Sunday, January 20, 2008

How to Build a Better Query

Genealogy and writing are two of my passions. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s those interests cross-pollinated into a newspaper column that was in publication in a number of small Missouri newspapers for over four years. During that time I also wrote articles for several national genealogical publications.

One afternoon in the summer of 1990 as I was digging through several letters that would be woven into my newspaper column, I had an epiphany. My sudden idea was that things would be so much simpler for genealogy columnists if our audiences knew a few basics of how to format a genealogical query. I began to compose an article on that subject and found that it literally wrote itself. I sent the article to a new publication that I admired called Southern Queries, and offered to let them use it free in exchange for a subscription to their magazine. They took me up on that offer. A few months later Genealogical Helper, a national magazine with a circulation of over 60,000, picked up that article and even sent me a nice check! Over the years I have found it reprinted in the oddest places, most recently in a publication put out by the Prince Edward Island (Canada) Genealogical Society.

That article, How to Build a Better Query, follows. I have taken one liberty with the original, and that was to add the surname of Elizabeth Taylor’s most recent husband.

How to Build a Better Query
by Rocky G. Macy

Genealogists are such exacting people, tackling research and documentation with a degree of precision that would shame a watchmaker. All sources are carefully sifted and every shard of evidence must be painstakingly analyzed and evaluated before being incorporated in the family history.

With all of the emphasis of correct procedure and absolute results, why is it that many of these same people often let their guard down when it comes to that old research staple –query writing?

As a genealogy columnist, I’ve seen many things that purport to be queries. Questions about ancestors have come on Christmas cards, postcards, and motel stationery. They have arrived with too much or too little information, minus a return address, and scrawled by a shaky hand using a leaky pen. People have sent stamps, money, recipes, and pictures of their kids – when all I really wanted were their clear and concise queries!

In an effort to thwart this flow of gobbledygook and preserve the sweet dispositions of genealogy editors, columnists, and other talented typists, the following guidelines for good queries are humbly offered:

1. Study the target publication. Employ its query style and format as much as possible. If the publication has its own query guidelines, use them – and disregard the excellent advice offered in the remainder of this article!

2. Type or print carefully. It will be an ordinary human being reading what you have written – not a pharmacist! The query must be legible.

3. Keep it brief. Stick to the basics, or as Sgt. Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Avoid extraneous material that might confuse the reader.

4. Limit the use of pronouns. Too much reliance on these little demons can leave the reader asking “He who?”, “She who?”, “It what?” or “Huh?”

5. Upper case all surnames. That makes it easier to sort through the likes of Bob DYLAN, Dylan THOMAS, Thomas JEFFERSON, Jefferson DAVIS, and Elizabeth TAYLOR HILTON WILDING TODD FISHER BURTON BURTON WARNER FORTENSKY. (Those interested in shaking Bob DYLAN’s family tree will need to note that his surname is actually ZIMMERMAN.)

6. Avoid abbreviations. “Felix JOHNSON md Ramona SMITH might possibly refer to a capital crime instead of a marriage. Unless the specific abbreviations that a publication uses are known, spell the words out – and let the editors edit.

7. Target the readership area. This is particularly important when writing to localized publications. If the query involves folks from Peoria, send it toward Peoria – not Hoboken!

8. Check for historical accuracy. A query that has Grampa fighting with Stonewall Jackson at Yorktown will stand a good chance of landing in the circular file.

9. Safeguard privacy. Some people would resent seeing their name or personal history in print. Do not name living individuals in your query.

10. Double-check the basics. Is the query complete? If appropriate, has an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) been enclosed? How about a phone number? Paying attention to details will ultimately speed the entire process and increase the odds of receiving helpful replies.

When the sky does begin to rain responses, remember to let the appropriate editors and columnists know. Your success is their success. It tells them that people are carefully reading their work – and that, Gentle Reader, is almost as good as a paycheck!

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