Crafting an Irresistible Research Question


If you are like me, you belong to several Facebook groups, and/or you use Reddit or Genealogy Stack Exchange or others to ask questions intended to help you research an ancestor. What do they have in common? About half of the questions are inadequate at best, and frankly maddening. I get questions like “Could you help me find my great grandfather Joe Schmoe”?  What am I supposed to do with that? Some are better in that they include a location and dates, but many are woefully incomplete.

Jan Murphy, who is a Moderator Pro Tempore for the Genealogy and Family History community on Stack Exchange deals with these questions all the time. I have asked her to offer us some tips on how to write a great research question for any platform, so that possible respondents have the detail to actually help. She is also going to enlighten all of us about the Genealogy Stack Exchange community and how to make best use of it:

If you’ve been on genealogy forums, message boards, or in Facebook groups, you’ve probably seen them — posts where people have asked a question, and the answer was — crickets. Here are some tips on how to make your question one that people will want to answer.

  • Follow the community guidelines. People don’t write them to make you do homework or to be mean to newcomers — they want your question to be successful.  
  • Consider the scope of your question and the size of your audience. “I want to know everything about my family!” is a goal that many of us share — but it’s too broad to be a good question.  Specific questions attract better answers, and asking one question at a time makes it easier for people to answer.  Asking “Does anyone know this family?” limits your audience to those who have already done research on that line, and excludes researchers familiar with the locality, who might be able to help you even if they don’t know your family. 
  • Start a conversation. Asking “What helped you in your own research?” invites people to answer — to share sources you might not know about, research guides or finding aids you haven’t seen, or methodologies and search strategies you might not have tried.  
  • Include time and place. Give your best information about where your research subjects were and when they were there as you frame a research question. It’s okay to guess if you have to — but let your audience know how you know.  
  • Show your research effort. A brief summary of what you’ve already done will help the community get a head start on answering your question instead of re-doing searches you’ve already made. Show how you know the information in your question. If you list your sources, the community can point out clues that you might have missed. ​
  • Focus on the problem, not the individual person. Many genealogists are puzzle-lovers and problem-solvers. Put yourself in the audience’s place and ask yourself — what questions make YOU eager to answer them? What questions make you say “YES! I can answer that!” Unless the site guidelines specifically tell you otherwise, state the problem first, along with the geographic location and time frame, and your question will be more attractive than a simple ‘cousin-bait’ post which starts with your research subject’s name.   Using all of these tips will help you write a tight, sharp, question that a puzzler won’t be able to resist answering.

About Genealogy and Family History Stack Exchange

Stack Exchange sites are designed around a question-and-answer format. At Genealogy & Family History SE, our goal is to create a repository of questions and answers which can help more than just the original person who asked the question. We expect our audience to read them as case studies and apply the information and techniques in the answers to solve their own problems, just as we would read a case study in a genealogical periodical to see how a professional researches and solves a problem.  Thinking about the problem first, and how the questions and answers might benefit more than just the single person asking the question, gives us a fresh perspective on doing research. Some community members find that reviewing their prior work, and writing up a question for the site, leads them to say “wait, I know how I can answer this question!” Stack Exchange encourages us to write self-answered questions in cases like this so the entire community can benefit from what we’ve learned. The quick tour shows how the site works.  Join us, and see how specific, answerable questions can help you become a better researcher. 


​Thanks, Jan for taking the time to help all of us be better questioners. Follow Jan on Twitter or visit Genealogy & Family History Stack Exchange.


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