Letters that are well written, respect the word count and are timely and topical stand a good chance of being published, writes Brunswick News ombudswoman Patricia Graham.

By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News ombudswoman

I recently saw a video on social media in which an unidentified gentleman was complaining that his letters to the editor at a Brunswick News newspaper were subject to a word limit while commentary pieces were permitted to be much longer.

It is true that letters to the editor must be shorter than commentary pieces – or “op eds” as they are called in newspaper jargon – but word count isn’t the only difference between them.

The letters area in newspapers is provided as a forum for community discussion. The key word is “community”, because it is here that citizens can express their views and make (hopefully) constructive contributions to the issues of the day. In an effort to permit as many people as possible to have input each day, newspapers usually impose a word limit on letters. The norm is between 250 – 350 words.

There are other criteria as well, depending on factors such as how many days each week the paper publishes and how many letters it receives; the higher the demand for space, and the smaller the space devoted to letters, the lower the word count is likely to be.

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Some publications won’t publish letters from politicians, the rationale being that they have enough opportunity to have their say. Others won’t publish letters from third parties: that is, a letter where the writer is speaking for someone else.

Letters that are well written, respect the word count and are timely and topical stand a good chance of being published. Editors want letters to reflect the community discussion, so when there are more letters than can be accommodated on a given subject, they will either select letters to reflect both sides of the debate in roughly equal numbers, or they will select letters in a ratio similar to the ratio of letters received. While I personally favour the latter approach, I believe either of them is acceptable, provided the process is transparent and consistent.

Another thing editors who select letters look for is a variety of topics and contributors. So people who write frequently on the same topic, whether or not it is in the news and whether or not they have something new to say, may find it is not a winning strategy,

Opinion or commentary pieces perform a different function in newspaper pages:  to provide readers with expert commentary. The requirement of expertise is intended to ensure that the writer can deepen readers’ knowledge and understanding of an issue. Given the purpose of such pieces, they generally run longer than letters, ranging from about 500 to 750 words. These pieces must be well researched and well written. Occasionally, a letter writer will be asked to submit an opinion piece, in particular when the issue is complex and needs space to be properly addressed. More often than not, however, commentary pieces are written by representatives of institutions such as universities, think tanks, labour organizations, governments, corporations, etc.

The Moncton Times & Transcript devotes considerable space to letters, and includes a “letter of the day”.  This means it can accommodate longer letters of as much as 450 words. On occasion, it will even add an extra page to accommodate a large influx of letters on a hot topic. Managing editor Al Hogan says he publishes all letters unless an individual or an issue has been exhausted for the time being.  Generally letters are published in the order received, but he says the best letters – those that are well written, newsy or topical – tend to be published on Friday or Saturday, or as a letter of the day.

At The Daily Gleaner, letter writers are asked to stick to 300 words. Letters are published in the order they are received unless something is time sensitive. Opinion page editor Gisele McKnight says that when there are too many letters on one subject it can become tedious for readers so some may go unpublished. When deciding whether a letter should be longer and published as a commentary piece her criteria are, “Is it sensible? Is it likely to appeal to readers? Does it warrant extra space?”

I have noted that the vast majority of letter writers in Brunswick News newspapers are male; but more on that another day.

One final word: this article comes in at 716 words.

This column was originally published by BNI and republished here with Graham's permission.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.