Letters: your voice at the Daily

You’re paging through the Daily one morning as you’re drinking your caffeinated beverage of choice, and you glance over the opinions page. Rob Kuznia has written a piece that absolutely rattles your cage. You could not disagree more with his point. What do you do about it? Well, you’ve got a number of choices.
You rant to a few of your friends and see who agrees with you; you wad the article into a ball and throw it across the room — or you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write a letter to the Daily.
The Daily receives many letters. On average, we receive two dozen a week, and more if there is hot campus, local or national news. We get them from all over the country and from all walks of life. As well as being the readers’ rep, I’m also the letters editor. I have the task — and most of the time it’s a delightful one — of selecting which letters see the light of day in the pages of the Daily.
So you want your letter about Kuznia’s column to reach the most people possible.
How do you maximize your chances of getting your letter into the letters column?
In my first quarter of doing this job, I thought a lot about the selection process. What criteria would I use for selecting those few letters I have the space to run? I can usually run between two and four letters a day, depending on the number of cartoons we have, and I want to use that space wisely.
Although I have an informal screening process, I have broken every “rule” I’m about to outline several times already, and I’ll break them several more times before my time at the Daily runs out. So, though I will provide a list of things to think about as you’re drafting your rebuttal to Kuznia, I want to stress that if your point is better made by ignoring one or more of them (and you can convincingly demonstrate that to me), then do it. If you do it well, I’ll ignore the list, too.
First, and probably most important for purposes of being considered for publication, choose a topic that’s likely to appeal to University readers and that has been recently covered in the Daily. Although your personal obsession may be along the lines of the price of tea in China, your letter is more likely to see print if you write about the price of housing, books or tuition at the University. However, if you write a compelling, interesting letter about the price of tea in China, I might well run it. And if you’ve seen two or three letters already in print about a topic, your letter should shed new light on it or offer a fresh opinion.
Second, make your letter attractive to your friendly letters editor. Make your point quickly and concisely. Letters that exceed a page usually have to be cut, and that makes the letter less attractive. And please, spell check your letter and proofread it for shoddy grammar. I have the responsibility not only to cut for length, but to edit for grammar, spelling and clarity. If I have a choice between a letter I don’t have to spend a lot of time correcting and editing and one that will take extra time, I’ll choose the former. I do understand, though, that many letters need extra length to make their points. And I will rarely throw out a letter solely because it was poorly written.
I am a pretty good editor. I generally don’t have trouble with people saying I gutted their letters of all the important stuff. But if I’m unsure about how to edit a letter, I will call or e-mail the writer and ask him/her to guide me in my editing. I may also ask you to pare down your own letter and resubmit it. If I ask you to do this, it virtually guarantees you a space in print. I think it unfair to ask for a resubmission and then not publish the result.
Also include your name, year in school, major/college or affiliation with the University, and a way to reach you (phone number is best). The Daily does not run anonymous letters under any circumstances. I love it when writers include their phone numbers, because that means I don’t have to call information or run to the computer or phone book to look them up. I’d love it even more if writers added a line at the bottom of their letters that says something like “You have my permission to publish this.” I do try to call writers whose letters I select as a courtesy so they can be sure to pick up a copy of the Daily containing their letters, and I try to let them know the day their letters will run.
I assume that if a writer sends a letter to “Letters to the Editor” or the [email protected] e-mail address, he/she intends the letter to be considered for print. Sometimes the opinions editor, Jerry Flattum, forwards me letters he receives on the opinions pieces he runs. These writers might not expect these letters to see print. I always try to get the writer’s permission before I run letters like these, because often the comments are more inflammatory or critical than those crafted specifically for a letters section.
If you do write about the opinions page, a permission line at the bottom would free me up to run your note if you desire, and I could just give you a courtesy call.
Last, don’t swear unless it is absolutely critical to your point. I’ve gotten some letters that would curl your hair. I understand the occasional necessity to use profanity, whether that be to make a point or to accurately quote someone; gratuitous cursing usually doesn’t bolster an argument, and it often detracts from it.
I had some angst about this part of my job when I first signed on. I was concerned that my own personal or political biases would enter into the letters selection process. And I believed (and still believe!) that my duties as readers’ rep require me to exercise even more vigilance in selecting a fair representation of the letters the Daily receives for print. I admit I’ve had to fight my own biases more than once. I’ve gotten letters that I completely disagree with, that push every button I have. But I’ve run them because I owe their opinions to you, the readership. I’d be a lousy liaison to you if I withheld letters simply because I disagreed with them.
Whether you love or hate us, we love it when you write and tell us. Columnists (like Kuznia) and reporters alike crave feedback. Daily staff members use letters as a gauge to inform our reporters and editors of the quality of their work. When you quit writing, that means you’ve quit reading, and we’re doing something wrong. So keep the letters coming — they are as creative and diverse as the University population, and we welcome them.
Genelle Belmas’ column runs every other Friday. She also welcomes comments by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 612-627-4070 x3282.