The Lost Art of Letter-writing

It's been a long time since most of us received a real letter by mail.

The Lost Art of Letter-writing

Posted by djwardell on September 26, 2014

It's been a long time since most of us received a real letter by mail.  E-mail has pushed most non-business letter-writing to the background. 

You would think that communication might have improved in the e-mail era.  Frequently this isn't so.  E-mail has become an excuse for sloppy writing, incomplete sentences, and an overall carelessness that comes close to offensive.

While researching genealogy you will frequently find it desirable and necessary to reach out to family and other researchers for assistance.  You're much more likely to get what you need, or get any response at all, if you follow a few simple suggestions--whether your communications will be electronic or by post:

    1.     Neat and Complete

Among the most offensive of messages are e-mails where the sender includes the entire message in the subject and omits the body of the message.  Take time to make your e-mails neat, well-formatted, and complete.  Include your full contact details (including a physical as well as an electronic address), write in complete sentences, and use the same format you would if you were writing a letter to be printed.

When you're asking for genealogical information, consider whether your reader will be more likely to read and respond to a postal letter as opposed to an e-mail.  A modest amount of formality shows respect for your reader and indicates that you take the subject and the possible response seriously.

    2.    Specifics

Carefully explain what information you're looking for and what response you would like.  never assume your reader understands genealogy or research--or that they might be able to read your mind.  Describe your question without going into needless detail but thoroughly enough so that the reader understands the question and its general context.

If you take time to think through the specifics and the explanation of your correspondence, your reader may be better able to help you because answers you didn't anticipate may be triggered by your thoughtful questions.

    3.    Polite

The recipient of your e-mail or letter doesn't owe you a response; many letters will go unanswered.  Most people have as full a schedule as you do and their time is quite as valuable as yours.  Letter-writing is also intimidating for most people and hence tends to fall to the bottom of their project list.

If you respectfully ask for the recipient's help and indicate your seriousness by an informative and well-prepared letter, not omitting "please" and "thank you," a response is more likely to be forthcoming.  Don't be afraid to follow-up with a second request after waiting a reasonable time for a response, but don't start believing you can nag the reader into a reply.

    4.    Brief

The balance between adequate information and explanation and useless detail is sometimes a fine one.  The art of letter-writing includes using appropriate brevity so that your requests are concise and respectful of the reader's time.  Letters so brief that they leave the reader guessing at your meaning are disrespectful.

Concise letters are aided by proofreading.  Every written document needs an edit, even a quick one.  Editing means checking for grammar and spelling errors but also eliminating repetitive material and excessive detail.

    5.    Reasonable

Requests for genealogical information that begin,

"Tell me all you know about ..." or,

"Send me all your information and research ..."

... are likely to go unanswered.  Make your requests not only specific but modest, or at least reasonable, so that the reader doesn't feel you're either waisting their time or taking advantage of their prior research.  Temper your desire to expand your own efforts with someone's help with the knowledge that some success and mutual sharing early on may lead to broader cooperation later.

    6.    Supportive and Sharing

Once you've indicated the desire for help in specific areas, explain that you're also willing to share the results of your research.  This again shows your seriousness, and it's only fair.  You may be reluctant to send the results of years of research to someone you know only casually or may have never met, but you can offer to share the results of your specific research requests with everyone who responds. 

This is often enough incentive for serious researchers to cooperate--but make sure you follow-up promptly on any commitments.

    7.    Careful

Avoid the impression that your request is casual, ill-conceived, or that you are anything other than a serious researcher.  Careful spelling checks and proofreading are essential.

You should also avoid making inflated claims for your research, no matter you good your intentions.  Genealogical books are exceedingly difficult to write, almost always lose money, and are frequently only of marginal value.  Serious genealogical researchers know this, so if your requests include the explanation that you're writing a book you will need to provide enough detail about the project (and its timing) for the reader to decide you're not wasting their time.

Remember that "publish a book" to many researchers means "put up on The Internet," which is not the same thing and something many people want to avoid.