Thursday, March 03, 2005

How to Write a Good Query

Knock, Knock...Anybody There?

Article from the Rootsweb Review, Vol. 6, No. 36, 3 September 2003. I am not the author of this article.

Have you ever posted a query on a RootsWeb mailing list and ended up thinking that you are playing genealogical solitaire -- that no one out there has any information or suggestions for you, or that you are the only one left on the planet who is researching your family? Been disappointed because you didn't receive a response from anyone -- not even a suggestion about where you might look to find the information?

Take a fresh look at what you posted to the mailing list. Lack of a response to a query often says more about the query itself than it does about those who might potentially read and respond to it.

First, consider the topic of the mailing list on which you posted your message -- is the topic one for which the subscribers might be expected to have a connection to your query? Is it a mailing list on which you might expect to find some experts to point you in the right direction or
provide you with a lookup for the data you are seeking? Don't expect the list members on PAALLEGH-L (Allegheny County, Pennsylvania) to know the location of a town in Germany, provide you with New Orleans ship arrival information, or to check a tax list in Georgia for you.

Don't look for the SMITH mailing list subscribers to answer a question about the JONES family unless you have clearly stated the connection between your JONESes and the SMITH surname. Always direct your query to the mailing list best suited for the surname, locality, or topic about which you are asking.

Next, let's examine the subject you have chosen. Um, what do you mean you left the subject blank so that everyone would be curious and read your query? It just doesn't work that way in this busy world where everyone wants her or his answers yesterday. Even the most diligent and attentive cousins might hit the delete key if your message doesn't grab their attention at first glance with an informative subject. Putting a request for HELP!!!!!! and lots of exclamation points in the subject line won't win you any genealogical friends or get your query read either.

Informative subjects should be brief but include name of the individual you seek and when and where the person or family lived. "Looking for parents of George HICKENLOOPER -- born 1790 in Virginia" for example. If there is sufficient space include what information you wish to learn
about the subject of your query as in this example.

It is possible that lack of a subject could even result in your query being rerouted to the list administrator rather than being posted to the list -- are you sure you saw your query come through to the list? If you are unsure,check the mailing list browseable archives: Type in the name of the list (with no -L or -D on the end) and click on the current month and year to check for your message.

Now, look at the information you included in the text of your message. While it may be true that being concise is a virtue, when posting a query, your message must also be informative, clearly worded, and precise as to the question you are asking or data for which you are looking. Don't leave the list members in suspense. If you simply wrote "I'm looking for the parents of my g-g-g-grandfather George HICKENLOOPER without providing sufficient information for your potential cousins to recognize whether or not your George and his parents might be included in their files, or whether they have a book or other resource that might help you, they will not reply.

If mailing list members do not understand your query -- at a glance -- and can't figure out what you are asking, chances are good that they will simply move on and delete your message, possibly shaking their heads while doing so.

On the other hand, don't write a book when posting your initial query. Most people are not going to take more than a minute to review and consider whether your message is of interest to them or if they can help you. Save the extraneous details, which are not directly pertinent to your query, such as how George could still read without glasses when he died at age 97, for follow-up discussions with other interested researchers after you have received the initial responses.

What you do want to include in your initial query, in addition to WHO, WHEN, and WHERE, is a brief explanation of what you already know and what you are hoping to learn. For example, you might state: "George HICKENLOOPER was born in 1790 in Rockingham County, Virginia, and married Mary LINGENFELTER in Virginia in 1819, based on church and census records that I found for this couple in Fairfield County, Ohio where they settled by 1820 when their first child was baptized there in the Lutheran Church. I'm trying to learn the identity of George's parents, who are my brick wall."

A query such as this might draw the interest of mailing list members who have books on Lutheran marriages in Virginia or other information for the years you have listed, provided, of course, you posted it to VAROCKIN-L (Rockingham County, Virginia) and not to OHFAIRFI-L (Fairfield County, Ohio) mailing list.

If you don't know specific dates, include a general time frame to assist those who might be able to help you. Put yourself in the place of the person on the receiving end of your query. Consider what information the readers will need to know to ascertain whether they can help you.

Don't put yourself in the position of knocking on the door and finding no one on the other side to answer. Carefully consider the subject and text of your query as well as the subject of the mailing list to which you are posting your message, before you click that SEND button.

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself. - Eleanor Roosevelt

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