Opinion: Letters to the editor

POSTED: 02/22/12 1:18 PM

Letters to the editor are always welcome at our newspaper. So far we have set only one condition and that is that writers sign their letters with their true name. After all, we live in a constitutional democracy where citizens have the constitutional right to express their opinion freely.

But some writers are going a bit too far in their enthusiasm, by producing letters of unprecedented length.

Journalists know this expression very well (and if they don’t, they should): I did not have the time to write a short story so I wrote a long story.

But the magic of words, the magic of communicating a point of view is not found in quantity, it is found in quality. It is of course possible to debate what exactly is meant by quality.

When the Rocky Mountain collegian, a student paper published by the Colorado State University in Fort Collins published an editorial in September 2007 that read: “Taser This …. FUCK BUSH” there was a lot of talk about the quality of this line, but nobody misunderstood the message. The college newspaper published the shortest editorial ever after an incident that happened at the University of Florida that month. When student Andrew Meyer disturbed a town hall meeting that features Senator John Kerry, he was tasered and arrested.

Now, do not misunderstand us. We do not encourage our dear letter writers to come up with creative alternatives to match the unique creativity of those students in Colorado by tasering our local politicians or whomever it is that they want to take to task in their letter.

All we are saying is that there is quite some maneuvering space between a letter that runs, say, 600 words and contains almost ten times a term like St. Maarten/Saint Martin people and the four-word student editorial.

Readers are only able to take that much. We live in a video-age where the attention span of the average viewer and reader has shrunk to worrisome levels. If the headline of an article is bland and uninteresting, readers don’t bother to read the article. If the first paragraph is boring, readers move on to something else. If they see a letter that runs practically a whole page – and we have seen them, and at times even published them – only seriously unemployed people with absolutely nothing else to do may struggle through it until the bitter end.

Still, this is no guarantee that the message comes across. Readers who sacrifice their time to read such long pieces will probably be left wondering why the writer could not have made his or her point in 150 words.

Because we love letters to the editor, and also because we don’t want to waste our time on re-inventing the wheel, we present here a piece written by Guy Stromberg for About.com Marketing. The result is of course that this opinion piece is getting longer than it ought to be, but the interested readers and potential writers will have to put up with this for the occasion.

“The letters to the editor page is one of the most-read pages of any newspaper. The others sections are the sports page, comics and obituaries. My own theory: after you cry about the White Sox losing again, you’ll want to laugh, and then you want to see who you’ve outlived.

People don’t read the letters pages for the sane and reasonable editorials, which are typically unsigned. They don’t read them for the Pulitzer-prize winning syndicated columnists. No, people read them for three reasons:

(1) George Will won’t be writing about whether the county should allow a new coal plant to get built by old man Miller’s farm,

(2) Their friends and neighbors will be writing about local issues — and people — that matter to them, and

(3) There’s a good chance that somebody wrote an op-ed or letter to the editor that is more than a little nuts. And that’s always entertaining.

I’m not suggesting you write crazy letters to the editor. Far from it. But if there’s ever a time where you can use humor and wit, this is it.

Length and format

Different newspapers will have entirely different requirements on length. Some papers will only publish 200 words or less. Others newspapers run 500-word manifestos, if they’re interesting enough.

But let’s keep it simple: stick to 200 words and you’ll be safe, no matter which newspaper you’re targeting. Here’s the format:

Snappy headline

Letters are persuasive, not informative, so give your headline a point. Persuasion is about getting people to make decisions. If they read your letter, what do you want them to do? Put that in the headline.

A letter to the editor is first person and all about message. It’s not an essay or a term paper.

If you want to see bad examples of writing on the opinion page, hold it out at arm’s-length and look for pieces littered with quotes, numbers and acronyms. They’re easy to spot. And nobody will read them.

Your format is also important. If you write a letter to the editor using the inverted pyramid — most important thing first, least important last — it won’t be persuasive. It will be boring. Build up to your conclusion. Think of it as the climax of an action movie: the final showdown with the villain doesn’t come first. It’s the last scene of the movie.

At the end of your letter, put your name, daytime phone number and email-address.

They’re not going to publish your phone number or e-mail. These two things are included when you submit a letter so they can verify that you sent it. You’re going to send it by e-mail, and it’s easy to fake things by e-mail.

