Law of the letter

Not all letter-writing is as picturesque. The Letter Writer 1680. Oil on panel 25 x 20 cm. Rijskmuseum, Amsterdam.

Not all letter-writing is as picturesque.
The Letter Writer, Frans van Mieris, 1680. Oil on panel 25 x 20 cm. Rijskmuseum, Amsterdam.

Sometimes the mail brings hefty servings of word salad, but sometimes a bit of protein sneaks in.

Recently, Tom Dillard, who writes an Arkansas history column for the Democrat-Gazette, sent me a copy of a Civil War sesquicentennial piece by historian Ron Kelley, which was published in several newspapers in the state. That short column included something of interest to me because of its historical value, quaint language, and because some of its advice still holds.

The Arkansas Gazette was a weekly at the time, and at one point ceased publication—as did many other newspapers—because of a paper shortage during the war. For consistency, Kelley writes, its editor set out rules for submissions of commentary and poetry (which we no longer print). I was able to find a fuller version of those rules and other clips from the era on a Web page compiled by Vicki Betts at the University of Texas at Tyler, with the notation that they appeared on Aug. 25, 1860.

Image found on Readex.

Image found on Readex.

“To Correspondents.—We have received an effusion from Scott county, the theme of which is so much better than the poetry that we decline to publish it. It is a mistaken notion that one who has not learned to write prose can write poetry. In prose there are some simple rules which should be observed by all who write for newspapers.

Image found on British Legal Centre.

Image found on British Legal Centre.

“1. Write on but one side of the paper—making all of your words and punctuation marks so plain that they cannot be misunderstood.

“2. Use plain language which no one can misunderstand.

“3. Avoid diluting ideas and spinning out articles to an unnecessary and unreasonable length. Write what is to be written, and quit when it is finished. Many articles are rejected on account of their length, and many, which are published, are not read for the same reason.

“4. Mature well what you write. Never write in haste, and ask an editor to correct your articles, for fear they may not be published. The editor does not know what you want to write, and does not, therefore, know even how your article should be punctuated, much less what words you desire to use. Besides, the time of an editor is as valuable as yours, and there is no reason why he should do your work.”

Image found on MediaHack.

Image found on MediaHack.

I think my favorite part is, “Write what is to be written and quit when it is finished.” While it sounds funny now, it’s true. One of the things a lot of writers are guilty of is overwriting (me too)—going on far too long instead of making the point succinctly. Some of the best letters we’ve gotten were only a sentence or a few words long.

That doesn’t mean we don’t like longer letters, but we have a limit on how long they can be so we can fit in more letters, especially during busy periods. And yes, as some letter-writers have pointed out, sometimes printed letters go over that 250-word limit; however, the limit is an average since we go by inch-count rather than number of words when laying out the page. Sometimes what fits in that space may be as few as 200 words, but sometimes as many as 300 or so, all because of the size of the letters in the words. (An I doesn’t need the same amount of space as W, for example.)

Wind me up and watch me go!

Wind me up and watch me go!

So if you like to pass the time by counting words in letters, it might be time for a new hobby. I like jigsaw puzzles. And getting the fluffy one all wound up. (OK, freaky … he must have sensed I was writing about him because he just opened the door and jumped up here.)

****

Letters pages across the country are often inundated with letters we can’t use—ones using vulgarity or libel, involving unsettled criminal proceedings, business complaints, or perhaps email forwards or form letters. Around Thanksgiving each year, I get a letter promoting the vegan lifestyle. However, it’s a ruse, one that other letters editors have fallen for—astroturf, sometimes using the names of people in the area who have nothing to do with the letter. Apparently the sender doesn’t realize that we sometimes talk to each other, or write columns about falling for such things (and include the phone number). We’re sneaky like that.

No, Mark Parisi, this time you're on the mark.

No, Mark Parisi, this time you’re on the mark.

But worse (at least to me) are the letters that are plagiarized. One day last week I had to toss three letters that the senders claimed as their own, but that were found online under the name of bloggers or columnists; only a tiny bit of what was sent was written by the sender (and one, in deciding to make it a little shorter, managed to combine quotes from two different people, a big no-no).

To be clear, short attributed sections of a longer piece written by someone else is fine; not attributing those quotes to the originator, or claiming them as your own, is not. And no, slightly rewording it doesn’t make it OK (especially within a quote … never reword a quote unless you remove the quotation marks unless you want a visit from a pissed-off editor); when there’s no attribution and the structure and wording are virtually the same, it’s still plagiarism.

****

The Voices page, I’ve said before, is a conversation. That doesn’t mean, however, that responses are automatically printed, especially if the writer was just published—the 30-day rule still applies.

I think Charles Schulz might have been channeling letter-writers here.

I think Charles Schulz might have been channeling letter-writers here.

Nor should anyone expect that their suppositions in a letter won’t be challenged by others; that’s kinda the point of the page. Neither Arkansas nor the nation is a homogeneous mass, and because of that, we have different opinions. If you only want to see that with which you agree, you’re looking in the wrong place.

Yeah, I know—them’s fightin’ words.


As Christmas grows nearer, I count myself lucky to be alive, employed and in possession of a sense of humor (much-needed in my line of work). In that vein, I think it’s past time for some laughs, courtesy of a few of the funny letters to the editor I found online. Enjoy!

The fashion police wrote to Time Magazine! Image found on Joe.My.God.

The fashion police wrote to Time Magazine!
Image found on Joe.My.God.

Wait ... I'm college-educated! Image found on Random Misanthrope.

Wait … I’m college-educated!
Image found on Random Misanthrope.

Darn that Fred! Image of letter to Washington Post emailed to me (sorry, don't remember by whom).

Hey, it’s not Fred’s fault!
Image of letter to Washington Post emailed to me (sorry, don’t remember by whom).

Image found on Funny Planet.

Image found on Funny Planet.

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