Genealogy: The Mechanics of Correspondence
Keep a copy of the letters you send, at least until you get an answer. On the computer it is easy to create a file or document of “outgoing mail” and just add each letter as it is written. Periodically you can delete older letters that you don't need to keep, though the small amount of computer space may make keeping them indefinitely a better choice. When you need to refer to a stored letter, use the “find” feature of your word processor, inserting a few keywords that you recall (such as the name of the recipient, the address, or the subject).
Before we get into what to say in a letter requesting information, let's talk about some basics that should be a part of every letter.
Making It Look Neat
Use standard letter-size paper when writing. If the recipient files the letters, standard-size paper makes it easier, especially if they use a two-hole punch at the top. Smaller-size paper tends to get lost in the stacks or slip between larger papers.
Make your letter attractive. Crowding the page leaves the impression that reading it will be a chore. Leave sufficient margins on all sides. And leave a blank line or some space between paragraphs to set them off. If you do not have a typewriter or computer, take care to write legibly, neatly, and briefly.
In this electronic age, many letterheads are prepared on the computer. Use a large-enough font of type. Those with poor eyesight may mistake the 1 in your letterhead for a 7 if it is fancy script or too small.
Including Your Contact Information
Keep it brief! And keep it focused. This is probably the most difficult part of letter writing. You are eager to give details. But you soon learn that the shorter your letter, the more successful it is. The key is to be concise. Don't use ten words when five would do. At first you may need to do a draft and then rewrite. As you develop the skill you will experience an increased success rate. If you have a computer, you can create some “boilerplate” paragraphs that you can insert in letters. One might be to introduce yourself, another might be to request a search for an estate, and so on.
Include your name and address on the letter, and e-mail address if you have one. Letters can get separated from an envelope. Without an address, the letter you spent so much time composing may never get a response. Position the address at the top of the first page, not at the end of the letter. When it is answered or filed, the responder can then immediately identify the sender without having to shuffle through the whole letter. Small courtesies that lighten the responder's load put you in a more favorable position for a reply.
Invest in a small rubber stamp with your name and address. You will use this often. When you write to someone and include enclosures, rubber-stamp the enclosures on the front so the recipient knows at a glance how to reach you. If the recipient photocopies your enclosures and sends them to someone else, that person also needs to know who supplied the data. (Alternately, use small stick-on mailing labels.)
Spelling It Correctly, and Getting the Right Zip Code
It is disappointing to have the letter returned in a few weeks because you misspelled the street name or inserted the wrong house number. Recheck the address. If in doubt, use a telephone book or online directory. The post office has assigned four additional numbers to zip codes to assist in getting the mail to its destination.
An SASE for Reply
Many repositories and individuals will not answer letters unless you enclose an SASE. While you are at it, make it an LSASE (Long Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope). The responder may have important data to send that will not fit into a smaller envelope. The responder is forced to prepare a long envelope, put postage on it, and hope for some other use for the smaller stamped envelope you sent. Your request might be set aside and forgotten. Or the responder may opt to send you a brief reply that fits the smaller envelope and decide not to include copies that could have been easily slipped into a larger envelope.
More on: Family History and Genealogy
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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