Am I saying you can’t send a letter to the editor by fax or snail mail? Yes. I’m saying that. Newspapers still list their fax numbers out of habit, and their snail mail addresses because people send them checks that way, and they sort of like checks. But no editor wants to spend their days retyping letters and op-eds. Ship your letter to the editor by e-mail, and look on the editorial page for the right e-mail address.

Letters to the editor are wonderful

Letters to the editor are underutilized. Editors and reporters will roll their eyes if you ask them how many press releases they get every day. I know an AP bureau chief who gets 700 to 1,000 press releases every day. Think about having to wade through all of those. You’re index finger will develop a callous from hitting the delete key.

Letters to the editor and op-eds are the opposite. Most newspapers want more, not less. They’re happy to get good pieces written by local public figures.”


So there you have it: we appreciate your letters, and if you follow the above guidelines our readers will also be happy to read them.

Oh, maybe some readers are wondering why we’re bringing this up. It’s not our own idea – we’re just not that brilliant. We wrote this because a loyal reader came into our office yesterday wondering why letter-writers use so many words to say something simple. Our advice: follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Silly – and keep it short as well). As a letter to the editor, this opinion piece would definitely be too long. 🙂

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Comments (1)


  1. yvonne Hodge says:

    What kind o country allows a bailiff a lawyer and family members to be a judge a jury and police to move into and takeover someone’s property? A man by the name of Stiching Armada has a bank account at the windward islands bank which is receiving monies from my tenants at the Marie Isabella Villas acct#’s 21264501 &21264403. I Yvonne Hodge in the past 4 years have not received a penny from this account because they are lying to the tenants telling them my name is on this account WELL I’M HERE TO TELL YOU ITS NOT!!! Dr Douglass thinks she can just do what she wants on my property without permission!!! You have fake police officers on my property getting paid with the money from my property to try to keep me away stating that I own a gun I have never owned a gun in my life that weapon belong to my father the late Walter Hodge!!!! Melvin lake comes on the island trying to manipulate the tenants into giving him money now the real police of St Maarten are looking for him!!! NOW HIS BROTHER NELSON LAKE COMES THERE WITH FAKE POWER OF ATTORNEY PAPERS CHANGE THE BANK ACCOUNT NUMBERS STATING HIS MOM IS BEING ROBBED AND IS RECEVING MONEY!!! What kind of judge is signing a bailiffs paper allowing this to go on oh yeah maybe a judge that is being paid for a bailiffs to go around and threaten the tenants by telling them if they don’t pay to the bank they will go into their bank accounts and freeze their wages!!! Elvira tenant that lives in marie Isabella Villas going around saying I did nothing as a landlord is a liar but now who is there fixing your apt the only one there keeping the grounds maintained is someone who is there doing me a favor not being paid because I have nothing to pay him with!!! And you call this the friendly island!!!! I call this the island of greed and corruption!!! I lived there for 4 years going back and forth to court my aunt Cynthia lake never showed up but I leave the island and come back to NY to take care of my children and no one tells me about a court date you say there is a warrant for my arrest!!!! My aunt sells her land across the street from Marie Isabella Villas you get the crooked bailiff to write up a paper stating that I owe her 66 thousand dollars so you can justify why you will keep taking money from the tenants and them receiving a paper with my name attach to these account numbers of monies I’m not receiving. Tenants IF YOUR SMART YOU BETTER GO IN THE BANK AND ASK WHO YOU ARE ACTUALLY PAYING!!! A member from the windward island bank coming around and collecting money from the tenant when they are late because she is getting a cut of my money what my FATHER LEFT FOR ME WHICH YOU ST MAARTENERS SAY I DON’T DESERVE YOU HAVE NO RIGHT!!!!! In the mean while no taxes being paid because everyone is lining their pockets with someone else’s money!!!! If there is a GOD WHICH I KNOW AND BELIEVE THERE IS ALL OF THIS WILL COME TO AN END REAL SOON!!! The 18 of December is suppose to be when the money should be split but because there are so many people with their hands in my cookie jar they are trying to serve papers to the tenants change account numbers so I receive none of my own money!!! And Nelson to you know you are not your brother but you are not my brother either not Walter Hodge SON and he left nothing for you or your brother so I don’t know why you keep saying you will bring a whole bunch of girls up her to beat me when clearly none of this is your business!!!! I may not have anyone but one or two people that are with me but I have GOD AND WITH HIM ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!! Thanks for posting this!!!!!!!