What makes an effective letter to the editor — and one more likely to be printed?
We receive dozens — sometimes hundreds — of letters each week. We try to run as many letters as possible, but for several reasons, we can't run them all.
Here's how that works.
Many letters we receive are “Astroturf,” or artificially generated e-mails (sometimes with a local name attached) sent out to many papers at one time. These are easy to spot to an experienced eye. We don't print them — we want your opinion in your own words.
Some letters come from outside our readership area; while that doesn't automatically disqualify them, unless they're discussing an issue specific to East Texas, they don't go in.
That leaves the locally generated letters. We get plenty of those.
Which ones make the cut? To make those decisions, we have rules and principles.
The rules are pretty clear: Letters must be no longer than 250 words, and they must not be libelous, obscene or malicious. They must be factually correct, as well (we do check).
Some issues may seem unresolved to some people — the issue of President Barack Obama's place of birth, for example. But after so many courts have ruled on the matter, we're simply not going to devote our valuable editorial page space to the subject anymore.
We limit the letters we'll print from a single writer to two in any given month (some writers send one or two letters per day). This doesn't apply to “As You See It” or “Rants, Raves and Roses.” We can make exceptions, if a letter is particularly well-written, or brings up a new and intriguing point.
Now, this is very important: All letters are subject to editing. If a writer sends something in, and demands it be printed without editing or not printed at all, the decision is automatic. We're sorry, but we can't make that promise to anyone. Even we get edited (usually by three different editors).
If time permits (and it doesn't always), I will try to send the heavily edited letter back to the author to let the author take a look at the changes. But that's not always possible.
(True story: When I was at another paper, one lady called and said I couldn't edit her letter because “that's how God gave it to me.” I had to explain, as nicely as I could, that an omniscient being probably would use complete sentences.)
For the most part, letters are edited for grammar, clarity, civility and length. The civility part is very important to me. We must be able to make our points without being unkind to each other.
But letters also can be edited for content, and that's where we get into the principles.
First, it's our responsibility to print facts — and not print or promulgate misinformation. I do extensive fact-checking on letters that make specific claims. For example, if a letter cites a percentage of people who don't like the cap-and-trade bill, I'll check the polls to be sure the number is right. If it quotes a public official or a historical figure, I will do my best to verify the quote. If I can't verify the quote or a fact, it doesn't go in.
Misinformation — even unverifiable information — is the reason many letters don't get printed. During the health care debates, we received many that claimed Britain's citizens older than a certain age are refused certain treatments. In fact, Great Britain's National Health Service has no such guidelines.
I also don't like Bible quotes in letters. Why? The Bible is a pretty big book. I guarantee you that if you quote the Bible in your letter, I'll get another letter with a quote that contradicts yours within a matter of days. The Bible says feed the poor; the Bible also says he who does not work shall not eat. Also, different translations of the Bible say different things (is it “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shall not murder”? Big difference). So let's stick to public policy.
We also don't print letters to politicians — even “open letters.” One writer called me to point out The Washington Post had recently printed a full-page “open letter” to Congress from the National Rifle Association. I explained the NRA bought that space. It was an advertisement. Letters should be addressed to the editor of the Tyler Paper, not to Smith County commissioners or President Barack Obama.
Letters that over-generalize about specific populations won't make the cut, either.
The real goal of the letters column isn't just to let people blow off steam in a very public manner. It's to advance the discussion. That's why letters should be about policies, not about people — with the exception of personal endorsements in election season, and even then, we're going to be very careful.
Ad hominem (personal) attacks are not useful in advancing the discussion, so they don't get printed. Simply attacking a politician personally — ranting about Gov. Rick Perry, for example — and not discussing specific policies or plans or positions, isn't going to get a letter published.
Also, many letters go beyond commenting on actions, to speculating on motives. That's dangerous ground, because I don't know what's in Barack Obama's heart, and neither does anyone else. Letters that claim he's out to destroy America won't make the cut — not because of ideology, but because that's an unsupportable claim.
Sarcasm and satire usually don't work in a letter simply because many readers won't get it. We do not print anonymous letters.
The most effective letter makes a single point, expressing an opinion on a single topic, strongly. If it makes any claim, it supports that claim with either factual examples or logic. It states the writer's position without rancor.
At best, it appeals to the undecided — isn't that the letter writer's intent, anyway, to influence opinion?
Of course, many who hear the mantra about the “mainstream media bias” are going to believe letters are selected based on ideology. We've been accused of that by those on both the left and the right. Nothing I can say here will change those minds. But we run every letter we possibly can.
Yes, I am always happy to talk with a letter-writer. Call me. If your letter wasn't printed, we can discuss the reasons, and I'll try to work with you on making it print-ready.
My number is 903-596-6291. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you cannot reach me and need someone immediately, call Senior Editor Richard Loomis at 903-596-6263.
Roy Maynard is editorial page editor of the Tyler Courier-Time--Telegraph.