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"HELP!!! " "Searching! "
      Grabbing Your Cousins' Attention
From: RootsWeb Review
Editor: Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

        When you see a message posed on the mailing lists and message boards with a subject line such as: "HELP!!!" "Searching!" "Looking for "Genealogy!" "Desperate!" and even (no subject) -- what's your reaction? Shrug and move on?

        We all were newbies once upon a time, but if you want to get the most out of your queries, spruce up your subject lines. For even though you might draft your messages carefully and explain in detail what information you seek -- including the name(s) of the ancestor(s), where the individual or family lived, and a time frame, if your subject line doesn't grab the readers, you won't hear from anyone.

        The vast majority of browsers and subscribers take roughly one second -- that's right, one second -- to decide whether a message is of interest to them and whether they are going to read further. The decision whether to bypass or read the message is often determined by the subject line alone and not the message content. Digest subscribers (on mailing lists) often scan the subjects of the messages in a digest index to determine whether they are going to scroll through to read the actual messages.

        Subjects such as the ones listed above, no matter how many exclamation points are added, no matter how urgent your pleas for help, and no matter how many caps are used, do not inform the reader of the message content. They do nothing to "grab" anyone's attention. Experienced researchers often lament that they'd love to help more, but don't have the time to wade through messages that do not contain the foundation of genealogical research: names, dates and places. No one, except a close cousin, really cares how you are related to someone. Save those relationship explanations for private correspondence.

        A good subject line should provide the reader with information about the message to which it is attached. It should be concise but complete enough to explain who or what the message concerns, the time frame, and the location, if known. Abbreviate only where necessary due to a character limit, such as on the message boards, and remember that this is the Internet and the boards and lists have an international audience. Don't assume your Australian cousins know what you mean with American abbreviations. Add USA, UK, etc. Examples of good subject lines are:

— Information sought about Joseph JOHNSON, b. 1862 in Frederick County, Maryland, USA

— Census info néeded for George HOLTON, 1901, Somerset, England

— Peter BURNS m. Olive HAWKINS, 1879, Melbourne, Australia--néed parents for both

— Susanna, m. Johannes BENDER, Rockingham County, Virginia, USA, 1788--maiden name?

— néed date and place of marriage of John SMITH and Sarah JONES-- lived Ohio, USA 1850

        The reader will know at a glance if the above messages are of interest to them personally and also if they may have resources that might have the information. A reader who has a book on Ohio marriages in the 1850s may well read the message about John SMITH and Sarah JONES and look for the information even if he is not personally connected to this family.

        Other important tips about using a meaningful subject subject line are:

— If you are replying to a list or board message and the subject of your reply changes from the one in the earlier message(s) in the thread, change/update the subject line accordingly, and

— If you are a digest subscriber and replying to a message in a digest, be sure to change the subject to pertain to the actual message to which you are replying rather than leaving the digest name and number as the subject line.

        The subject line you create for your query is the "hook" that either draws the reader in or sends him on to the next message passing yours by. So, don't cry aimlessly for "HELP!!!!!" -- let the reader know what you are looking for at a glance with a meaningful, concise subject.

Previously published in RootsWeb Review: Vol. 6, No. 46, 12 November 2003.

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