GenToday-L Archive

Effective Correspondence

by Linda Herrick Swisher

PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION in the February 1999 edition of GenToday-L

[This article is several years old but it still holds true today]

"The Bad Manners of Just One Genealogist, Reflect on All of Us"
Ancestry Magazine, Mar/Apr 1994, Volume 12, Number 2

My friend Pamela is the corresponding secretary for a large genealogical society. It's her job to answer the mail, including all research requests. She gets exasperated with people who write to her but have obviously not "done their homework."

"Look at this one, Linda," she says. "It goes on for two pages, but I can't tell what information they're looking for. This one doesn't have a return address. Here's somebody who wants all the information on the Smith family. No first names, no years, no specifics - and no SASE! This lady is looking for information on her great grandparents. They've never even lived in the counties we research."

Small wonder Pamela is frustrated, and there are thousands of "Pamelas" in societies, government agencies, and repositories all over the country. Has a "Pamela" ever received a letter like one of those from you? If you've ever sent correspondence but did not receive a reply, ask yourself, "Did I do my homework?"

Here are some hints to help you.
~ Obtain the Society's or Institution's Guidelines Regarding Correspondence
Write or call and ask for information. Will they answer a letter, or is it forwarded to a local researcher? If a fee or donation is required, how much is it, and how is it to be paid? (By personal check or money order? Is payment required in advance, or will you be billed?) Do they have the information necessary to answer you, or does another organization have the answers you need? Which books or materials will they consult? For example, "Pamela" will search only in certain indexed sources. She may search an unindexed source if names and approximate dates are provided.

~ Enclose a SASE
SASE stands for self-addressed, stamped envelope. It is a long No. 10 business-size envelope, usually with one first-class stamp attached. Your address appears in the center of the envelope, since you will receive the reply. (This is a good place to use gummed or adhesive address labels.) I've read that it's possible to use a No. 10 envelope in which to mail your letter, with a slightly smaller No. 9 envelope enclosed as the SASE. This envelope is large enough for 8 -inch by 11 inch paper, but small enough to fit in a No. 10 envelope unfolded. However I've never actually seen or done this myself.>P> Pamela's society asks that a SASE accompany any request for research, brochures, or membership cards. Not-for-profit societies and institutions facing budget cutbacks, may not have the funds to pay return postage. A SASE may not be necessary when writing to federal or state government agencies. If in doubt, ask about their policy. If you think that one stamp may not cover postage, you may want to include extra postage with your request. If it is not needed, it is usually returned to you.

~ Keep it Simple, Silly
The KISS principle applies to correspondence. Don't ask for too much information in one letter. You may want to write separate letters if you are inquiring about several surnames. Be concise. State what information you need, and include only the background information that may help someone find the answer to your request. Do not send an ancestor chart or family group sheet unless it is requested. However, when writing to a family member, the ancestor chart or group sheet may help explain what you are looking for. Do not confuse the family member by crowding too much into one letter. Do mention the sources you've already checked, and the results, so that you don't waste a researcher's time and your money. Take a tip from Journalism 101 and ask WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN. (WHY and HOW will probably require in-depth research!)

~ Keep it Clean
Use adequate margins and spacing. You may want to number or underline your requests to make them easy to spot. Type the letter if possible. If the recipient reads your handwriting incorrectly, the wrong names could be researched. Use correct grammar and spelling, and check for typos, especially in dates. Have a friend proofread and check for clarity. If your friend cannot figure out what you're requesting, chances are that the recipient won't know either.

~ Use "Please" and "Thank You"
Do not demand information. A response to your letter is not your right, but a courtesy. Be prepared to share the information you have. Use tact and diplomacy, especially if requesting information from distant relatives. The bad manners of just one genealogist reflect on all of us.

~ Keep a Copy!
You will need it to remember to whom you wrote and for what you asked. You should set up a correspondence file and keep a correspondence log. Your log should list to whom you sent the letter, the date it was sent, the date a reply was received, and the result. How can you follow up on a reply you never received to a letter you don't remember sending?

~ Know the Publication's Guidelines
The genealogical query is an important correspondence tool, usually written to a genealogical periodical or newspaper column. Must you be a member of a society to submit queries to their publications? Is there a word limit? A fee? Restrictions on the number of queries? Must the query be typed?

