Greg Peck: What makes a good letter to the editor?

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Greg Peck
December 22, 2014

I'm in the national Association of Opinion Journalists. Members use a listserv to communicate and discuss issues by email. The other day, a fellow member wrote about giving an upcoming talk about writing opinion pieces. “I plan to discuss the importance of presentation, i.e., making the life of the letters editor simple.”

This journalist asked fellow members if someone could supply a particularly terrible handwritten letter. “You know the sort, tight, almost illegible scrawl on browning paper…”

Another member quickly supplied photos of just such a letter, scrawled—believe it or not—on the back of a cardboard Moon Pie box. I've never gotten such a letter, but I have gotten some written on the blank sides of paper used for other purposes. Perhaps the ultimate in recycling.

It helps if I can read such letters. My handwriting is no thing of beauty, but I wouldn't expect anyone to read 250 or more words of it. Some people still relying on handwriting, and we do our best to figure it out.

The vast majority of letters to The Gazette come by email these days, either through [email protected] or directly to me at [email protected]. I like this. It saves time. If I have concerns about the letter, I can reply quickly by email.

At The Gazette, I serve as the letters editor, the editorial writer and assemble the pages. I'm a one-man Opinion page band. So how do you increase the odds that I'll print your letter? Here are perhaps the four most important rules:

1. Stick to our word limit of 250.

2. Make sure you know the facts that support your opinion.

3. Don't libel anyone.

4. Be sure to include your phone number and full address, even though we only print your name/community of residence.

We have other rules, as well. We limit writers to one letter every 30 days. We generally don't print letters from people residing outside our circulation base unless it's from a former resident or the person is commenting on a local issue. We don't publish poetry because one person's idea of poetry is another's idea of fingernails on a chalkboard. We'll allow some Bible quotes but won't print a letter that's nothing but statements about faith filled with such quotes.

We also don't print “thank you” letters to health care providers. That might spark a string of letters criticizing that physician or facility, and we couldn't possibly verify the facts in those. To be fair, we shouldn't print positive ones if we won't publish negative ones. So we encourage such writers to thank those care providers directly or to buy a “card of thanks” ad in The Gazette.

Likewise, we don't accept letters criticizing specific business practices that haven't been in the news. Again, why would we print praise if we wouldn't print something negative, and we couldn't know for sure that the critical writer doesn't own or work for a competing business. If a business expands and we do a news story on it, we'll likely print a letter related to that addition. But we wouldn't print a letter criticizing a store for high prices or poor service unless those issues had developed into recent news stories.

About once every two or three weeks, I must send a snail mail letter back because of length or some other reason. I modify a form letter I keep on my computer, but this still eats up precious time. On a recent Friday, I had to send back three letters. Two were too long. The reactions I got were quite different.

One writer called to ask if articles such as a, an and the are included in the count. Yes, I replied, but if you contract the words “it is” to “it's,” you've saved one word, I explained. He understood and said he was working on shortening his letter.

Another returned my letter with his letter of about 350 words unchanged and suggested I should just print it in Your Views, where he was certain he has seen other letters even longer than his. He was wrong, of course. Feel free to count any such letter, dear readers. None goes longer than 250, including the person's name and community. I was frustrated with this response and thought about filing it without using it. Usually I won't try whittling a letter that's longer than 300 words. However, he had gripes about local issues, so I dove in and chopped it to 250. Along the way, I realized he misstated a fact that was the basis of his whole complaint. It wasn't a typing mistake because he stated it wrong twice.

The third writer tried to draw a connection between two issues that Editor Scott Angus and I thought made no sense. This writer sent us back a long biographical work history, trying to convince us that this justified publication. The writer did, however, tweak our point of concern in a way that we agreed to let it run.

Here are a few other keys to writing a good letter:

1. Make sure you're stating an opinion and not just facts. Use facts that support your opinion. And make sure you're not guessing at the facts. On that note, don't believe everything you read on every website.

2. Make sure the letter is written in your own words. We don't knowingly reprint letters written by someone else.

3. Those 250 words can vanish quickly. Make each one count. Don't use, for example, “I think.” It's a letter stating your opinion. Of course it's what you think. You don't need to state that in print.

4. Don't use obscure acronyms. We try to avoid using those. Instead, we spell out the words. One writer used one recently, and I guessed wrong at its meaning. We had to reprint the letter with the correct words.

5. We love commentary on local and state issues. Notice how that's what I stick to in our editorial topics almost exclusively.

6. Come election season, endorsement letters can flood my in box. Try not to restate the same tired points that other writers have already made.

7. Short can be sweet. You don't have to use 250 words. Some of the best letters we receive are short and to the point—perhaps 100 or even just 50 words.

8. A well-written letter might state the key point right off the bat, then conclude by restating that point in another way.

9. Be civil. If you're snide and nasty, you have less chance of swaying the very people you're trying to convince that your viewpoint is best.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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