What makes a good letter to the editor?

That’s a viewpoint held by many journalists today. And among the ways newspapers allow nations — or provinces or towns or neighbourhoods — to talk to themselves is through the oldest form of reader engagement: letters to the editor.

Letters to the editor allow readers to weigh in with their opinions, thoughts or reactions concerning any issues or events in the news. In the Toronto Star, reader letters are published at the back of the A section on Sundays and during the week, in the Insight section on Saturdays, and everyday on the Letters page, at thestar.com.

The Star receives about 25 letters per day, on average, that are suitable for publication. Most weekdays, a selection of between five and eight letters are published, while a larger number are printed on Saturdays, often focusing on the week’s biggest stories.

Letters that make it to publication are chosen by editors working with the Star’s editorial board, which works independently from the newsroom, led by editorial page editor Andrew Phillips. In addition to handling letters to the editor, the editorial board is responsible for daily editorials, opinion pieces by guest writers, and editorial cartoons.

“A good letter to the editor is timely, interesting and well-written. It focuses on the issues at hand,” Phillips said in an interview. “It’s also short — letters run from about 50 to 250 words, so a premium is placed on writers who can get to the point very quickly and express a clear view. A touch of humour helps a lot, too.”

A good letter also avoids certain things.

“We don’t like letters that are abusive, that engage in ad hominem attacks on other people, that mischaracterize the arguments of those the writer disagrees with, or are defamatory. We are happy to publish letters that oppose views expressed by Star editorials or columnists, but they must stick to the issues and avoid personal attacks,” said Phillips.

In addition, editors try to publish a representative sample of letters sent in. The Star tends to lean left in its editorial positions and more letters the paper receives are from that perspective than from the right, Phillips notes.

“We look for a range of subjects and views to keep the section lively,” he said.

Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have allowed people to express their opinions without the filter of a newspaper editorial board, and this has resulted in a decrease in the number of letters to the editor in recent years. Social media also provides the protection of anonymity, allowing some users to express all manner of thoughts behind a persona that may or may not be real.

That’s why the Star will not publish anonymous letters. In fact, the editorial board asks letter writers to disclose any conflicts of interest or involvement they may have with an issue on which they are weighing in.

“For example, a person writing to oppose a transit plan should disclose that they are president of a community group fighting the plan, if that’s the case,” said Phillips. “We read letters with an eye on this possibility, and if there’s a reason to suspect some kind of involvement by the writer we may query the writer or Google the name to see if anything relevant comes up.”

Crafting a compelling letter to the editor can also take more effort than sounding off on social media, so for those readers who have found their letters printed in the Star, it’s fair to say the editorial board found their comments articulate, thoughtful, or relevant.

“Nowadays readers have many other ways of expressing their views, especially through social media, but the traditional letter to the editor still remains important,” Phillips said. “And we certainly hope that readers will continue to send them in.”



Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

The Toronto Star is to be congratulated on providing a voice of the public to their newspaper and on-line presence of www.TorontoStar.com

This simple advice above is the gospel of writing letters to the editor.

Most people however, do not wish to have their names revealed and it raises serious problems

of intimidation and retaliation. The Star needs to consider redating the name of the author of letters to the editor upon request.

As it stands, there is nothing preventing anyone from inventing a name to put on a letter to the editor and if you really have concerns about retaliation and or intimidation, it may be the only way that the really worth while letters to the editor will be reach the Toronto Star.


Ottawa Mens Centre