New York Times Guide to writing Letters to the Editor

This post was written by marc on October 4, 2004
Posted Under: Letters to the Editor

For those of you who are thinking about writing letters to the editor – this is a good guide as to how to do it. The New York Times send this to me.

But first – Marc Perkel’s simple guide:
Keep it short.
Write about what’s in the headlines that day.
Be interesting

September 14, 2003

To the Reader:
By THOMAS FEYER

Readers of this page know that all letters to the editor, by convention, begin with the same salutation, “To the Editor,” as if addressed to some faceless higher authority at The Times. In fact, the mountains of mail that we receive every day pile up on a very real editor’s desk.

Mine.

For readers who wonder how the process unfolds, this is an attempt to demystify things a bit. Every day at least 1,000 submissions, and often far more, pour in to the letters office by e-mail, fax or postal mail. We print an average of 15 letters a day. That means the competition is intense, to say the least. Many, many worthy letters never see print, and those that do cannot reflect all the topics of interest to readers.

What qualifies as a publishable letter to the editor? The answer is necessarily highly subjective. We are looking for a national (and often international) conversation about the issues of the day ­ big and not so big ­ as well as fresh, bright writing that stands out through its own charm. Timeliness is a must; brevity will improve your chances; stylishness and wit will win my heart.

In times of great stress, the letters page has become a national town hall meeting of sorts. For months after Sept. 11, 2001, readers gave voice to their shock, horror, sadness and rage. They grieved for the dead, and then asked pointed questions about how the terrorist attacks could have happened. The page was a forum for dissecting the drawn-out presidential election of 2000, and for debating whether we should go to war in Iraq.

Contrary to the impression of some readers, the letters page, unlike the editorials with which we share a home, does not have a political coloration of its own. We are eager to print all points of view ­ liberal, conservative and anything in between ­ expressed according to the rules of civil discourse. You are free to agree or disagree with the opinions expressed in the editorials, columns and Op-Ed articles, or with the articles in the news columns. We seek robust debate and strive for balance.

The page is not a scientific survey of public opinion. So the variety of opinions expressed in a package of letters about one topic should not be read as poll results, but rather as a sampling of reader responses.

We welcome letters from all quarters, but especially from ordinary readers who have no titles after their names. Of course, we publish many writers speaking with authority in their areas of expertise, and letters from officeholders responding to criticism in these pages. We enjoy hearing from literary lights about what interests them ­ Norman Mailer on Kosovo, Jane Smiley on the Bush administration, Roger Kahn on crying in baseball.

But concerned, informed readers have the pride of place here ­ the thousands who write about what gets them worked up, or what moves them. And no subject is off-limits, within the bounds of good taste.

Many writers offer their insights into how we live our lives ­ how we drive our S.U.V.’s, gab on our cellphones on our commuter trains, deal with e-mail spam and telemarketers calling during dinner. One couple, responding to a front-page article about Internet dating, took the time to write in from their honeymoon cruise to recount how they met through an online dating service. Many writers, including a 12-year-old whose letter we published, were exercised about an Op-Ed article that took jabs at the adults who read the Harry Potter books.

A few important ground rules: Letters should be kept to about 150 words. (Not enough space? Well, the Gettysburg Address was only about 250 words.) They should be exclusive to The Times and respond to an article that appeared in the newspaper in the last week. In fact, writing by the next day is a good idea. Like other sections of the newspaper, the letters page seeks to be timely, so even a very good letter that arrives three days later may get passed over.

We will try to reach you if your letter is selected, so we need your daytime and evening telephone numbers, as well as your address (we’ll protect your privacy). Letters are subject to editing, as is anything that appears in a newspaper, but we send you the edited letters for your approval.

Our door is always open, so keep the cards and letters coming. But, please, hold off on the spam.

———————————–

May 23, 2004
FROM THE LETTERS EDITOR

The Letters Editor and the Reader: Our Compact, Updated
By THOMAS FEYER

Last September, as letters editor of The Times, I used some of this space for an essay called “To the Reader,” introducing myself and outlining the mission and the mechanics of the letters page.

It seemed to strike a chord, and scores of readers wrote back. Many were pleased to learn that the anonymous editor had a name. Some were grateful for the advice; others were amused, acerbic, occasionally even dyspeptic. I had my 15 minutes of fame: a flurry of dissection on the Internet; an interview on TV that lasted, well, about 15 minutes. We printed two letters in response ­ pro and con, naturally.

But readers, new and old, send in questions (and even complaints!) about the letters page almost every day, and so a refresher course may help. This is an attempt to answer some frequently asked questions.

