Why wasn’t my letter published? Primary cause: plain bad luck. Publication can be a lottery rather than a science, a factor forgotten even by staff correspondents on newspapers. Some letters are pencilled for inclusion and then bumped by the 24/7 news cycle – a cruel fate for a reader with something to say; harsher still if you’re a reporter with a three-month investigation that gets “held”. (A word to send a shiver through the newsroom.)
We are often overwhelmed by a surfeit of engaging letters on one topic, meaning that dozens are lost to posterity. The occasional letter is just too fruity, or libellous, to print. Others you mark “not for publication”; pointers for the consideration of the editorial staff when, in your eyes, we err or excel. Then there’s the topical poetry, which we spare you.
So how, amid this carnival of opinion and insight, might one improve one’s chances of publication? Brevity helps. We don’t mind editing down hundreds of words or picking out a particularly apposite paragraph – but a pithier contribution may triumph. “Editor or whoever,” urges reader Geoff Julier of Pitstone. “Please ask readers to get to the point, no grandstanding.”
Wit, of course, lifts a Letters page, albeit a seasoning used in moderation. If you want to prompt replies, try to make a point that opens up debate rather than shuts it down.
Readers respond to first-person perspectives – insight forged through years of experience in medicine, education, politics, diplomacy, the military, prisons, finance, other public service… Here I think of the cri de coeur by a midwife despairing at the state of her profession, which we ran as an anonymous column, prompting hundreds of replies. Or the note from a mother who read our investigation into “Britain’s missing girls” and who had been forced to abort her unborn daughters because her husband wanted sons.
Why are there sometimes more men than women published? As I stand on my page 3 soapbox, I daren’t countenance the thought that one half of the population likes the sound of its own voice more than the other... We shall continue to publish the best letters sent to us every day, but i reader Fiona Brooks had a radical suggestion which I pass on as provocation. “If there was some blank space on the page,” Fiona wrote to me last week, “then I think that would be a wake-up call to other women that our opinions are missing.”
The final word on this will be yours. But I end with the thoughts of our Letters Editor, Guy Keleny. “Keep it short,” he says. “Make one point only. Try to sound like a decent person who’s trying to help.
“The best letters start with something in the writer’s experience, that the reader wouldn’t know about without the letter, and go on to make a point of general application.”