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A few guidelines for our contributors

As I waded through the fruits of the Nevada County letter-writing mill, it struck me like a thunderbolt that I’ve never edited such a large, diverse and passionate group of writers.

As the city editor in Redding, I edited the work of 10 to 15 people.

As the editor of The Union, I’m certain I’ll edit the work of thousands.



I’ve read around 60 or so letters and several columns in my 10 days on the job. Either Janet Lee, the editorial assistant, or I have gotten back to a few of you when I’ve had concerns or questions.

One writer wanted to report that a teenager was driving recklessly. Her letter ran intact except for the license plate number she provided. That, in my view, was a violation of the alleged speeder’s privacy.




That is just one example of what you can expect when your work is edited.

But before I share more of what will not make the cut, I want to talk about what will rise to the top of the stack.

First, submissions that address local issues will get immediate attention. In the newsgathering business, immediacy equates to relevancy and we want to provide a platform for a vigorous debate of ongoing local concerns.

Letters and columns about state, national and international issues that impact local residents also will rise to the top.

Discussions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., hit home as well as our world seemingly gets smaller yet more complicated. Recently, we’ve received numerous submissions about President Bush’s plans to privatize a portion of the Social Security system. Those letters provide the additional benefit of telling me that this is an issue the paper needs to follow closely.

Beyond the serious issues of the day, we welcome a broad spectrum of commentary. I won’t, however, even attempt to define that area and risk quashing any creative flows.

I can tell you what won’t fly: Name calling, cheap shots, gross generalizations, profanity, accusations and personal attacks.

One letter writer went after a Child Protective Services worker and supplied some less-than-flattering quotes reportedly made by that state employee. When we write a news story, we try to get both sides. So if an individual we interview charges an elected or appointed official with an impropriety, we’ll give the target of the charges a chance to respond.

This is not possible with letters. Besides, we don’t want the editorial page to descend into a finger-pointing forum. Fair commentary, on the other hand, deals with the issues and the actions of our public officials and bodies.

I’m always impressed with people who write about anything, and the residents of this county have a well-deserved reputation as prolific contributors to the editorial page of this newspaper. That sort of participation by readers is every editor’s dream.

At the same time, we want commentary and criticism that is constructive and respectful. To simply say someone is a crazy conservative or a tree-hugging liberal does not advance any arguments nor break any new ground. In fact, it just inflames and then distracts from the very points that you are trying to make.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the majority of The Union’s letter writers are insensitive hacks. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most letters and columns that I’ve seen are well-written, raise legitimate points or offer solutions. Overall, you’re an impressive group so I hope to continue to see your submissions at the same furious pace.

If we do want to cut or edit something, we will contact you and discuss options that will include removing the material or rewriting it. If there is a minor factual error that doesn’t affect the message, we’ll fix it.

Now, a few style issues for your review that, if followed, will allow us to get your commentary into the paper more quickly:

1) While we welcome all forms of submissions, we prefer that you send it via e-mail to letters@theunion.com

2) Please double check your spelling. For those who use e-mail, the spellcheck function is very handy. Along those same lines, double check the spelling of business and names.

3) Be sure to put your phone numbers on all correspondence so Janet can quickly verify that you are the sender.

4) If you put a headline on your letter, we will try to use it but it can be no longer than 20 to 25 characters.

5) Please do not use UPPER CASE letters as a way to emphasize a point. It’s distracting from a visual standpoint and it’s unnecessary. If readers start a letter, they’re going to finish it. Besides, the force of argument should come from its content rather than how a word looks.

6) Keep letters at 200 words or less and guest columns at 750 words or less. Also, just because you can write 750 words doesn’t mean it’s the best approach. Many studies have shown that after about 300 or 400 words readers tend to drift off. Others will look at a long piece and either get intimidated by the length or make plans to read it when they have more time, which means you’ve probably lost them.

And since I’m getting too long, it’s time for me to sign off.

ooo

Pat Butler is the editor of The Union. He can be reached by e-mail at patb@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4235.


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