I usually transcribe documents or manuscripts in full so that I do not miss important details. However, often these documents ramble on for pages and pages of legal jargon, so it is useful to produce a summary or abstract of the document for sharing and for future quick reference. I am thinking primarily of wills where there is a tendency to include a lot of superfluous or repetitive information.

What are the best practices for producing document abstracts? Are there published or widely-accepted guidelines for this? In particular, I have struggled to know how to best handle the following points:

  • What tense to use in the abstract? These documents are usually written in the first person ("I bequeath to John my son..."), and should that tense be maintained in the abstract, or is it acceptable/preferable to transpose it into third person ("He bequeaths to his son John...")?

  • Should original spellings and abbreviations be maintained? In a transcription, one should attempt to reproduce the text verbatim, but in an abstract is it acceptable to expand abbreviations or correct obvious spelling mistakes of names or places? For example, writing "William" instead of "Wm" in the abstract, or correcting "Darbyshire" to "Derbyshire".

  • Can I change the order of information in my abstract? For instance, in a will the testator makes bequests to son John, then wife Ann, then sister Jane, then daughter Mary, then son William; in the abstract I might start with wife Ann, then sons John and William, daughter Mary, and lastly sister Jane. Or is a goal of the abstract simply to go through the document noting the key points, but omitting superfluous information, in which case the order should not be changed?

In addition I would welcome any other insights into producing quality and consistent document abstracts. I realise I've mentioned a lot of closely related questions here but I'm not expecting anyone to address all of them in an answer.

2 Answers 2


Here's the link to a pdf article "Transcribing & Abstracting," by Linda Woodward Geiger that goes over abstracting that may be useful to you. In it, her example is in third person/past tense.

There's also a section on the Board of Certified Genealogist's Certification website section "Skillbuilding: Producing Quality Research Notes," which gives some information. Elizabeth Shown Mills talks a bit about maintaining the arrangement of the document.

The National Institute on Genealogical Studies also talks about maintaining original order (as well as spelling) in their wiki contribution, "Abstracting Documents," on FamilySearch.

The Board of Certified Genealogists gives some great examples of both original documents as well as their transcripts and extracts here.

If you can get a hold of it and need more information, Elizabeth Shown Mills, in her book "Professional Genealogy," has a whole chapter on the subject (chapter 16).


Professional Genealogy (2002), ed. by Elizabeth Shown Mills, chapter 16 "Transcripts and Abstracts", by Mary McCampbell Bell. I found it to be (for me) the single most useful chapter in the book, as I hadn't yet seen the topic covered anywhere else.

The "further study" section at the end of the chapter includes mention of the Linda Woodward Geiger article, as well as:

Freidel, Frank, ed. Harvard Guide to American History. London, England, and Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1974. See Chapter 1, section 1.3 and all of chapter 2.

Leary, Helen F.M. "Abstracting," in Leary, ed., North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 2d edition. Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996.

There are also numerous additional references on "Interpretation of Handwriting", "Interpretation of Records" and "Interpretation of Words".

I can't recommend this book highly enough.

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