Some guidelines for letter-writers

January 08, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

As I write this, The Herald-Mail's letters file contains almost 60 letters. That's about the norm for this time of year, when people are thinking more about the holidays and year-end reports than they are about local issues, but at times our backlog has gotten up to 100 or more.

Those are the letters that have already been set in type. Usually, there are 10 or 15 waiting for one of our editorial assistants to type them in.

As a result, it can take from one week to a month for a letter to make it into print, although we try to quickly publish those letters related to a recent event or an upcoming meeting. Long letters on perennial topics - evolution vs. creationism, for example - may take a month or more to get in.

In the past we've suggested that readers limit their letters to 250 words, but because we're busy and we don't like to make people unhappy, we've been liberal in the publication of letters much longer than that.


But after taking many phone calls from letter-writers wondering why it's taking so long to get their letters in, we've come to realize this: Every super-long letter we publish means two or three of normal length must wait much longer to see print.

It isn't fair to penalize those who follow our guidelines, so beginning this month we're going to ask letter-writers to adhere to our 250-word guideline, with some exceptions.

What will those be?

If you're responding to a Herald-Mail news story or column, we'll relax the word limit and publish the letter as soon as possible. If you're a recognized expert commenting on a matter of public interest, we'll also bend the rules. Finally, if you're a direct participant in a public controversy or cause, you'll get a little bit more leeway.

How much more? That's something we'll have to talk about on a case-by-case basis. What we'd like to do is encourage letter-writers who feel they need more than 250 words to contact us first and make the case for a longer letter. E-mailing us at is the best way to do this, but if you don't have e-mail capability, you can call 301-733-5131, ext. 7622.

To make it easier, I will pledge that unless I'm on vacation on or on an assignment, I'll be available by phone at the above number from 11 a.m. to noon each day. I can only talk to one person at a time, so if you get a recording, don't fret, because I will call you back as soon as possible.

If letter-writers don't talk to us, overly-long letters will be trimmed. Frankly, we'd rather have you do that. That's because every time I cut a single paragraph out of someone's letter, whether it's at the top, the bottom or somewhere in the middle, the letter-writer always tells me that what I cut was the most-important part, the heart of his or her argument.

  • And while we're talking about reader letters, let's review some of The Herald-Mail's long-standing guidelines:

  • No personal attacks, please. It's possible to have a good debate about whose ideas are best without calling someone you disagree with a fool or an idiot. That includes elected officials. It's hard enough to get good people to run for office without subjecting them to name-calling in print.

  • If you're submitting an account of the facts, as opposed to an opinion, please cite the source of your information, whether it's a magazine article, a book or a court document.

  • What's the difference between an opinion and an account of the facts? Here's the example I usually use:

  • If I say that County Commissioner Joe Doe has an unpleasant voice, that's a matter of opinion, because what irritates my ears may sound wonderful to you.

    If, however, I say that the commissioner kicks his dog every day, that's an account of the facts. To print it, we'd at least need an impartial witness, or preferably a citation for cruelty from the Humane Society.

  • Just because an article is posted on the Internet doesn't mean we can automatically reprint it. In 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many people asked us to reprint the late Gordon Sinclair's essay entitled "The Americans." To do so, we had to get approval from the radio station where he worked when he wrote it, CFRB 1010 in Canada.

  • We cannot use your letter unless we have your name, address and daytime telephone number. That's so we can make sure that someone is not using your name to advance a controversial argument.

  • It would help a great deal if those who use e-mail would not send letters written in all capital letters, or without punctuation altogether. Such letters take a great deal of time to edit.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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