~ Limit Abbreviations
Do not use abbreviations unless the publication's guidelines require it. The query editor will insert the appropriate abbreviations. If you use the wrong abbreviation, the query may be printed incorrectly, which can mislead a researcher.

~ Be Specific
Mention a certain name, time span, and geographic location (usually a county). A query such as "Researching all Smiths in Kansas" is too vague to yield good results.

~ Be Concise,
Especially if there is a word limit. You don't need to mention your relationship to the person in your query. Include any information needed to differentiate the person you are looking for from others with the same name.

~ Make a Match
Match your query to the appropriate periodical. Queries mentioning Illinois should be run in Illinois periodicals, not in those from other states. If a query pertains to Cook County, Illinois, submit it to periodicals covering Cook County. When writing to a newspaper column, select the column that features the locality mentioned in the query.

~ In Short:
When it comes to correspondence, the replies you receive will depend in a large part on the information you provide. Pamela and her counterparts are usually unpaid (or underpaid) and overworked. By following these hints, you can make their jobs easier, and you will reap the rewards.

Editor's Note: Many of these same principles can, and should, be applied to e-mail correspondence as well. A short, polite, well thought out message to the correct party will yield the best results in any kind of correspondence.


Looking for info:Francois (Jean Marie) Hogue md Marie Lamere possible from Sorel, Canada. Albert Hogue md Jevelina Champagne, Canada. Joseph Lamere Sr md LeReine Lagimodiere Canada

Seeking names of parents of Delight Belle PHELPS, b. Vermont, 1825>Wi.,>Ill., d. 1894 in Chicago.

Looking for parents of Caleb BUCKMAN or BUCKNAM, bn 1810, Charlestown NH.Mother:Hannah from Medford, according to his marriage record. Brother Ora, also born NH 1816 & brother Guy bn 1790's MA. Any help appreciated.

Researching all Tuxhorn families. We have lots of info already gathered. Convinced that all are related to the brothers that came over from Bielefield, Germany. Please email at

Researching Whitworth family of Ft. Scott, Kansas, 1800s. Please email me at

Searching for the family of Simon Lee Bales/Bayles b. 6-3-1894 in Switzerland County IN d.? F. William Bales b. 7-1-1857 in Gallatin, KY M. Lucy McCreary b. 1870 in Switzerland County, IN. Sue Houchin

VIZE FAMILY HISTORY research by family member. Require info re all family members particularlly info re George Franklin Vize, Marriner born Rotherhite, England, died at sea 1873.

Looking for info re:following names in the Elizabeth, N.J. area: STEEG, ROESEL, HEIPERTZ, GEIGER, SULLIVAN,. In Raritan County looking also for ROESEL. In Piscataway, N.J., researching the name of PFEIFER.

Need info on Frederick and Riney (PICKETT) MINGO, and children: Cary, Isham, Shedrick, Lazuraus, Earnest, Martha, Mary, & Savinia MINGO, all of Patterson, La.

Rearching-Frank GRIMES descendant of Abraham & Mary GRIMES of Patterson, La. Had son Frank GRIMES, bef or aft moving to Houston, TX.amd living in projects called Cuny Homes.

Seeking parents and siblings of above subject, m. Glaphry Cox 1759,

Goochland Co., Va. Moved to Wake Co., NC 1768. (Jack Davis)

Looking for any fam: George C Young & Wilhelmina Archer ("Mina") Young (bn Cant) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Children:Alice, Edith, Cicele, Ethel Marie, Margaret, George Elvin, Leonard & one died yng. Children born between 1893-1910.

SEEKING PARENTS FOR:Eva/Anna Catherine BRINE, BRION c1772 Lanc/Berks> Dauph, PA)Samuel PETERS (bc1821Dauph, PA)Jacob RUDY (bc1760 Lanc>Dauph, PA)Maryann SWARTZ, SWARTS (b1820 Juniata>Dauph, PA)Catherine UNDERHOLD, UNTERHAUTZ (b1790 Lanc/N'land, PA)

Info on this PA family:1) FRANTZ, William (bc1750-d1804) of Upper Paxton, Daup, PA Margaret ? ch:FRANTZ, Adam (c1785PA-after1824) of Dauphin Susannah Geesaman (1788-1826) of Berks,Dauphin; Henry; Jacob; William; Elizabeth

I wish any and all help in researching family names as follows: earl m stoll barbara e gourley -

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