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Genealogy: Increasing the Productivity of Your eMail

The following article is a sample from Barry J. Ewell's book "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History." He is the founder of, an online educational website for genealogy and family history. 

If this is your first genealogy-related email, consider this an introduction. Explain who you are. Briefly explain your interest in family history. Don't overwhelm the recipient with questions or your entire family tree in your first email. Tell how you're related to the person or family you are contacting them about. Consider how you found out about the person you are contacting. Was it from the relative or researcher? If appropriate, pass on a greeting from that person.

The subject line is everything. The subject will oftentimes determine whether your email is opened or directed to an email's "spam" or "trash" folder. Consider putting the full name or surname of the specific ancestor plus the word genealogy. For example, "Ewell Genealogy."

Writing to someone who speaks another language. If you're writing someone who speaks a different language than you, request help from someone who knows the language. Review a research guide from the county of the Family History Library catalog. There are usually several examples of letters in various languages with English translation. Language translation sites can help in a pinch. If you're not sure in which language to send your email, send it in both languages. Use simple words and phrases in your email, which will increase the chance that words will be translated correctly. Check (and, if needed, correct) key facts such as names and dates before you send email.

Remember that you are writing to request a favor. Once you have contacted the individual, there still may be some reservation about who you are or about sharing the requested information. Let them know it would be helpful to receive a few basic facts. Ask them what further information they may need from you. If they refuse to share information, don't press them. Ask them if there is someone else that could provide assistance.

Say "Thank you." When individuals take time to help you, write a thank-you note to them. The time to write thank-you's is the minute you finish reading their email. It is also nice to keep them posted on the progress of your research going forward.

How to write an email

Begin by making sure that you have the correct email address of the person you are emailing. If you don't, it will come back to you as undeliverable. Type the email address into the "TO" box.

Next, determine the topic of the email. The topic is what should go in the "RE" or "Subject" box. Be specific, because the recipient may not know you; if she can't determine what the email is about, then she may simply delete your message-or worse, flag it as spam. Keep the email short and succinct. The first word of the title should be capitalized; all other words-unless proper nouns-should be in lower case.

Begin typing the message to the recipient. Use the proper rules of grammar; if in doubt, will answer any questions. Even if the email is more casual, such as an email to a friend or family member, take the time to prevent typographical errors, use proper form, and to use spell-check. To use spell-check, click on the icon marked "Spelling" or "Check Spelling" and it will check the body of the email for errors and suggest corrections. After you have written the body of the message, read it out loud to yourself to make sure you've used proper grammar and haven't omitted any text.

Finish the email with an ending, such as "Sincerely" or "Respectfully." Under that, add your name. If this is a business email, you should always type your email address and your telephone number below your name, as well as any other pertinent information, such as your company and your title. Once you are satisfied with your email, click "Send."

How to write a personal email

  • Choose your words. Things can get taken out of context over email, so make sure your message is clear, readable, and friendly. While you can convey discontent in an email, you should always include a warm closing statement at the end-especially if it's not the most positive email. Short phrases and one-word replies can appear snide and rude-like you're talking to something, not someone, or to someone who doesn't matter. When it comes to business, clients need to feel special and that they can talk to you even using an impersonal form of communication such as email.

  • Determine the intended recipient and include a greeting with the recipient's name. If you're writing back and forth, try to include a greeting in each reply. A greeting will help make the email more personal. In addition, use a salutation and sign your name, even just your first name if you're comfortable enough with a client or supervisor.

  • Enable future contact. It's very important that someone can contact you in a way other than email, so give your phone number in the signature to your message. Some people don't agree with releasing this information; however, if you're in business, you can't hide behind a computer. Giving business associates your phone number shows that they can reach you should they wish to talk instead of using email alone.

  • Chit chat. While you don't want to recap details of your weekend, you can include a personal note. It's never bad to tell someone you hope they had a nice time on their vacation after you ramble on in a message about business. I find this often leads to more personalized email and a strong business relationship. While you may not want to get too carried away talking about personal things over email with a client or boss, I think it's okay to get to know a supervisor or customer.

  • Observe email etiquette. As email becomes one of the most frequently used forms of communication, it's important that you observe proper email etiquette so that you keep communications cordial and respectful. From using basic writing etiquette rules to more complex technical customs, follow these steps to observe good email etiquette:

  • Write to your audience. Just as with letter writing or spoken communication, it's important that you write an email with your specific audience in mind. Keep the email personal, but appropriately formal or casual by starting with a greeting and a few words of courtesy. Use spaces between paragraphs and an appropriate valedictory, such as "Best regards" or "Sincerely," to end the email.

  • Keep file attachments light. One of the most common violations of email etiquette is attaching very large files to the email. Large files literally clog the recipient's email inbox, making the download very slow. If you need to send someone an email with an attachment that is larger than one megabyte, get approval from the recipient in advance or ask if there's a better way to transfer the file.

  • Make sure the email is relevant. An email is an address box- just like your physical mailbox at home. So flooding people you know with emails that are important to you but irrelevant to them is considered bad etiquette and sometimes is even classified as "spam," or unwanted junk mail. Before you forward someone a joke, announcement, or chain letter-make sure you know that the recipient will appreciate the email's contents.

  • Keep email addresses private. If you need to send an email to many people simultaneously, or if you're forwarding an email from one person to another, it's very important that you protect the email addresses of your contacts. To write an email with numerous recipients, put your own name in the "To" field and then use the bcc function to hide the recipients' email addresses. When forwarding an email, remove all mentions of the sender's email address before you send the email.

Use online abbreviations sparingly. Although you might love using your favorite Internet abbreviations such as "btw," or "brb," you should be careful not to overuse such language in emails. Many email users might not understand "Internet- speak," and others may find it too casual. Observe the same principle of email etiquette when using smiley faces or other emoticons.

Read more great genealogy tips in Barry Ewell's book "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History.

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