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Writing Letters that Get Results

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The Art of Correspondence is Not Dead
Or at least it shouldn't be, if you want to fill in gaps in your research. A well-written letter can bring a wealth of information, from faraway resources to nearby relatives. Find out how to word your request for the best results.

As you research your family, you'll no doubt come across a need to write letters requesting information or assistance from an institution or family member.

Institutions such as courthouses, libraries and government agencies have all kinds of records and information that will be helpful in your genealogical research. For example, most researchers will, at one time or another, write to the Social Security Administration for information about an individual found in the Social Security Death Index. Using the online Social Security Death Index, doing so couldn't be easier. Once you find your ancestor in the Index, click "Write It" to have a letter requesting information from the Social Security Administration written for you. Then, all you have to do is include a check to cover costs, print the letter, and mail it.

In other instances, your research may lead you to inquire of family members. Since family members are often doing their own genealogical research, collaborating with them is one of the best ways to quickly find information.

To help you along we've put together a selection of form letters to use when requesting information. Whether you use those letters or write your own, it is always a good idea to follow the tips detailed below.

Tips for Writing to Institutions

Keep It Short
There's no need to include your family history or a lengthy explanation of why you are doing research. You're more likely to get a response to a short, clearly written letter. Especially when writing for vital records, the clerks working in such offices probably receive several requests a day and don't really have time to read a long letter.

Make a Specific Request
Let the person that you are writing to know exactly what you are looking for and try to provide them with as much relevant information as possible about the person you are researching. Providing them with the following information will make their search for the information you desire much easier:

  • The kind of record or information you want.

  • The full name of the person you are researching. If you are looking for a female, you should include both her married and maiden names. If you are looking for record of a marriage or divorce, you should include the names of both spouses.

  • The date on which the event took place. If you don't have an exact date, you can give an approximate date.

Remember that certain types of information can only be provided to immediate relatives. If you are requesting such information, be sure to state your relationship to the person whose information you are requesting. If you're not sure if the record you desire is available to the public, it's a good idea to state your relationship (just in case).

Inquire About Copying or Research Fees
Often, public institutions don't have money allocated for the copying and printing expenses that your request will incur. It is a good idea to call ahead and find out if any money should be enclosed with your request to cover the cost of your research.

Tips for Writing to Family Members

  • Begin your letter with news of family interest. Because diving right into requests for information may make you seem pushy, begin your letter with some family news. Consider sharing some recently discovered information about a common ancestor or some news about a relative.

  • Offer to share information. Offering to share your information with the family members you are writing to is always a good idea. They are probably just as interested in the information that you've collected as you are in the information that they've collected.

  • Be reasonable. Unless the person you are writing has already agreed to help you extensively, make sure that you aren't asking anyone to go out of their way to find information for you.

Always Remember...

Keep a Copy of Your Request
You should keep a copy of each request that you send. An easy way to do this is to maintain a correspondence log that lists:

  • Date on which you made the request.
  • Name and address of the person or institution
  • Type of information requested
  • Type of information received
  • Any money that you sent along with the request

Keeping such a table not only reminds you of the information you've requested but keeps a handy list of contacts that you may be able to use in the future. For a printable correspondence log you can use, click here. (To view and print the log, you will need the free Acrobat® Reader® from Adobe.)

Make sure that any correspondence you send is straightforward and easy to understand. If you have trouble reading it, the person who receives it will have even more difficulty. Also, double-check that the names and dates that you have included are accurate.

Enclose a Self-addressed Stamped Envelope
Even if you are writing to a family member, it is always a good idea to make responding to your request as easy as possible. By enclosing a self-addressed stamped envelope, the person who fulfills your request won't have to hunt down your address or find money for postage.

Say "Thank You."
It is always polite to thank someone for their time and effort on your behalf. Let the person who receives your letter know that you appreciate their help.

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
• Have a question about researching your family history? Ask an expert
Step-by-Step Guide: Directory of State Resources
Step-by-Step Guide: Tracking Your Correspondence
Ask an Expert: Effective Communication Online (i.e. Your Nose to Spite Your Face?)

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