Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Editing letters to the editor

Everyone gets edited in a good newspaper -- even people who aren't so used to it, like readers who write letters to the editor.

The Editor's Desk (have I mentioned that I just love this blog by Andy Bechtel, a journalism prof at UNC?) has a post about a North Carolina senator who was mad that his letter to the News & Observer was edited down -- so mad that he took out a full-page ad to air his grievances. (The public editor addressed the issue in a column.) Bechtel lists a few papers' word limits, which got me wondering what more papers do.

Here's a smattering:
USA Today: 250
Wall Street Journal: 300
New York Times: 150
Los Angeles Times: 150
Philadelphia Inquirer: 200
Houston Chronicle: 250
Detroit Free Press: 200
Dallas Morning News: 200
Minneapolis Star-Tribune: 250
Boston Globe: 200
Newark Star-Ledger: 200
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 150
Arizona Republic: 200
Newsday: 250
San Francisco Chronicle: 200

Letters to the editor will always be edited for space, style, grammar and issues of clarity. The trick is to keep the heart of the argument in tact after the editing is done.

The senator, Richard Burr, was unhappy with a News & Observer editorial critical of food label legislation he sponsored. He wrote a letter that was 1,301 words long. (The paper's limit is 200.) The original editorial was 500 words long.

The secret life of a letter to the editor [CJR]


At 1:18 PM, June 28, 2006, Anonymous leebert said...

Editors need to remember that the general public probably does not have a good concept of what editing entails. It would not surprise me to find that most letters to editors are written with the assumption they will be printed word for word. So, rules for submission need to be as explicit as space allows, stating policies on editing for brevity, grammar, etc. along with (hopefully) a URL to a web page that explains everything in detail. Then when a doofus refuses to RTFM, they've got no one to blame but themselves.

At 6:57 AM, June 29, 2006, Anonymous Frolic said...

Wouldn't it be easier if more papers followed the New Yorker's lead and wrote letters on behalf of readers. Such a simply solution.

At 11:38 AM, June 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that a good paper edits letters. In our paper, we solve the problem of long windedness with a community editorial feature called 'your turn.' When somebody is insistent that their letter should be the exception to the rule and allowed to be 900 words long, as long as it's well written and a legitimate subject, we give them that spot. That way, we can maintain that we do not make exceptions to the 200 word limit in our letters section. If it's just a really crappy really long letter, of course, I am a ruthless editor. If the letter is SO long that I have to cut a ton out, though, I do call that person and give them the option of editing and resubmitting themselves.

At 3:37 PM, June 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The online letter to the editor submission form at the Sacramento Bee simply will not accept entries of more than 200 words. The program will return an error message explaining the word limit and directing writers to reduce their word count. That's one way to approach the issue of prolix letters.

At 4:21 PM, June 29, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

I'd definitely be interested to know what kind of communication went on between the N&O and the senator before his revised letter was published.

As for the public's editing knowledge, Leebert, I know you're right. Just because we know it's *right* to edit the letters doesn't mean that the public understands this. Although most editorial pages have a box that says letters will be edited for X, X, X and X, I doubt that many have a link to any substantive explanation of what this entails. It would be easy to do -- and helpful.

At 7:02 AM, July 03, 2006, Anonymous Frolic said...

Have you seen this exchange about GM's letter to the NYT?


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