Saturday, June 03, 2006

Three out of five ain't bad

I have a useless talent—a sort of pinball wizardry—that emerged when I was a teenager and that I trot out now and then as a parlor trick*: I am very good at getting my letters to the editor published. This is not something I do obsessively, but when I write one, the odds are good it will show up in print. The occasion for this observation is that I am two for two at The New York Times this year, as of today’s Arts and Leisure section. I don’t write often to the Times; in fact, thinking back, I have sent them a total of five letters over the last forty-odd years (not counting a few notes to William Safire, with whom I am batting zero), of which they have printed three.

There are others who are much better at this sort of thing than I am. There is a fellow in New Paltz, New York, who seems to have a letter in one section or another of the paper, often the Magazine, about six or eight times a year. And while I have, over the years, gotten letters into a variety of magazines and newspapers, always employing the same strategy (outlined below), I have yet to break into National Public Radio.

The benefits of seeing one’s letter published are obvious: It is a nice ego boost (not that I need that, I hear someone shouting from the gallery); and it costs nothing.

I will tell you how I go about composing a letter for publication. There are lessons here, too, that apply to the writing of effective letters in general, whether you are applying for a job or submitting a manuscript to an agent (see Miss Snark, the literary agent and Evil editor for a great deal more on the latter topic).

The first and most obvious requirement is that you . Examine the Letters page of the publication for instructions and follow those instructions to the letter.

The second requirement is that you read the letters the editor has selected for publication. Find what they have in common and emulate it. Does the publication favor letters with a clever turn of phrase? Does it publish letters that discuss a whole issue rather than a specific article? Does it favor letters that flatter the editor rather than serve the reader? Does it feature letters that tack an obscure fact or aside onto an article? Does it feature letters that brutally attack an author or that whine in defense of someone attacked by an author? If your goal is to get your views on some topic in front of the readership, you have to couch them in a letter that appeals to the editor’s personal taste.

The third requirement is that you not aim above your station—or above your stationery. If you are the US ambassador to France, go ahead and pontificate for five hundred words on the globalization of American culture and how this offends the people of France. If you are a schoolteacher in Sheboygan, your views on that topic may be of less interest to the editor; but your recipe for blueberry cobbler may be just the ticket. I can blather on here about any topic that suits my fancy; but when I write to an editor I speak to my direct experience and do not try to compete with experts in fields where I have only lay understanding.

Fourth, pay attention to and follow the form used in the publication. Minimize the amount of editing required. This means that you need to observe the style of salutation, the style in which articles are cited, and all the little things, too: Is it US or U.S.? Are states abbreviated or spelled out? Are numbers over ten rendered as numerals? How is Khaddafi’s name spelled? And so forth. Given the choice, most editors will select letters that require less work on their part. And if you are printing and mailing a letter on paper (does anyone do that anymore?), please double space and leave wide margins.

Fifth, if the publication contacts you prior to publication and is courteous enough to show you how they have edited your letter for length and request your approval, do not whine about the cuts. If the edit results from a serious misunderstanding of your point and results in something that will mislead readers, you should certainly say so. But if the editor just eliminated one of your pet phrases and dropped your first and third points in favor of your second, your only appropriate response is “Thank you. Edits approved.”

* Parlor trick: An expression so common and well understood in the pre-television era that lexicographers have apparently always overlooked it. I cannot find it in any of the American dictionaries I checked, new or old, nor in any online reference, and my eyes cannot focus at this hour of the morning on the Compact OED, even with the magnifier. The expression shows up in a Google search about 90,000 times, which really is not very many. In any case, a parlor trick is literally something one does to amuse friends gathered in a . By extension, it is any amusing but unimportant and generally non-income-producing talent.


Anonymous said...

Including "parlour trick" and the plurals gets you another 140,000+ hits from Google.

The term is defined in the Shorter Oxford, so I expect you'll find it in the Compact later in the day, once your eyes come into focus ;^)

Dick Margulis said...

Thanks, Stuart. It's still a hoary enough expression that most younger readers (meaning anyone under forty, I think) might not be familiar with it.