Letterwriting Tips for the Genealogist


The ideal situation when one wishes to exchange information with another would be to have a face-to-face meeting, where each person can ask and respond to questions in a rapid exchange of conversation.

But since this is not always possible, most of us must rely on the clarity and tact of a letter to elicit the answers we are seeking. To help achieve this, our questions should be explicit enough so they can be easily understood and answered.

Letter writing plays an important part in determining the success or failure of many projects. This is especially true in genealogical research. Unfortunately, some Latter-day Saints doing such research have acquired a poor reputation because of their lack of skill in composing a proper letter.

Good correspondence is an art; and an art, says Webster, is “the conscious use of skill, taste, and creative imagination.”

Since a letter may be the only contact a correspondent has with us, its composition should be carefully planned and executed to display our best qualities. Consideration for the receiver’s time is fundamental to the success of any letter-writing venture.

Pedigree chart forms and family group record forms may be used to help communicate genealogical information. (However, the correspondent may prefer not to use them in returning data—many people dislike filling in forms.) Short forms for family group records that do not have temple data are available and are usually less confusing when corresponding with nonmembers.

For example, instead of saying, “My grandfather was the son of John Doe and he was born in Connecticut,” we can place the information on charts, thus eliminating any confusion about to whom the phrase “he was born” refers.

If we are writing a letter requesting assistance, we should reread our letter with this question in mind: If I did not already know the details of the problem, would I know them by reading this letter? Other helpful questions are: If I were to receive this letter in the mail from a stranger, what would my reaction be? Would I want to answer it? If not, why not? How can I improve my communication?

We can observe the common rules of good letter writing by incorporating seven C’s into our correspondence: clean appearance, correct composition, clear expression, courteous manner, considerate tone, concise wording, and complete thoughts. Because first impressions are important, careful attention should be given to the appearance of the envelope and, of course, to the appearance of the letter within the envelope. The first sentence should capture the interest of the reader.

If one needs help on forms for letter writing, a review of English grammar books may be helpful. Inexpensive paperback books can be purchased at most bookstores, and public and school libraries are excellent sources.

The letter should be prepared with such care that it radiates pride when it carries a request or an answer into the world. If it communicates that it is important to the sender, the receiver will attach similar importance to his reply.

A letter written to an individual we do not know well should always include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. The receiver is helping us with information, and we should not expect him to furnish postage also. This indicates that we really desire an answer and that we are willing to do all we can to get it; it also encourages a response from the other person.

Letters to older relatives might include information about ourself and our activities. Letters to strangers or acquaintances, on the other hand, should be short and to the point.

When we are seeking help on one line, we should not distract attention by discussing unrelated lines. It is better not to ask for too much information at once. And we should never say, “Please send me all you have on the Smith family.” They may have many books on it!

A good rule of thumb is to study a letter to see how many sentences contain the word I, and then to see how many of those sentences could be rephrased to use the word you: “You may be interested …” or “Your name and address were given to me. … “We should learn to make the other person feel important—because he is. We want him to answer the letter!

It is not necessary to become involved in religious discussions in letters when seeking genealogical information. As a general rule, it may be preferable not to mention our church affiliation. We want to trace our family lines because we are interested in our heritage and desire to know to which family we belong. Further explanation is not necessary and may lead to confusion.

A carbon copy of each letter should be kept, as well as some type of correspondence log as an index of the letters written. For example, the headings for such a log might read:

Date Written

To Whom

Information Searched For

Date Reply Rec’d

Remarks

Enclosure

1 Oct 1971

John Doe 1401 Peach St. Anywhere

Birth date & place of Mary Smith, b. abt. 1806

5 Nov 1971

Referred me to town clerk, Lynn, Mass.

 

7 Nov 1971

Town Clerk Lynn, Mass.

20 Nov 1971

Birth cert. rec’d.

 

We may not receive an answer to every letter we write, but if we do the best we can and ask the Lord to bless us in our efforts, the way may be opened to fruitful new sources of genealogical information.