I’ve submitted many letters, but none have been published. How can I improve my chances?

Thanks largely to the ease and ubiquity of e-mail, letters submissions (and a lot besides) come in relentlessly, round the clock, from around the country and around the world, at a rate of roughly a thousand a day. My small staff and I try to read them all, but we can publish only about 15 letters a day.

While the odds are long, some letter writers seem to know how to shorten them. Here are some tips: Write quickly, concisely and engagingly. We’re in an age of fast-moving news and virtually instant reaction; letters about an especially timely topic often appear within a day or two (and almost always within a week).

At times, some big stories generate hundreds of letters a day ­ Sept. 11 (at one point we were getting hundreds an hour), the war in Iraq, politics, to name a few. When you write about a particularly contentious issue, bear in mind that many others do so as well. We can try to capture a sense of what’s on readers’ minds, but we can’t be comprehensive.

Your suggested length for letters is about 150 words. Why so short? (Or, as one writer put it after I cited the brevity of the Gettysburg Address, “Why does Lincoln get 250 and the rest of us a measly 150?”)

Ideally, the letters page should be a forum for a variety of voices, and that means letting a lot of readers have a turn. With our limited space, we have room for letters that make their case with a point or two, but not for full-length articles. (For those, try our neighbors at the Op-Ed page.)

Once in a while, a particularly eloquent, newsworthy or pointed letter is allotted Lincolnesque space in print, but that is the exception.

You’ve said that the letters page “does not have a political coloration of its own.” Yet liberal opinion seems to dominate, and conservatives seem to have a lesser voice. Why?

In selecting letters, I try to present a fair sampling of reader opinion, as well as a balance of views, pro and con. Writers to The Times ­ by no means all, certainly, but a clear majority ­ tend to be liberal, often vociferously so. Among our letter writers, critics of the Bush administration, especially over the war in Iraq, outnumber its defenders by a substantial margin.

On same-sex marriage, to cite another example, proponents far outnumber opponents among our letter writers. But there is more of a divide on other national issues, like abortion, affirmative action and immigration.

We welcome opinions from all sides: the majority, the dissenters, the contrarians. While I naturally have to use my judgment, it’s not my opinion that determines the complexion of the page, it’s yours.

Do you edit letters?

We reserve the right to edit for space, clarity, civility and accuracy, and we send you the edited version before publication. If your letter is selected, we will try to reach you and ask a few questions: Did you write the letter? (We’re not amused by impostors.) Is it exclusive to The Times? (It should be.) Do you have a connection to the subject you’re writing about? (Readers should be able to judge your credibility and motivation.)

What is your responsibility for ensuring that facts cited in letters are accurate?

Letter writers, to use a well-worn phrase, are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. There is, of course, a broad gray area in which hard fact and heartfelt opinion commingle. But we do try to verify the facts, either checking them ourselves or asking writers for sources of information. Sometimes we goof, and then we publish corrections.

Why are there so many letters from people with credentials or titles after their names?

These come in many flavors: an official’s response to criticism; a statement of policy, printed for the record or for its news value; a view that we feel adds an interesting perspective or expertise to the debate.

As with any letter, writers speak only for themselves or their organizations; publication should not be taken as an endorsement of that view by The Times. The aim is to stimulate discussion, not end it.

A personal note, for those who’ve asked: I’ve been an editor at The Times for 23 years and counting, nearly 5 as letters editor, and a New Yorker since early childhood. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1953 and came to America with my parents ­ survivors of Nazism and refugees from Communism ­ in 1957. Five years later, we swore an oath as naturalized American citizens.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, my core belief as letters editor is that healthy, informed debate is the lifeblood of a strong democracy. Other than that, I’m an avid Times reader, just like you. If what’s in this newspaper interests you, it interests me.

Reader Comments

Marc-
About how many of your letters are published?
Do you get contacted by the papers for your name and number like the NYT says?
Have you ever been published by the NYT?
What did you say when they asked if it was exclusive? (I’m assuming something along the lines of “the edited version is”).
How many papers do you send your letters to the editor to? (email right?)
Thanks.
-Paul

#1 
Written By Paul on October 4th, 2004 @ 8:02 am

You’re one of my heroes. This looks to me like words to live, at church or the club.(or wherever)

#2 
Written By Donald Barger on October 20th, 2004 @ 10:28 am

As of 2007 do you have approximation of letters? Have you broken figures between traditional and e-mail?

#3 
Written By paul fisher on April 24th, 2007 @ 10:59 am

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