Bert Caldwell: A few reminders about what makes letters good
Smart Bomber Gary Crooks is off reloading, which gives me an opportunity to revisit our letters policy.
Didn’t see any in The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday, did you?
Summers are always a slow period, but this August has been especially so. The primary election earlier this month generated little excitement, Washington legislators finally went home, and how many more times can the U.S. House of Representatives boldly vote against the Affordable Care Act?
But back to letters. We run as many as we can, but some writers make it impossible.
Here are a few reasons why:
We publish our letters policy every day. Yet we receive snail- and email without the basic required information: street address, telephone number, occasionally even a name. We can bounce emailed letters back to the authors asking them to fill in the blanks, and most do. But if handwritten letters do not include a phone number, there’s not much we can do. We do not have the time to check the White Pages, which become less useful as cellphones proliferate.
Also, many write too long. When we say 200 words, we don’t mean 201. If it’s close, we can usually edit out enough words without changing the meaning. If not, it goes back to the sender. Again: not possible if it’s handwritten.
The handiest tool for us, and anyone with Internet access, is a link at the bottom of The Spokesman-Review website (www.spokesman.com) with the editorials and letters. Click “Submit a letter,” and a form comes up with space for identification information and the text of the letter. If you miss a box, or exceed 200 words, it will not “send.”
Because we know those letters already conform to our guidelines, we go to those first.
Other steps also help.
If you refer to an earlier letter, editorial or news article, please provide the date. There is usually a delay of a few days before a letter runs, so time references such as “last night” or “Saturday” are not useful.
Don’t use language you would not hear on television before 7 p.m., darn it.
Skip the italics, all caps, bold and multiple exclamation or question marks. BIG EDITOR is watching!
Easy on the quotes and quotation marks. Readers want to hear your thoughts, not those of the Founding Fathers, Jesus or even Stephen Colbert. We know their wisdom, or should, so reserve those precious 200 words for your own.
In general, The Spokesman-Review follows Associated Press style for punctuation, titles and much else. We do not expect readers to know every nuance – we sometimes lose track ourselves – but following the rules assures consistency.
Please respect other writers. Challenge their opinions, not their IQ. Do not address anyone as “you.” You are writing to the editor – me – and to our readers – them – not directly to somebody whose ideas you dislike.
We encourage all writers and as many opinions as possible. But individuals are not going to write in if they fear being exposed to ridicule. Letters to the editor is not a blog peopled with the anonymous and bad-tempered.
We do our best to catch factual errors but do not always succeed. If we miss something, please bring it to our attention.
If you have a dog in the fight, please say so. Self-interest is not a bad thing.
Since we are getting into the political season, a note about endorsement letters. All but the most insightful do not change minds. Many are generated by campaign organizations. We try to be fair to all sides, to the point we withhold letters if the flow is too one-sided. Occasionally, we get the same letter from multiple writers. Please don’t.
We also receive one-sided accounts of incidents or encounters. Unless they rise to the level of news, in which case they are referred to a reporter, they do not run.
Many times, letters are no more than a link. Without knowing the sender or, sometimes because we do know the sender, they are not opened. We have spam filters, but they do not snag everything, like those from our overseas correspondents. We get letters in Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and several undecipherable alphabets. Unfortunately, my Mandarin is very rusty.
We know people often want to thank police officers, firefighters, teachers and many others for acts of kindness. Unless these deeds are at a level that would make them of public interest, we do not run the letters (although our Voices section does run “High Five” letters of appreciation). Better to express your thanks directly to the individuals or organizations involved.
And, finally, no poetry. Prose worked for Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.
We can publish about 45 letters per week. This last week was slow, but at the peak of a campaign cycle, we may get as many as 200. You figure the odds.
Readers love letters to the editor. Follow the rules, write clearly, and you too can be a pundit.
Bert Caldwell is The Spokesman-Review editorial page editor.