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Writing a good query

6 Steps to Writing a Successful Genealogy Query
Art of Writing Mailing List Queries
E-Mail requests for info or assistance
Genealogical Queries
Good Queries Are Clear—Specific—Simple—Concise
Sample Queries
Strategies for Ancestor Searching
Queries & Look Ups
Michael John Neill - Before You Post
Michael John Neill- After You Post
GSWC: Guide to Genealogical Correspondence

The following is an edited version of a message I recently sent to my lists.

Here are some tips to help you get started writing a good query.

First decide who you're going to write about and put that name in the subject area. If you're looking for the ancestry of say, your great-great-grandfather Ansel Sylvester then type that name in. Or maybe prefix it with something like "Looking for... ". If you know where Ansel was from include that place also. So your subject title might look like...

Seeking ancestry of Ansel Sylvester of Anytown. (And include the state, county, province, country, colony or territory).

Don't put simply "Sylvester" as the subject. We all know that we're looking for Sylvesters in the Sylvester mailing list. The object is to catch the attention of the reader who might have some information on the individual ancestor you're looking for, who might otherwise delete your email. Some list members are on multiple lists and they may be inundated with dozens or hundreds of list messages each day. You want them to open your email if they have the information you need. Use an eye catcher.

Don't type "roll call" in the subject area. That's not who you're looking for. Most serious researchers will delete that unopened message in a heartbeat.

Now, let's talk about the body of your post. Try to give as much information as you know, dates and places of all vital events if known, along with enough info on other family members so that the reader can positively identify if they are researching the same family. "Anyone out there researching Sylvesters?" is going to find its way into members' trash bins.

You don't have to use all capital letters for surnames. Many tutorials will advise you to use that style (i.e. SYLVESTER) but it is no longer necessary. Now that we have mailing lists that zero in on individual surnames and local places the sheer volume and variety of messages is greatly reduced in any single list. In the Sylvester list everybody already knows we're looking for Sylvesters, and it is much more readable in lowercase.

Break your query into paragraphs and leave blank lines between them for easy reading. If you wish to list a family's children and their spouses leave blank lines between each of them. Don't cram everything together. Don't worry about message length or file size. There is a maximum that the list server allows but rarely will you reach that point. But do post only one query at a time. If you have two Sylvester lines that you'd like information on send your queries in two separate emails.

When you're done sign your name. It can be simply your first name or your nickname but let people know what to call you when they reply.

Sometimes people like to add as a tagline or afterthought some additional surnames that they're "also looking for". If you wish to add some names try to use a small list, perhaps 3 to 6 surnames of ancestors *closely* related to the person you're looking for. Only include surnames that might be helpful in finding the ancestral line in question. For example if I'm looking for information on the wife of Joseph Silvester who was born in 1674 I might state that I'm also looking for Hall, White, and Rogers -- names contemporaneous with the subject of my query. I'm not going to include surname Washburn because my Sylvesters didn't connect with that family until more than two centuries later.

Here are some tips on replying to a query:

Okay, somebody posted a query and you have the information they need, or you have some leads or some speculative information for them. You may have a question to ask them so as to clarify a point or you might see a name that you recognize about whom you have a further question. So you hit the reply key and start typing at the top of your editor, leaving the entire query along with taglines, the sender's signature lines, administrative messages, advertisements from the server host and the email client, and a virus scan report trailing behind.

Please don't do that. It's ridiculous. It's called top posting and it requires the reader to constantly scroll down to see what the current writer is referring to. As one listowner in another list recently pointed out, "PS - It is a lot easier to have a sensible discussion that other people can follow if you don't top post."

Do you remember back in the old days when we wrote to friends, family, pen pals, and research correspondents with pen and paper or typewriter? We didn't send their letter back to them did we? Of course we didn't.

We reminded them about a discussion in a previous letter and then we expanded on that theme. And we can do that here too. In this day and age of computers it's called "quoting" and it's done by leaving portions of the previous message and removing (deleting, trimming, snipping) the rest. Then we type our reply *below* the quoted material. It's so easy to do with the mail editors (like mini word processors) that come with our email programs and it's much, much easier for the reader to follow.

For those of you who were initiated into the world of email since the beginning of the "dot-com" era when businesses entered the Internet and required their correspondents to top post, here's how quoting is done. This will all become easy and will become second nature after you have tried it one or two times...

After you hit the reply key, before you begin typing, first look at the entire email in your editor and identify what portion of it is genealogical, that is, what part of it did the sender type in an attempt to find ancestors or share data. Next, remove everything else. That's it for starters -- you've got it down to just genealogy. If you remove nothing else from that message you've got it down to being on topic because if you include any of that extraneous stuff your message is off topic.

The next step is judgmental on your part and what you do next depends on what the query includes and how your new information relates to that data.

If the poster sent in a typical "standard query" with heads of family (husband and wife) with their data coming first and their offspring with their data coming below (like a family group chart) you then decide which of those persons your reply pertains to. Keep those pertinent lines of text and remove the rest. Try to keep enough of the previous message so that the reader is reminded of what the thread is about. If you can't figure out what else to remove, again if you remove the "administrivia" and keep just the genealogical data you'll be doing just fine, but do try to use common sense.

If the poster sent in a list of first settlers of Boomtown, USA and you would like to reply concerning one name of interest then please remove everything except for the line or paragraph containing that name.

After you have finished trimming the original message move your cursor down to the end of the very last line, hit the [Enter] key two or three times then begin to type your response.

Go ahead and try it -- it's easy! Other members *and especially this listowner* will be much happier! :-)

There's a variation of the quoting method and I'll demonstrate it by example. Let's say the poster sent in a basic query, family group sheet style. The parental data comprise two paragraphs and there are six offspring given making a total of eight paragraphs. You wish to reply with comments on the parents plus you descend from one of the children, let's say the fifth one, for whom you have some information to share.

You would keep the first two paragraphs then type your comments below that. You would then remove the paragraphs containing children 1 through 4, keep the paragraph that contains child 5 and remove the 6th. Hit the [Enter] key once or twice then type your further comments -- always leaving one or two blank lines between each section.

Here's what a finished reply might look like. The quoted lines from the original query are preceded by greater than signs and the rest is our new material.


At 4:00 p.m. Percy D. Ancestorhunter wrote...
> I'm looking for the ancestry of blah-blah
> who were born [date] [place] blah blah. They
> were married blah blah blah

> They settled and raised their children in blah blah
> but I'm told they were buried in blah blah

Dear Percy,

I descend from that same line and I still can't find their ancestors. I do have some leads, which I shall share with you. Go to http://www.Blah-blah-blah, also there is a book which blah-blah, etc.

[children 1 through 4 snipped]

> 5. Mehitabel born blah-blah married blah blah
> more about Mehitabel blah blah

This is the branch that I descend from. I have all her children's names and I have a large database of Mehitabel's descendants that I will send you in private email if you wish.

[child 6 snipped]

I hope this is helpful.
Best regards and have a great day.

Your cousin,
Annabel T. Rootsdigger


I hope you have taken the time to read this mini tutorial and I hope you apply some of the methods given. Most importantly do post your query and help your cousins find their roots. We now have new members and hopefully we have new information on your missing ancestors.

Best wishes and good luck with your search.

Contact: David Sylvester

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Page created by David Sylvester February, 2002. Updated November 2, 2008