Tips for Effective Emails

Genealogy, unlike other hobbies or professions that rely so heavily on written reports and correspondence, does not come with any formal training. There are no pre-requisite courses in technical or business writing for genealogists. People enter the hobby from a wide variety of backgrounds, bringing with them widely varying degrees of education, experience, and training.

The move to digital technologies for research, and for correspondence in particular, has greatly affected the way we write. This is most apparent with the informal styles we now use, and can be seen in our approach, language, and structure. Email, the replacement of the hand-written letter, has taken on the short, abbreviated, and highly colloquial formats first seen in instant-messaging. It has also eliminated, for the most part, any courtesies or formalities the writer might extend to an unknown recipient: whether a new contact or an old friend, the current trend is to treat all of our audience as if they were old school chums.

Formalities and colloquialisms aside, a genealogy-related letter must still perform certain functions. These are three-fold:

  1. State what we already know
  2. State what we need, or would like, to know
  3. Provide the necessary supporting information for (1) and (2)

It is also important that our letter is easily understood by the recipient. If there is any uncertainty at all on the part of the reader, then the letter has failed to fulfill its purpose. This is probably the hardest concept for us to grasp. As the author, we are already familiar with the letter, its content, and its purpose or intent. We know what we have and what we need. The difficulty is ensuring the reader will be able to do the same. Before sending a letter, it is usually a good idea to read it from the recipient's point-of-view. Or, if necessary, have a friend review it for you.

How do we ensure the recipient will understand both the intent and content of our letter? Well, let's expand on the three functions of a genealogy letter that I listed above. We'll add some additional items which should help to clarify the letter:

Your letter can be lengthy or brief, detailed or general (but not vague), formal or informal - there are no set rules or standards. Write in your own style, reflecting your own personality. However, do try to include the items listed above. And do try to present your letter and its contents in a clear and logical manner.

Above all, ensure your letter is courteous and polite. Arrogant, cynical, and derogatory tones will be met with either deletion or responses in kind, neither of which are useful. Try not to be demanding when asking information or assistance from others - it may be vital for you to receive it, but it is not critical for them to offer it. Finally, never forget those two magic phrases - "Please" and "Thank You" - including a thank-you note sent to those who have offered or provided you with assistance.

For those who prefer a more formal structure to their letters, I will outline the various components of a letter, and describe their functions, below. Please note that certain components may be combined or even omitted altogether. They are:

Subject Line: Brief and concise. Precisely defines, in a few words, the content or subject of the letter. If too general or too vague, it risks possible deletion without having been opened and read. This is the first part of the message the recipient will see. Thus, it should serve to catch their interest and attention. Even when responding to someone else's message or post it is still a good idea to review and, if appropriate, change the subject line, especially if your response deviates from the original topic.

Salutation: "Dear Sir", "Dear Mrs. Smith", "Hi Bob", or even a simple "Bob." Messages for mailing lists or forums may start with "Dear List." Current trends are towards informality and many leave this out entirely. Consider it optional even though omitting it may be viewed as bad form by some.

Opening Paragraph: Explain, in two or three sentences, who you are and why you are writing. Are you interested in a certain area, surname, family, or individual? What is your connection to those individuals, families, or regions? Is it for genealogical or other research? Why do you believe the recipient can assist you, or you, them? A good opening paragraph will discuss the author's research needs in relation to those of the recipient. It also serves as an ice-breaker that, hopefully, will increase the recipient's comfort-level with the author and make them more receptive to corresponding and exchanging data.

Main Body: This is the real "meat" of the letter, where you provide the three "function" items listed earlier. State what you already know, what you need or want to know, and any supporting information that goes along with them. Ensure the text is easy to read and logically formatted. For example, state what you know first along with the data that supports it. Then, state what you want and, if necessary, give the supporting information for it, too. If dealing with two families, break this down into two separate paragraphs, one for each family. Don't move back and forth between multiple topics within a single paragraph. Don't jumble information together haphazardly. The text does not have to be lengthy, or exhaustive and comprehensive in detail. But, it does have to be understood by the recipient.

Closing Paragraph: Summarizes the letter. If you have questions or requests, state them here: because they are separate from the main body of information they become more apparent and more easily read and understood. This is a good place to thank the recipient for any time and effort that may be involved in their response. Also, if desired, this is where you can reciprocate on the recipient's expected kindness by offering them information or assistance in return.

Many people group the Opening, Main Body, and Closing paragraphs into a single paragraph. This is possible with short, concise, messages providing the elements of each are fairly obvious. If these elements are not readily apparent, then it is best to use a multiple paragraph format.

Complimentary Close: "Sincerely", "Regards", "Thanks", "Yours truly", etc. Now considered optional. See comments under "Salutation."

Signature: Your name - it should be complete, both given and surname. Be aware that some people, myself included, will not respond to unsigned emails. Why not? First, I can't reference or rely upon information from an anonymous source. Second, I have personal difficulty exchanging data with someone who is not even willing to tell me who they are. Your name appearing in the "From" field of the email does not count - you could be sending the message from someone else's computer.

Tag or Signature Line: Optional. Provides brief details on your research - surnames, areas, and dates, etc. It may include links to personal websites or contact information such as snail-mail addresses, phone numbers, and so forth. Many email programs can be set up to automatically add your tag line to each outgoing message. Be wary of using pictures or catch-phrases in your tag lines - those with political, religious, cultural, or sexual overtones may only serve to offend others, so limit your personal beliefs, philosophies or comments to those directly related to genealogy.