things" you need to caputre as well as provide an organizing structure.

This post is for lots of kinds of genealogists.
You might be:
...on the hunt for the right form to organize your genealogy.
...looking to go deeper with the information you already have to solve a genealogical problem.
...wondering what information successful genealogists keep and use.

  • First, I want to make sure you're not doing "fill-in the blank" genealogy by using forms. I also want to make sure you're not making genealogy harder for yourself.
  • Then I'll talk about a great resource if you want to create your own genealogy forms but aren't sure what to include. This information is also just generally helpful if you need to solve a genealogy problem.
  • Finally, I want to talk about embracing all this new information, even if it seems like way too much.

All of this started by me trying to answer a question about finding the right kind of genealogy form. Genealogists love forms.

I started answering it and realized, I wasn't sure if the requester was appropriately using forms or just doing "fill-in the blank" genealogy.

Creating Custom Genealogy Forms: Where to Get Your Inspiration

Using Genealogy Forms

Here's the thing, forms are great, but they can also be a crutch. (if you want a checklist instead of a form, I've talked about this very issue for genealogy checklists).

Depending on where you are in your genealogy journey, both your experience and your education, you can be in several places with using forms.

  • You need forms. They tell you what to do (it's a crutch, look out!).
  • You use forms, you don't use forms, you're inconsistent in your research, though. (do I need to comment on the problem here? It's not the forms.)
  • Forms are for babies (don't be mean, forms can be a great time saver or organizing option).
  • You don't use forms anymore because you can customize a piece of paper/digital document to do what you need for your specific need(yeah!)

You never have to give up using forms. But you also can. But don't give them up because you think you're too advanced for them. Give them up because you can be more efficient without them.

So, to go from "fill-in the blank" genealogy (using forms, or genealogy software, as a crutch), you need to learn what else is needed.

This leads to the suggestion that you might be better off creating your own forms (or a cue card) if you need the reminder aspect of a form.

I know what comes next.

"What do I put on my form?"

Creating Your Own Genealogy Forms

I have a lecture handout I've used to create myself Evernote templates for times when I just need a hint. A hint can speed things up but it can also help when you're brain just wants to stop generating every idea from scratch. I'm often tired from doing something else when I get to my own genealogy, and sometimes even when I have to create a research plan for client work.

Forms, templates, and checklists can save time and save your aching brain. Just make sure you aren't doing genealogy with your brain on auto-pilot.

So, back to that lecture handout. It's not mine to share so how would I help my readers? I remembered I had a QuickSheet that mirrors the lecture. It’s actually much shorter than the lecture handout but is available for purchase so at least you can get the information.

This QuickSheet shows 10 steps you need to take and lists 7 worksheets for attacking a research problem. One of the worksheets is included and it's the main one you'll want to create a customized summary form (or family group sheet). It'll remind you of many of the options you could put on such a form.

Get the QuickSheet (laminated sheet) from Amazon or as a Kindle download.

The lecture is one of my favorite's from Elizabeth Shown Mills. I heard it in 2016 but a variation was given recently. I highly recommend hearing the lecture, not just grabbing the QuickSheet. The QuickSheet is more a reminder and won't teach you much (and might intimidate you).

Purchase the 2016 version (the one I've heard), here.
An updated 2019 version is available, here.

The lecture is available for purchase from PlaybackNGS. You don’t get the handout so I recommend purchasing the QuickSheet as a substitute. If you need very specific steps to help you break down a genealogy problem, this lecture is ideal.

However, I want to talk about learning and overwhelm because I'm guessing most people would experience some level of overwhelm with this lecture (but understanding this concept is vital so read on and don't avoid overwhelm).

Moving Forward Can Be Intimdating!

The lecture was amazing but I had to go over the handout once I was home, several times, to get the information to stick and be usable.

Realize, that’s with me already being on-board with the full research process, using multiple types of forms/information organizers, and understanding how seemingly useless information might be vital later on. If you are earlier in your genealogy journey and don’t know these things or haven’t accepted them as true or necessary, you will have a different type of experience.

Buying a lecture recording so you can listen to it again is very helpful in this situation. This lecture covers a lot and that's its strength. You don't often get to see this complete process.

If you're overwhelmed by this lecture, that is OK. I was recently told that overwhelm is a good thing because it means you’re about to learn something. Learning is vital in genealogy.

You should master the concept this lecture covers but you won’t master it in one day. If it takes you two years, that’s OK. Mastering it doesn’t mean you have to follow the “10 steps” exactly. There are many ways to teach this, this is just a well laid out way that works if you are newer to genealogy or quite experienced.

I liked this lecture because it highlighted that you don’t have to do all this in your head or looking at a sheet of notes, you absolutely could use a series of forms. Often we're given an outline of what we need to do and no clue how to actually do it. I know with these 10 steps I'd try to stuff them all in one research plan.

No one would ever finish that plan! Although this uses a lot of worksheets, that is a much more manageable approach. And as I said, you don't have to follow these steps exactly. You could use some worksheets and alternatives for others.

