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Getting the editor's stamp of approval ........ by A.M. Clarfield

Dr. Clarfield is director of geriatrics at the Jewish General Hospital and associate director of McGill University's Centre for Studies in Aging.


Dear Sir:

Over the years I enjoyed reading the various Letters to the Editor that grace your pages and I have a few comments on my own to add.

Firstly, I am disappointed that no one ever writes to castigate or praise me for anything that I have written in this newspaper. Perhaps what I say is too bland to stimulate anyone to offer a riposte.

On the other hand, my thoughts may be so wise as to garner universal support; thus no reply required. I should leave it up to your readers to decide as to which alternative is the more likely. But the real reason that I have put pen to paper (this time) is to offer some practical instruction on the art of writing a Letter to the Editor. And something more important - how to get the letter actually accepted.

Keep it short:

As you might have noticed, I am not exactly following my own advice on this one. In the vein of doing what I say and not what I do, don't go on and on and on and on . . . A Letter to the Editor is just that, a letter. If on the other hand, you want to publish your PhD dissertation, the correspondence section is probably not the best place to send it.

Be topical:

Nowadays, no one is interested in your fulminations against the Berlin Wall or on the evils of the contra rebels. Keep to the present, and write your letter as soon as possible after the event in question. If you are late and still feel strongly about getting your opinion into print, try starting the letter in this vein : " While leafing through some old copies of your fine publication (flattery never hurts) , I was astonished to read something that somehow unaccountably escaped notice in the June 16, 1932, issue of The Globe and Mail where your Abyssinian correspondent was foolish enough to claim..."

If this does not work you can always start your own newspaper.

Be clever:

This is not always easy. In fact, it is actually damn hard, especially if you're not very. Nevertheless, it is sometimes possible to fake it. A reference text like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations can help you sound more erudite than you actually are. Sprinkle your work with quotes, appropriate or not.

Don't get mad, get even:

Editors do not much admire anger - at least in others. They prefer the rapier-sharp thrust to the somewhat blunter sledgehammer approach. Sarcasm is out too, since it is clearly the lowest form of humor. Try to be subtle. A tried and true technique involves mentioning the type of footwear worn by the mother of the person against whom your missive is meant.

Study the work of others:

Excellent exemplars of the dying art of the Letter to the Editor can be found in the British press. The Times of London has the most entertaining and intelligent examples.

Being a physician, my favorite one appeared as follows in 1974:


When my elder son began his medical training seven years ago, he paid £10 for half a human skeleton. Three years later my younger son entered medical school, and the value of these bones had risen to £20. My daughter is soon to train as a physiotherapist, and one of the requirements is half a human skeleton. And the cost now? £40 to £50. What better investment than the skeleton in the cupboard?

Yours faithfully,

Joan Tucker

Sign off sumptuously:

There are many ways to end a letter. Take One that most expresses both your own personality as well as the tenor of your letter. Famous correspondents all have had their own trademark. For example, George Bernard Shaw was usually "Yours truly" while Winston Churchill generally preferred to be an obedient servant. H.G. Wells was content with "Yours, & c." - or nothing at all. Once after being censured (by The Times), one writer ended his critique, "I am, Sir, your servant, but, regretfully , not so obedient as usual."

Never despair:

In the writing game, refusals are legion. They are unpleasant to receive but a necessary adjunct to the slings and arrows of misfortune directed at fledgling authors . However, one should never be too downcast. All writers of stature have at one time or another had their work refused and lived to tell the tale (in print) . When despair threatens to overwhelm you, just remember the words of the editor of the San Francisco Examiner, informing Rudyard Kipling (who had had an article published in that newspaper) that he needn't bother submitting any more. "I'm sorry Mr. Kipling," the editor wrote, "but you just don't know how to use the English language."

Yours heuristically,

A.M. Clarfield