Letter writing 101

By TIM BEELAND,

From time to time folks question why we publish letters from our readers  on this page and from time to time we like to clarify our policy. This is one of those times. The fact of the matter is that there are some common misconceptions about letters that we’d like to clear up too.

• Myth No. 1: The newspaper has a legal obligation to publish letters. Nope. A newspaper doesn’t have to print anything, whether it be letters, advertisements or news stories, it doesn’t want to print.

Of course, a newspaper that routinely rejects submissions isn’t worth much, which is why this newspaper bends over backwards to publish letters and other items received.

As with any civilized debate, there must be ground rules. The Scott County Times does not publish anonymous letters, because criticism without accountability is hollow and serves no useful purpose in the public debate. If someone believes enough in the content of what they are writing, they should be willing to sign their name. We also don’t publish letters that are profane or libelous.

• Myth No. 2: Publication of a letter indicates the newspaper’s endorsement of the writer’s opinion. Nope. Our column-writers and letter-writers all have their own views, sometimes vastly different from our own. While we feel strongly about our own opinions — which we express through editorials and personal columns — we don’t pretend to know everything.

• Myth No. 3: When a letter is published, it must be published verbatim, or not at all. Nope. In fact,  letters may be edited in some form, and we always reserve that right. Most of the time, it’s as simple as cleaning up a writer’s poor grammar.

Readers should consider the following guidelines to ensure publication of a letter with minimal changes:

• Be Brief. Use short sentences and simple words that readers, and editors, of average intelligence understand.

• Deal with issues, not personalities. We likely will not publish letters that are abusive or in poor taste. That’s not to discourage legitimate criticism of public officials, who, by running for office, subject themselves to public scrutiny. Criticizing or disagreeing with our elected officials is a precious democratic right, and we try not to infringe on it. However, please comment only on the action or inaction of the official in question rather than using the occasion to launch a personal attack featuring information and opinions that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

We also discourage, and may reject, letters that deal with personal grievances, such as run-ins with law enforcement or bad experiences with private businesses. Those complaints are better taken up with the police chief or sheriff, or the owner of the business. If the complaint has gone through the proper channels and you’re still not satisfied, call us. We may look into the situation, or permit your letter on the topic.

• Address comments to the editor, not public officials or other letter-writers. We sometimes get letters that begin with something like, “Dear So-and-so,” or that speak directly to an earlier letter-writer. If you want to address so-and-so, send the letter to him or her. If you want to comment on the actions of him or her address the editor of this newspaper and write your letter accordingly.

• Don’t beat dead horses. Express an opinion once and move on. Repeat letters expressing the same opinion are tiresome and boring for readers, unless there is ongoing dialogue between letter-writers that brings out new points. And even that cannot go on forever.

• Sign the letter and list your address and telephone number so we can verify that you wrote the letter. Only your name and city address will be published, not your mailing address or phone number. If you like, you may include your email address, but we won’t publish that, either, unless you ask that we do. It just gives us another way to contact you, if needed.

Now that you have a better understanding of the rules, get those fingers going, we are waiting to hear from you.