Monday, January 07, 2008

Letter writing can be great therapy

Once again, National Post Letters Editor Paul Russell helps us craft our submissions - And now, a word from the Letters Editor.

Letter writing is a good way to release pent-up anger after you read the news, and perhaps even change a few minds. Paul explains how to make sure your letter is one of the ones selected for publication.

So without further ado, here is the column (and yes, I did obtain his permission):

Last year at this time, National Post letters editor Paul Russell wrote a column providing readers with suggestions for writing effective letters to the editor. That advice seems to have been well received by fledgling letter writers -- and by a handful of bloggers, who posted the column on their own sites (a few even asked permission). In this column, Mr. Russell reiterates the 10 main points.


- Shorter is always better. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it's crucial to having your letter published. If your submission exceeds 200 words, start the self-editing process.

- Be topical. We look for letters that address issues on the minds of readers. Some stories -- capital punishment, abortion, the war on terror, the Britney Spears saga -- constantly resurface with new angles. But others -- reducing your carbon footprint, Senator Larry Craig's "wide stance," The Sopranos -- are, yawn, so 2007.

- Appeal to readers' emotions. An ideal letters page will cause readers to giggle in some spots and be moved to tears in another. The best letters touch a nerve with readers and appeal to them on an emotional, as well as an intellectual, level.

- Draw from your own experience. In the past year we've heard from: a prostitute justifying her line of work; a writer who interviewed Benazir Bhutto; an Ontario man struggling to pay for anti-cancer drugs that other provinces provide for free; a former medical school dean asked to help government officials jump the queue for medical treatment; and a woman blessed by Mother Teresa.

- Your carefully honed prose will be fine-tuned -- and probably shortened -- by Post staff. Don't take it personally; editing for space and clarity is our job. In the words of Warren E. Burger, former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: "For better or worse, editing is what editors are for … that editors can and do abuse this power is beyond doubt, but that is no reason to deny them [that right]."

- Avoid jargon and shop talk. If you are a climatologist and thinking of sending a letter describing how the "Madden-Julian Oscillation is an equatorial travelling pattern of anomalous precipitation that is planetary in scale," don't. Letters should be understandable to the average reader. If you have more than three four-syllable words in one sentence, consider a rewrite.

- Cliches are the kiss of death. They stick out like sore thumbs and get the goat of readers looking for new ideas. Think outside the box. Honestly.

- We need exclusivity. Don't send your letter to numerous media outlets, thinking that will increase its chance of publication. If we have reason to believe that a letter has been sent to others, we reach for the delete key. Don't make us go there.

- Play nice. Don't make personal attacks on a columnist, reporter or fellow letter writer. Instead, offer a thoughtful, countervailing opinion and try to advance the debate, which will encourage others to join in.

- Obey the two-week rule. In an effort to allow as many readers as possible to have their say on our pages, we usually wait 14 days before publishing another letter from the same writer.

Follow these simple steps and there is a good chance you will see your letter on the facing page in coming issues.

Mr. Russell seems to have followed his own advice, and updated last year's list with topical references.

I might just add a thought of my own here - Try to have your masterpiece in its final form before hitting the send button. Another editor told me he did not appreciate a multitude of rewrites just because I had thought of pithier ways to reword my original submission.

Paul Russell has always been too polite to complain.

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Update: Here's something to write about - Law on youth crime a disgrace (Sun)


Roy Eappen said...

I used to write even more letters to the editor, but since my blog I have cut back.
The editors at the NP and Montreal Gazette are very kind to me.
The rules in this post are very good.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Dr. Roy, I was thinking about you when I did this post.

I believe you must be the most-published Blogging Tory in the Post!

Anyone wishing to see a sample letter need only check out your blog.

Well done!