This process can also be used like a “super-form,” it reminds you of all the parts you need to cover (and considering a part and saying you don’t need it for a particular problem is valid).

I can do a lot of this in multiple ways and I can decide which way pretty quickly based on the problem I’m working on. The reminder is what’s so important for me (although I always like seeing how other people layout their research workflow).

You might find this lecture beneficial because you have never considered looking at some of this information or looking at it in the way suggested. It might blow your mind. That’s good, you learned something new!

It’s OK if it is so much you can’t incorporate it all into your research. Being aware there is more to genealogy is a good step to take. Listen to the lecture again later. You’ll get something different from it and be able to incorporate a bit more into actual practice.

Embrace the feeling of overwhelm as an opportunity. You don't have to dive in and devote large amounts of time to fully understanding everything right away (you can if you want but this is The Occasional Genealogist so I always assume you're short on time).

Feeling overwhelmed because you were just exposed to a lot of information you didn't know? No problem. We all have information we don't know. Congratulations, you're human! Most likely it is not vital (to your life) that you know genealogy information immediately. There's no reason to panic at this overwhelm.

I'm telling you the information in this lecture is important. You can believe me or not but if you believe me, now you just have to decide you will learn it on your schedule. That's why I like buying recordings of lectures or online classes I own "for life." Go back and review it later, you'll have a different experience.

When you come up against new genealogy information and it feels overwhelming, don't stop. Don't run the other way, say you don't need it, or be an ostrich and stick your head in the ground.

If you can't take all that information in right now, accept it. Take what you can and plan to come back later and learn more. You may have to do that several times. You will become more successful doing genealogy research taking time to learn an "overwhelming" skill than trying to avoid it.

You can do this!

About Research Planning Specifically

If you use the QuickSheet I've mentioned, you will be going through 8 “steps” before you create a research plan. I just wrote about how easy it is to create a research plan so was I wrong?

No. There are different approaches to research planning but it will also differ by both the project you’re working on and where you are with your research.

If you want to sit down and give a research question the time it deserves, I’d say give it a full day (you might divide that between prep and execution---or it might take multiple days of execution). That is when you want to have all the steps laid out so you don’t miss anything.

Two other things might happen, though.

  1. There’s no way you have a full-day to give to genealogy!
  1. You worked on this, did all the steps and have them in front of you to review and now you’re creating a second, closely related plan (you might also be moving from the intial plan to a second one so all the information has just been created and reviewed).

You can see option 2 means you don’t have to go back and do the identical work again (you might want to update some things but that’s not redoing every step). That research plan will be much easier.

I specialize in option 1, though. You need to be aware all those steps exist and you should be doing them. If you don’t have time for all of them there are three choices.

  1. Don’t do genealogy.
  2. Wing it and do whatever you can in the time you have (usually this means you start searching instead of researching).
  3. Do your best. Create A plan, even if it’s not the perfect plan with perfect background information and ideal analysis, correlation, and recording of existing information.

I often choose option 1 when it comes to my toughest problems. I will do option 2 but I always know it’s the genealogy equivalent of watching T.V. It’s a fun activity but not likely to produce results (and when it does it’s a pain because they will likely get lost!).

Option 3 is so much better than option 2. The more familiar you are with all the parts of successful genealogy, the easier it becomes to break down huge tasks into tasks that fit your available time. You have to learn what is needed, though.

This is why I like the lecture so much and recommend buying a copy. Instead of having to learn about each aspect somewhere different, you can have a quick review with the lecture (and once you are familiar enough with each part, the QuickSheet or your own notes will do).

Going through all the steps in the QuickSheet is a much more efficient road to solving a genealogical problem. Genealogy is easier when you do it in big chunks of time.

Genealogy is also an addiction (or compulsion or whatever word you are comfortable using for an activity where sensible adults will crawl through a snake invested graveyard or spend a beautiful day in a filthy courthouse basement).

If you’re going to do genealogy and actually want to find YOUR ancestors, you need to learn what it takes to do great genealogy. You then can adapt to your less than ideal situation.

Creating a research plan greatly improves your research. There is an ideal process of thoroughly reviewing all your existing research. There's also reality where you may not be able to devote that time to genealogy at once. A simple research plan is better than no research plan.

Finally, ideally you would not create all the worksheets when you sit down to plan research. Many should be part of your analysis of your research while you are researching or immediately after. You can then bring everything together for review for your next research plan.

We all start as beginners, though, this is a great process for whipping your existing information into shape.

Genealogy is not a simple hobby you just pick up, master in a weekend, and finish in a month.

You will need to learn if you want to continue to find your ancestors. Learning can have you feeling overwhelmed. Don't run when that happens, accept it and plan to make progress. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Genealogists that have gone before you have found ways to not only find your ancestors, but overcome mistakes. You have to be willing to learn, even when it seems overwhelming.

Genealogy is not fill-in the blank. You have to think. You can still use forms and I've given you one of my favorite resources if you want to try and create your own. Forms are a great way to remind yourself of the necessary parts or steps, as long as you remember, genealogy is not fill-in the blank.

Genealogy is not fill-in the blank! | The Occasional Genealogist