A ‘blind inquiry’ helps get results when you get stuck

A blind inquiry is any letter or website post to help you find new information about your current research problem. It's "blind" because you don't know the person you're writing to. 

Have you ever posted a question online that got no response at all? But another question crushed that 'brick wall' you've been staring at for months or years? Every post is a blind inquiry; a question to strangers to help you add to what you know about your ancestors. In the "old days" a blind inquiry would have been written on paper and sent by the postal service (snail mail). I write more online inquiries today than paper letters, but I do still write letters from time to time. The key to getting help is writing an inqury that (a) gets the reader's attention and (b) interests a reader enough to answer.

Blind Inquiry Tips

I've thought about this many times over the past 20 years researching my family history. I have also read advice from other researchers that helped improve how I ask for help. These tips are suggestions or guidelines. Every request for help is unique and may be long or short. You should, however, take the time to think about how someone will read your inquiry. 

The actual format depends on where you are posting the message (or sending the letter) but, in general, a blind inquiry should include:

  1. Subject (if there is space for it) – great teaser.
  2. Primary Question – 
  3. Background information – what you know or think you know so readers don't waste time on things you already have.
  4. Thanks and closing.

Subject Line

Most experts will say that you have seconds to catch the reader's attention. Some suggest 5 to 6 seconds. For online posts or email messages, the subject line may be the only thing readers see. Write an interesting subject and maybe people will open the rest of your blind inquiry. Write a dull or vague subject and you just waster your time.

Some advice when writing subject lines:

  1. Write surnames (family names) in capital letters so the name stands out.
  2. Include 1 or 2 alternate spellings, if appropriate.
  3. Identify a person, time period and location (place).
  4. Keep focused on the topic.
  5. Be aware of the length (too long or complicated can be bad).
  6. The subject isn't the question but it should clearly identify the key information in the question.

Example::

  • Bad: Looking for Shay's in PA/NY
  • Better: SHAY/SHEA, Jeremiah (1857-1937) Chemung Co NY & Bradford Co PA

The Question

Ask your primary question first then follow up with background information – what you know or think you know – and any other questions. Even if the person doesn't read the entire message you, at least, got to ask the question. There are some things to remember when writing your question:

  1. Ask a question. This may seem obvious but I've seen many inquiries without an actual question. I either asked "what are you looking for" or just didn't bother.
  2. Be brief. You are asking the reader to share information or advice. Don't take up too much of their time. You have about 6 seconds to get the reader's attention.
  3. Be direct. Ask the question, then provide the background. Don't make the reader search for your question. Don't ramble. Don't include anything that does not directly relate to or support the question.
  4. Be specific. Ask specific a question. Asking general quesions like "looking for any info about greens in NY" is useless. Don't waste my time.
  5. Stay focused. Ask 1 or 2 questions only. Too many questions demands too much from the reader. Include your primary question first but include any related questions later.

Background Information

You need to show the reader that you have done some work and put some thought into your question. A newbie mistake is to ask a question without doing any work. Claiming you have a "brick wall" without any information is insulting. So, after the primary question, explain what you know or think you know:

  1. Do your research first. Put some effort into the problem. Many readers can tell if you want them to do the work for you, and that's insulting. Do the facts support the question or questions? Forget what you know and think about how someone that doesn't know you or your research might read your inquiry.
    1. Idenitfy what you know (facts)
    2. Identify what you think you know (assumptions, guesses).
  2. Organize your information. A disorganized description is useless. Organize your information by date, like a timeline, or by your confidence in the evidence.
  3. Separate different thoughts into paragraphs. Reading big blobs of text is hard; don't make your readers work to help you. Use bullet lists where that might help.
  4. Check your facts. Make sure your facts – names, dates, places, etc – are correct; or, at least, reasonable. Sanity check ages so you don't suggest a woman gave birth when she was 7 or 8 (don't laugh, it happens more than you think). Clearly identify what you do and do not know but don't run on.
  5. Check your spelling and grammar. Proofread your letter or post. Read it out loud. Does it make sense? Poor spelling is lazy. Poorly worded or partial sentences are hard to understand. Don't make your reader work to help you.
  6. Write for your audience. Some websites are better for short posts while others are better for longer posts.

Say "Thanks"

ALWAYS say "please" and "thank you". Always be considerate, coureous, and show respect for the reader's time and knowledge. Remember that the reader is doing you a favor by just reading your post or letter. Actually responding is extra.

  1. Always say "thanks".
  2. Offer to pay any out-of-pocket expenses… but don't leave yourself open to too much.
  3. Offer to share. Genealogy researchers know they are the recipients of the generousity of other researchers and are always silling to help.

General

  1. Always keep a copy. Keep track of who responds and what that person says, and how to contact him or her again.

 

Will these tips work every time? Um, no, not every time. But following these guidelines can help write a better blind inquiry, and better inquiries usually get more attention.

 


Examples

Too vague

What's wrong with this? First, it's too general. PA and NY are really big states and they have a really long border. How is the reader to know you are talking about a specific area of that border? Second, there isn't any useful information to get the reader started. Not everyone with the same family name is related. Ever. So the "Shay" name isn't helpful. And isn't the name also spelled "Shea"? So there's some confusion already. The question is also missing dates and the names of specific people.

"I'm looking for any info about Shay's in Pennsylvania or New York."

Too brief and missing key information

This question is better but it doesn't really provide any background. This might be okay for Twitter or some other site that limits how much you can write. But, in general, it is missing key information. "Before WWII" isn't very specific. Does that just mean the 1930s? "Looking for any info" is always too vague; ask a specific question.

"I'm looking for any info about Jerry & Jane Shay who lived in Towanda, PA before WWII and Chemung County, NY before that."

Better

This query is fairly well organized and complete (at least, I hope so). There is 1 question: any ideas about how to find when this guy arrived in the US? The question is at the start and followed by what I know. It isn't long. It could be longer but you need to keep the story interesting to keep the readers reading. I also thank the reader for taking time out of their lives.

"Any ideas where I might look or how I might approach finding the immigration my great-grandfather, Jeremiah Michael SHAY (1857-1937), to New York from Ireland?

"Jerry was born 13 July 1857 in Ireland, probably County Kerry. He arrived sometime between 1868 and 1880. A family story says he left home, possibly with a brother (unnnamed of course), when he was about 11. That's 1868. And I found him in the 1880 census for Veteran, Chemung County, New York living with his recent bride Jane A. Grady and her parents. From 1880 onward he's relatively easy to track. Before 1880? Not so much.

"I did find that his parents, Patrick SHAY (c1820-1896) and Ellen/Elinor DRISCOLL (c1819-?), also emigrated. How I backtracked to them is a long story but Jerry had the following siblings: Mary L (1860-?), Patrick (1864-?), Catharine (1865-?), and Ellen (1867-?). Ellen was born in Ireland so that means his parents didn't immigrate before 1867 either. They were living in Veteran in 1880 also.

"I've searched the various passenger lists but found nothing. I looked for him with a brother and his parents. Their name is usually spelled SHAY but we know that SHEA is the common Irish spelling and that people wrote what they heard. I have lots of info about his life after 1880 but nothing before, but a couple stories that – so far – haven't proven to be very true.

"Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Any descendants of Jerry or his parents would be great to hear from too."

Did this one work? I'll let you know. Do you have any suggestions?

Related Links

 

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