washingtonpost.com
How to be a man, or woman, of letters

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A17

You're reading The Post and something sets you off. You're steamed. Fed up. Who does so-and-so think he is, making such an idiotic statement? Somebody needs to set the record straight. So you crank up your computer and fire off a beautifully crafted, perfectly reasoned letter to the editor.

Good luck. You have less than a 4 percent chance that it will get published.

The Post receives an average of 300 letters to the editor a day, or more than 109,000 a year. Only about 3,900 are selected for publication; roughly 75 a week.

Long odds. But there's good news. At a time when there are several ways to interact with The Post online (through comments, discussion groups, live chats and polls, among others), the newspaper is also receiving -- and publishing -- more letters to the editor.

"In an era where there are a million comments out there, there is arguably even more of a benefit to having a curated, well-edited, intelligent page of readers' views," said Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt.

The chances of having your letter selected for publication may seem remote. But Letters Editor Michael Larabee insisted it's "not a shot in the dark" if you follow some tips.

Brevity matters. Post guidelines urge that letters not exceed 200 words. "But 150 is better," Larabee said. "And if you can do it in 100 words, wonderful."

Timeliness is critical. Hiatt noted that years ago, when most letters were sent by mail, it was "not unusual to run a letter about something that happened 10 or 15 days earlier." Today, most letters arrive by e-mail (letters@washpost.com) and are published within several days. "There is an advantage to being fast," said Larabee, adding that the volume of letters on some topics is so great that he often selects the first well-written one.

Letters can be sharp but shouldn't slash. "Sometimes zingers go over the line," said Larabee. "I tend to have a little bit of a soft spot for constructive criticism."

Another tip: Consider sending your letter on a Friday afternoon. Fewer arrive then, when Larabee often is searching for timely ones to fill the Monday or Tuesday editorial pages.

And it's okay to have fun. Earlier this month, The Post ran a two-sentence letter about a headline that referred to a "criticizer" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. "I hate to be a critic, but I think an editizer missed something," wrote Marianne Marsolais, a reader from Springfield.

If you've been attacked in a Post editorial, your rebuttal letter stands a better chance. "If we run an editorial that really takes someone on," said Hiatt, "we do our best to let them have their say."

Locals have a better shot than out-of-towners. "We like to have the lion's share coming from our [print] circulation area," said Larabee.

And well-written letters from average citizens often trump those from government big shots or other notables. "A lot of those people are able to put out a press release on their own," Hiatt noted.

Larabee, as gatekeeper, reads all letters. Those he selects go to a staff member who vets them. Writers are contacted to verify their identity, and the staff member often quizzes them to ensure that they haven't concealed a self-interest that should be shared with readers.

All letters are edited, and the writers approve substantive revisions. The copy desk fact-checks the letters and, working with the writers, fine-tunes them for publication.

If a letter is critical of a Post reporter or columnist, he or she is shown a copy before publication and asked about its fairness and accuracy. "We listen to what they have to say," said Larabee, "but they don't have veto power."

That's evident in each Saturday's Free for All, an entire page filled with often-withering criticism of The Post's journalism. Credibility is enhanced when incensed readers are allowed to strike back.

In the past year, the editorial page has been redesigned to accommodate more letters. The lower left corner of the page now regularly highlights especially provocative opinions, often on local issues. Hiatt said the goal is to offer a daily selection that is "interesting to read, lively and fun" and also "provocative of further letters." It's okay to take issue with another letter writer.

Newspapers inform, but they also incite. And nothing embodies the First Amendment like a riotous exchange of views on the opinion pages.

If something in The Post stirs you, sound off with a letter to the editor. But do it fast. Be concise. And if it makes sense, send it Friday afternoon.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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