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The art of writing letters to the editor

india Updated: Jul 22, 2012 01:21 IST

Over the past month, several readers have written to me complaining that HT had not published their letters. One reader said he was “hurt”, another said she was “disappointed”, a third said she was “angry”, a fourth said HT was “partial.”

I can relate to all those sentiments. Rejection does not feel good. But readers need to understand that space is limited, at least in the world of print, so if a newspaper receives more letters than it can accommodate, then the letters editor has to choose the best ones.

But even if space were unlimited, as it would be online, a newspaper may not print all the letters it receives. It may find that some are inappropriate. A newspaper is accountable for everything that it publishes, so it has to ensure that the letters pass some basic tests.

I asked HT’s letters editor, Samrat Chowdhery, what the typical problems were with letters that don’t make the cut. One recurrent flaw is that the reader has misunderstood the issue; another is that the reader has stated an opinion but has failed to then argue the case.

Sometimes, says Chowdhery, readers write about hyper-local issues that are likely to have little wider interest, such as dogs barking at night in the lane next to their house. Some letters are legally tricky — libellous, in contempt of the judiciary or problematic in other ways. A few, says Chowdhery, blatantly plagiarise matter from other opinion pieces.

Finally, of course, a letter may not suffer from any of these problems but makes a point that many others are too. In that case, the best argued and most lucid letters win out.

This is not the place for me to hold forth on the art of argumentation, rules of rhetoric or logical fallacies, but I will offer three tips to readers that might increase the chances of their letters make it to print.

First, they should be succinct and try to say what they have to in less than 200 words. If they have an elaborate argument to make, they would be better off submitting it as a full-blown opinion piece.

Second, they should state their thesis no later than in the third sentence.

They should make sure to provide one or two reasons to back their opinion. This sounds obvious, but Chowdhery says many letters spend most of the time summing up a current issue, getting to the opinion only at the end without any supporting argument.

For new readers, let me explain that HT has two distinct spaces for their letters: one, titled From Our Inbox, which appears from Monday to Saturday at the bottom of page 4 and has no restrictions on the topic readers can address; the other, this page, which appears every Sunday and carries responses to a specific question that the newspaper prints daily on page 4 starting on Wednesday or Thursday.

So keep writing in — to the letters editor about current topics and to me about HT’s coverage of those current topics. Don’t be disheartened if your first letter does not make it to print. As Bo Bennett, a graphic design entrepreneur and multimillionaire, said, “A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success.”