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Good Letters Will Get Good Information

Sooner or later every genealogist has to write a letter either to a relative, a stranger, a library or a government entity requesting information for family history. A good researcher knows that a well written letter that follows certain rules will get an answer much quicker than one that gives out too much information.

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Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Karan Pittman
Word Count: 764 (approx.)
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Sooner or later every genealogist has to write a letter either to a relative, a stranger, a library or a government entity requesting information for family history. A good researcher knows that a well written letter that follows certain rules will get an answer much quicker than one that gives out too much information. Don't let your letters have the following problems.

TOO VAGUE A QUESTION SYNDROME: Don't tell your reader to send "everything you have." That can be an overwhelming request to a relative, and a sure way to turn off a busy government official who does not have the time to look up every deed that has your family's last name on it. Ask specific questions of your reader. For example, say you want a marriage record for Jesse Fowler and Henrietta Gilly in the 1830's. This is a specific request that is easy to search. It may help to write the letter on one sheet of paper, and the request or requests on another. That way the person has room to write the answer.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION SYNDROME: When writing to another person, don't tell your entire family history. This is especially true if writing to government officials. They don't care about your great-great-great grandparents wagon train ride from Missouri to Wyoming. Give the information pertinent to the question. Tell the reader the information that is needed to answer your questions. Always remember that it is better to write a second letter for more information than to overwhelm your reader with the first letter and risk no response at all.

TOO BUSY TO SAY THANK YOU SYNDROME: Be sure to say thank you. Relatives may already be interested in your genealogical research, so answering your questions may be a joy, but it is also time consuming. Most people are not fortunate enough to have their research spread out and easily attainable. They usually have to search through records or on the computer. Government officials and library personnel are not legally bound to answer your questions, so be sure to say thank you to them for their time and energy.

TOO BUSY TO OFFER TO PAY SYNDROME: Always offer to reimburse people for their copying costs at the very least. You may not need to offer payment to a relative or friend, but you should make the offer to pay for costs. Whenever you send a request to a governmental entity or a library, be sure to send some monetary compensation. It doesn't have to be much, but the thought needs to be there. Often the money will be returned, but at least you offered. Whenever copies are required, always be sure to include some money.

TOO BUSY TO INCLUDE RETURN POSTAGE: Return postage is a big one in the genealogical world. By including postage, you show that you realize that costs are involved, and you appreciate the person makes for you. You should send return postage to all people whom you question about family history, even your relatives. Return postage shows that you are serious about your quest for information. It also shows consideration for the other person.

TOO BUSY TO KEEP A COPY SYNDROME: Always keep a copy of any letter that you send to an individual, an organization or an agency. This will let you know if you receive an answer or not. Follow-up letters will be easier to write when you can refer back to the first one. Another problem that often happens to family history researchers is searching for a particular document and requesting it more than once from the same place. This is especially true if the ancestors lived in an area that may have been in one or more counties at one time. Don't become annoying with the same request.

TOO BUSY TO PROOFREAD YOUR LETTERS SYNDROME: Don't ever send out a letter that you have not read over. Be sure to double check your names and dates. It is so easy to mistakenly hit the number 9 instead of 8 and throw somebody off by a century. It is really a good idea to write out a rough draft then write the actual letter from the draft. A person needs to be able to read your letter and pick up your questions and information with no trouble. If a person has to read too long or too hard, you may not get a quick answer or even an answer at all. Look over your letters for clarity.

Letters are an important way to obtain needed information about your family. Practice good writing techniques, and you will get answers.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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