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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Writing Letters

There is definitely a right and a wrong way to extract the maximum amount of information from people or organizations!

Make your letter easy to read by typing or printing. It should be pleasing to look at as well as employ correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. Your first sentence is critical; it sets the tone and should be informative, courteous and introduce the subject of the letter. Ensure that your last sentence makes a favourable parting impression. Including an interesting (but not salacious) tidbit of research findings will add interest to your letter and encourage the recipient to be helpful. When giving information be concise and double-check for correctness in names, dates and places.

Be friendly but not too familiar; ‘humbly optimistic’ is a good tone to aim for. Be aware that Europeans are more formal than those in some other countries; they tend to address all but their closest friends as Mr./Mrs. and could be offended if by the second letter you address them by their first name. Be considerate of the recipient’s feelings when dealing with family ‘skeletons.’

When a follow-up is necessary, be very tactful if there is a discrepancy between your findings and the facts given by your correspondent. In a friendly manner, list the evidence that lead to your conclusion, and ask for that which lead to his. He may be right!

Do not ask for too much in your first letter—one or two specific questions in a one page letter is plenty. Letters that are easy to read and easy to answer tend to get replies.

The long-winded diatribes that never seem to get to the point are unlikely to receive any response at all. Be specific as to the information you are requesting. Never ask for “Everything you know about...”

Include a Pedigree Chart or Family Group Record if this is appropriate to your request. This helps the recipient understand what you need. Specify in your letter any items that you are sending with it. This not only alerts your recipient to the fact that you are willing to share your findings, but your copy of the letter will then contain a record of what you sent and when.

Most libraries or archives will answer short queries (up to 15 mins.) free; if your enquiry will take longer, then ask for their research rates. One tends to get better treatment if one encloses a business-size SAE; (stamped addressed envelope―see below); if you expect lots of information send a large SAE! Be reasonable in your requests to archives by studying what records they have, how they are organized and what is in them. Once you have secured the goodwill of your correspondent by such a reasonable request s/he may be persuaded to bring forth other goodies!

Regarding the vexatious question of people not replying to letters when the writer has been courteous enough to include an SAE, perhaps the following ideas may help:

  • If an SAE is sent to you, always use it as promptly as possible, if only to say, “Sorry, no relationship”.
  • Give your email address in enquiries and the whole problem of postage charges disappears for most genealogists.
  • If you are sending information then there is no need to send an SAE.
  • If you are responding to a general call for information, for example in a list of surname interests, you need not enclose an SAE if you state I am not enclosing an SAE as I do not expect an answer if we are not interested in the same family, but I will refund your postage if you reply.

Make a copy of your letter for yourself so you know exactly when and what you told, asked and sent (charts, money, photos etc.) each person or office. Keep it in the relevant ancestor’s file.

Record in your Correspondence Log and follow up if no reply is received after 1 month in your own country, 2-3 months abroad. This can be done by sending a copy of the original letter with a short handwritten reminder note.

Also effective is the technique of sending a small amount of money; the recipient’s conscience will not allow him to spend the money until he has ‘earned’ it! A signed Christmas or birthday card with no additional request can also be used to jog the memory. It is often helpful to re-contact people researching family names after a few years to see if they have made further progress.

Offer to exchange or share information with relatives. Archives will appreciate copies of family trees and photographs of local families and places. Offer to pay for photocopies and mailing and insurance of materials. Discourage relatives from sending original documents or memorabilia in the mail unless it is insured. State your name and address clearly on both the envelope and the letter. Promptly thank your correspondent for their reply, even if they couldn’t help. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you never know if you will need to come back to them later.

For foreign enquiries you may acquire airmail value stamps from that country from:

  • A Family History Society service.
  • Any post office in that country with your own addressed reply envelope.
  • The philatelic bureau in that country; however this is usually more expensive as the official envelopes tend to get taxes charged on them. The British Philatelic Bureau is at:
Royal Mail, Tallents House
21 South Gayle Crescent
Edinburgh,Scotland EH12 9PB
Telephone 08457 641 641

  • Alternatively, use IRCs (International Reply Coupons) which can be bought at post offices throughout the world and can be exchanged in the recipient’s country for one airmail stamp. Warning―especially to Canadians—this can be a very expensive option, as they cost roughly three and a half times the value of the stamp in Canada! A good technique is to save any you receive and ‘recycle’ them as the need arises, as the IRCs do not stale-date.

When replying to other researchers’ letters, a simple Descent Chart for that surname is simple to make and cheaper to reproduce and mail, than a large family tree. It will give more details about more generations on a single surname than does a one-page pedigree chart.

With the advent of GEDCOM it is tempting to just ‘send the works’ to any contact immediately, but caution is advised. Firstly, you may never receive anything in exchange—it is wiser to give someone a ‘taste’ to encourage them to reciprocate. Secondly, until you have found out what the recipient intends to do with your data then do ration the provision of information about living people.

On a related topic, researchers are often stymied when trying to contact distant cousins by telephone if they have unlisted numbers. The following, perfectly legitimate, technique has been used successfully. Phone the operator and ask her to phone the party and find out whether s/he will accept a call from a relative regarding family history. The operator can connect you without giving out their phone number. After establishing your relationship and genuineness you can then exchange phone numbers and addresses with your new-found cousin.

Too often, now, the information you send to a potential relative ends up on someone else’s website, having passed through numerous hands until no-one knows its provenance.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.