There are a few pieces of advice I give readers of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wanting to know how to get a letter printed on the Voices page. First would be to follow those rules in the policy box printed at the bottom of the page every day. They’re not there to look pretty.
That means, for one thing, that you should aspire to keep your letter under 300 words; just a little over I can usually work with, but too much over and it becomes a serious space issue, especially when no one else wants to be pithy. I can use medium and short letters far more easily than I can a 300-word-plus letter on portable toilets (don’t take that as an invitation … seriously, don’t).
You should also think about how the average person would read what you’ve written. Don’t write for an audience of like minds; go in, instead, with the idea that your audience has no knowledge of your topic, and relate it simply. And please, if you send in letters by email, paste them into the body of the email rather than attaching them. Sometimes my computer gets cranky.
Reader Jake Tidmore last week reminded me of another thing to which letter-writers should aspire: to not be boring. He sent several quotes about boredom, but I think this one, attributed to Voltaire, is most appropriate for our purposes: “The secret of being boring is to say everything.” Believe me, some people have tried. Some have very nearly succeeded.
While you’re thinking of how to not be boring, think about this joke, also submitted by Jake:
Vladimir Putin arrives at an airport and gets in line at the customs desk.
Customs officer: Occupation?
Putin: No, just visiting.
Can I hear a ba-dum-bum?
Back to letters: Give yourself time before you send in your post. I usually write my column throughout the day Monday, and once I save and close the file that evening, I don’t look at it again till the next morning, usually after I edit Rex Nelson’s column. Doing that allows me to look at it with fresh eyes, and I often catch things I missed the first time, or find a better way to say something, or something that shouldn’t be there at all. Everybody needs an editor (and I do mean everybody), but sometimes someone else isn’t available. That’s when sleeping on it really helps.
But one of the most valuable pieces of advice I can give to letter-writers … and to all writers, really: Don’t write something when you’re angry or experiencing another strong emotion if you want it to be published. Too much of any emotion is bad when it comes to our thinking and writing.
Writing while angry can be therapeutic in some instances, such as when someone is recovering from trauma. Some people become more focused by anger when writing, but I’d venture to say those people are in the minority. For most of us, it seems, writing while angry tends to result in stream-of-consciousness word salad (the least tasty kind of salad … probably full of weird things like lime gelatin and olives … in the same salad), as well as things you didn’t intend to say, or that you didn’t intend to say in the way that you did. And handwriting? Yeesh, some of the handwritten letters I get that were obviously written in a rage are less legible than my handwriting while I was having a stroke.
Jack Schafer, a former behavioral analyst for the FBI, wrote in Psychology Today in January 2011:
“Anger triggers the fight/flight response, which mentally and physically prepares the body for survival. During the flight/flight response, the body automatically responds to a threat without conscious thought. As the threat increases, a person’s ability to reason diminishes. Angry people experience the same phenomenon because anger is a reaction to a real or perceived threat. Angry people talk and act without thinking. … The more angry people become, the less likely they are to logically process information.”
People need time to calm down before they can think rationally again, wrote Schafer, which is one more reason to take a break before sending a missive composed in anger. That is, unless you like the possibility of being sued by someone for libel, or being brutally fact-checked by someone not as nice as I am who has no interest in saving you from yourself.
Logic and facts often go flying out the door when someone is angry, as do inhibitions at times. I know a former neighbor was shocked the day I exploded at her after more than an hour of exceedingly loud music being played while I was trying to write.
She’s lucky I didn’t bring the furry one out for that discussion. Luke was not a happy boy that day. His ghost is still irritated by that memory, I think.
I get along well with most of the readers I talk to, both on the Voices page and on this blog (because you people all rock). Some even call or write regularly to check up on me, especially since my mom’s death, and I cherish those conversations.
Other readers, on the other hand, will never be happy with me. And you know what? That’s OK.
No one is universally loved or despised. We’ve all said and done things we should be proud of, and things we should rue.
What matters in the end is how you conduct yourself in your work and real lives. Have you played victim and blamed everyone but yourself for bad things that happen to you, or have you taken responsibility when you’ve done something wrong and earnestly worked to make things better for others? Are you more likely to blame or forgive?
Your answers say a lot about you, and about all of us. Hopefully they’re the answers you can live with.
Just in case you’re suffering from a little anger, please marvel at people who help ducklings get where they need to go. Who can be mad when they see this?
Obviously, people I don’t want to be around.