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How to capture a loved one’s personal history: Part 3- Organizing the manuscript

Part 3 in a series of posts to help you capture a loved one’s personal history

You’ve collected the stories from your loved one, and even typed them- congratulations! You truly have gathered a treasure trove. But to make it most accessible and enjoyable for future generations, you’ll want to do some organizing.

As you interviewed and transcribed, undoubtedly you saw that certain events or topics repeated at times. And perhaps others were mentioned but left unanswered questions. Now is the time to make all this make sense.

Begin by grouping like content together. If she told about her first job both in the second interview and the fifth interview, cut and paste and move content around in your transcription so that common content is grouped together. (At this point, I often make a duplicate electronic copy of the transcription file, so one is maintained as a direct transcription, and the new one becomes a draft manuscript.) Once it’s grouped properly, you can easily eliminate duplication and identify gaps.

After you have common content together (and because you are quite familiar with this life story content by now!), you are in a good position to make decisions about the best way to organize this personal history tale.  The most traditional organization format is chronological, beginning at birth and moving forward through the years. For many people and their tales, this makes sense, especially if you have done a fairly exhaustive series of interviews.

If you have done more of a “highlights” approach to recording memories, perhaps a thematic approach would be more appropriate. As you listened and transcribed, you will have noticed themes arise that recur as dominant or significant throughout the years. Or significant interests, talents, or character traits may be an organizing structure. There is no right or wrong way to organize a personal history manuscript, so long as you think it through and make decisions that work for both the content and the audience who will be reading it.

Break your manuscript into chapters or sections based on your organizing criteria (chronological, thematic, or otherwise).  You might even come up with catchy chapter titles or short quotes from the history that can serve as headings and previews to the content inside.

Even though you marked unclear passages and perhaps addressed them while interviewing and transcribing, you will still end up with some missing pieces and confusing content at this point. Be sure to plan for a final interview session, once you have a draft organized, to clarify unclear passages and fill in the gaps of missing content. Use that time just to answer questions and gather the specific information you need to make the manuscript cohesive and coherent.

When I was editing a draft personal history manuscript composed of a lifetime of journal entries (nearly 400 typed, single-spaced pages!), I quickly noticed there was a gap of six years in which this great lady had not written in her journal. The primary problem that concerned me was knowing- from reading elsewhere in her history- that her youngest daughter was born during that gap in time. Though it was impossible, and unnecessary, to recreate six years’ worth of journal entries, it was important to record that piece of their family history- the birth of a precious daughter. So I made sure that memory was captured and included in the manuscript.  Watch for significant holes that should be filled to tell a cohesive tale.

If you missed the earlier posts in this series, catch up with Part 1: Interviewing Technique and Part 2: Transcription for more tutorials on capturing and writing a loved one’s life story.


After you’ve organized this manuscript for a loved one’s personal history, you can move on to preparation for printing, which I address in another series of posts. Follow these steps to preserve and share a loved one’s life story for posterity.

Part 1: Editing and Finalizing Text

Part 2: Layout and Design

Part 3: Printing Preparation and Decisions

Your sacrifices to gather and record this history will be appreciated for generations to come. Well done!


I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment below. Was this useful? If so, I’d really appreciate you sharing on Facebook.

Have you grabbed a copy of my free e-book of writing prompts? If not, you can get it here.

Don’t leave your tale untold…


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