How to Have Your Say

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Many readers write about wanting their opinions to appear in The Post, but they are often unsure about the rules. If they want to reply to or decry something in the paper, do they write a letter to the editor or to Free for All? Why do the letters have to be so short? Who controls Close to Home? And how can they get an article published on the op-ed page or in Outlook? Outlook is run by the editorial pages staff, right?

Let me try to make this less confusing before I leave on vacation for a couple of weeks. New editors have taken over Outlook, letters to the editor and the op-ed page this year. They or their colleagues look at all submissions. Any reader can submit a letter to the editor, an op-ed piece or an Outlook article by e-mail to, or, respectively. Or these may be mailed to The Post at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071.

Outlook, the Sunday opinion section, is a hybrid. The front of the section is put out by the news staff; the editorial page staff is in charge of the last three pages, including Close to Home. Outlook Editor John Pomfret and his deputy, Warren Bass, like to generate their own ideas, and about 50 percent of Outlook's articles are solicited from writers, Bass said. Outlook articles can be up to 1,500 words long; the editors like a variety of lengths and topics.

What catches an Outlook editor's eye? "The mandate is to be provocative. I look to be grabbed," Bass said, "by an idea that can start or change a debate. I look for something fresh, vivid, unusual -- that will force readers to have a good, hard think," Bass said. Timeliness is important, and Bass and Pomfret try to think ahead of the news.

The 60 to 100 unsolicited op-ed submissions that arrive each day are divided between Autumn Brewington, op-ed editor since January; Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor; and Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor. Generally, the schedule of syndicated and Post columnists leaves space for one outside column a day.

Op-ed pieces, with few exceptions, are limited to 800 words, and it's important that they be newsy. Brewington was on the phone quickly after presidential adviser Karl Rove announced his resignation Aug. 13, soliciting pieces for the next day's paper.

The articles are often by people well known in their fields, such as former vice president Walter Mondale, a Democrat, writing on what he thought about the power wielded by Vice President Cheney, as reported in a Post Page 1 series. Such people frequently pitch Brewington about op-eds on their favorite subjects. But the op-ed page has limited space, she said, and "we have an embarrassment of riches. By default, we turn down a lot of good things."

Brewington is always on the hunt for a fresh perspective or an off-beat piece, such as the recent op-ed by Jennifer DeBerardinis, a teenager who wrote about not having enough "friends" on Facebook. "I very much hope there's something on the op-ed page for everyone," Brewington said.

Letters to the editor, Free for All submissions and Close to Home pieces are edited by Gina Acosta, the letters editor, who recently returned from a Nieman Foundation fellowship at Harvard University.

The Post letters policy is stringent. A letter must be no longer than 200 words and exclusive to The Post. With few exceptions, a letter writer cannot appear on the letters or Free for All pages more than once every six months. Don't try to cheat; records are kept. That rule does not apply to letters published in the Book World, Travel or local Extras sections.

Many readers don't like the rules on letter length and publication frequency; some think it's not fair that they can't post something on a Web site, often their own. Hiatt said, "We like letters to be short so we can fit more of them; we say six months so more people get a chance -- though we waive that rule when someone who's been mentioned deserves a chance to talk back. Of course, [the rules have] evolved over time, particularly the Web one, and we rethink them from time to time."

The letters e-mail inbox, the source for the editorial and Free for All pages, gets 500 to 600 letters a day, and Acosta has room for between 60 and 70 a week. Local readers are favored. Robert Hauptman of Silver Spring wrote to ask "whether the editor makes his selection based on how favorable the writer is to the Post position." Acosta said she doesn't publish laudatory letters. "I love letters that completely trash us."

John Nicholson of Alexandria asked about the exclusivity rule: "When we submit a letter to the editor of the WP, how long should we wait to see if it gets published before modifying it and resubmitting it to another newspaper?" If you haven't heard back within two weeks, it's a safe bet the letter won't be published, Acosta said. All letters are edited for grammar, taste, fairness and Post style, and the editorial copy desk vigorously checks facts.

Acosta looks for "smart and short" letters with reasonable points and, please, no personal attacks or name-calling. That will land your letter in the e-mail trash folder or the circular file. Close to Home pieces can be a bit longer -- 500 words -- and must be on local issues. The Free for All page on Saturday is my favorite letters page; it's reserved for readers who find fault with The Post -- and sometimes me -- as opposed to the people, policies and events the paper writes about.

Marilyn Lott of Front Royal was put off by the request that letter writers must disclose personal, professional or financial stakes in the issue they are writing about. "Indeed, it strikes me as arrogant that a reader with no affiliation, involvement or relationship with something published in The Post is not considered a competent commentator," she said.

On the contrary, letter writers without any affiliation are published daily; the policy is intended to tell readers about interests a letter writer or op-ed writer may have, such as lobbying or a government or political job.

The rules for letters to the editor and op-ed pieces are published in the opinion section of See you on Sept. 16.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at

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