Writing regularly on the Editorial and OpEd pages, one may become entranced with the obvious wisdom and cleverness of each weekly installment. The foolish writer ought to know better, but it is hard (you'll agree) to control the worm of self-satisfaction, a tireless gourmand.
Fortunately, newspapering is a conversational business. It's a two-way street. We write. You write. We tell you stuff. You correct us, sternly at times.
In community newspapering, there are the facts, the photographs, the lists, the dates and times and deaths and births, and the gossip and advertisements and news and opinions and editorials. All this is our side of the weekly palaver. Then there are the letters, which are the other side. They apply a sort of pest control for that worm I mentioned.
So, let's talk about your letters. We need to do this from time to time, because the rules change a bit, and because letter writers should know what they are.
Some letters are funny, some are warmhearted, some caustic. Some deeble irritatingly and predictably in just a few subjects. Others spread themselves like cluster bombs over anything that moves on the political landscapes. God help the wind farm skeptics, the Iraq war supporters, or the golf course enthusiasts. I'd say something to invoke sympathy for the county commissioners, but they're beyond help.
The Times receives 20 to 30 letters each week. We publish nearly every one, but not necessarily in the week that they arrive. Correspondents often call or write to ask when the deadline is for the current week, or to ask why their letter was not published. Like college admissions policies at some schools, the Letters to the Editor column employs a rolling admissions system. Some are timely, some more compelling than others, some funnier, some more charming. We pick and choose among them, trying to reflect not only the range of opinions that have preoccupied this week's writers, but also the kind of people they are. For instance, the letters column is not necessarily the place for thank-you letters, especially letters from nonprofit organizations with long lists of benefactors, private and commercial, to thank. But, often we move thank-you letters from Islanders whose lives have been saved by police officers, or firefighters, or EMTs, or ER physicians, or neighbors to the head of the letter lineup. We also give some preference to letters from folks who've had a pleasant or unusually helpful experience at the hands of Steamship Authority personnel. (We certainly publish a great many letters from Steamship Authority critics, so our fairness instinct is called into play.)
The editor usually spurns letters that are announcing an event. There are other ways to do that in the paper or online. We are sometimes just oppressed by the repetitiveness of letters criticizing President Bush or the Iraq war and their opposites, praising both. We were similarly disconsolate over the tiresome golf course debate, which went on for years. Ultimately, thankfully, that issue was settled, more or less, and letter writers moved on.
We accept letters that are snail-mailed or e-mailed or FAXed. Readers occasionally bring letters to the office, determined to place the envelope directly in the editor's hands and stand by while he reviews it.
Will you publish it? I will. Or, Not as it is, you'll have to tone it down. We like letters typed, but we have accepted letters scribbled on the back of envelopes, notes slipped under the front door, and once, years ago, a blast at a building inspector, written in pencil on a cedar shingle.
What won't we publish? Downright nasty letters, whether directed at public officials or ordinary folk, are off limits. Letters that are sharply critical of public officials or their actions and decisions are in bounds. Letters about your zoning dispute with your neighbor, or the rude salesperson at the dress shop or the innkeeper who gave you the smoking rather than the non-smoking room or the waiter who ignored your persistent handwaving: no to all of these.
Witheringly long letters are generally rejected. Seven hundred to 1,000 words will do the trick. More is murderous. Fewer, and you are a star. Letters whose authors require that not a word be touched will not be published. All letters are subject to editing for taste, clarity, style, and conciseness. Exceptions are few, and generally occur when a letter writer has enclosed a copy of letter he or she has addressed to a public agency of some sort. If the latter is of reasonable length, it may be published without change or correction.
Letters must include the writer's name, address and telephone number. We have published letters anonymously in the past, but the exceptions have been rare and based upon the most exceptional circumstances.
From all this, take away these important points: The Times enjoys receiving and publishing your letters. We always want more, and we publish nearly every one you send. Subjects should be of particular interest to Islanders. Subjects of general interest to the world population will find a more suitable home in publications with a more global readership, whose interests are likewise planetary. Write clearly, concisely, passionately if you feel that way, but neighborly. And, don't hesitate.