The Spokesman-Review                      June 21, 2007   Thursday   Page B7

ROUNDTABLE

Lynn Swanbom: Voicing your opinion easier than you think


Lynn Swanbom
The Spokesman-Review
June 21, 2007

On the first official day of summer, it is my privilege to shed some of the plenteous daylight on the flow of opinion letters to and from The Spokesman-Review. Since last month's column I have been gathering and compiling numbers, and I present a few interesting ones here.

What I believe the numbers show is that it is not difficult to have a letter printed on this page. Our philosophy of printing as many letters as possible has long meant a higher-than- industry-average number of letters published.

Between May 15 and June 14, we printed 301 letters on the Roundtable page. Of these, 238 were received from Spokane County, 29 from Idaho and 34 from the greater Washington area.

Classifying the letters by subject is more difficult, and there are already evident reasons the categories may need refinement. But local/state politics grabbed the lion's share of the letters we used: 136 in a 31-day period. National politics were next (84 letters), followed by environmental issues, international issues (largely the Iraq war) and education.

We still would like to improve the letters page, though. As the number we receive fluctuates, so also does our ability to select insightful and original pieces close to home. Greater quantity will likely produce greater quality.

There's no better place to start than the "Letters policy" box at the bottom of the page. From that, several helpful guidelines may be gleaned:

Attend to the word and time limits.
Out of 296 letters not used, the primary reason (77 letters) was that they were too long or submitted too soon after a previous letter by the same author was printed.

Microsoft Word has a word-count feature under "Tools" and other word processing programs have similar functions. Make them work for you. No one, no matter how intelligent, good looking, rich or powerful, gets by the word limit requirement or the 30-day rule.

Include necessary information.
Forty-nine of our unused letters were anonymous or did not provide adequate information for us to verify authenticity of authorship, and nine more contained unverifiable and potentially libelous information. Whether it is the required address and phone number (which you may have noticed we will never print) or documentation of factual claims presented in your letter, submitting more information is always better than less.

Write promptly and clearly.
There were 73 letters not selected for publication because they lacked one or more of three things: timeliness, clarity and public interest. In the world of opinion, issues get old fast, and we process letters as quickly as possible. Perfection of spelling and grammar is by no means required for a letter, but we and our readers must be able to decipher what it is saying. For those writing in response to an article or event, including the headline of the article or title of the event is helpful both to editors and readers.

One fact is noteworthy: Many letters in this last category are submitted by students for whom writing a letter to the editor is a class assignment. We applaud these teachers for encouraging early participation in public discourse, and we do our best to select the ones that demonstrate the most informed and creative approach to public issues.

Most of the remaining unused letters this month were from outside the circulation area or form letters from political Web sites. Prolific writers from New Hampshire, California, Ohio and other states send letters to every major newspaper in the country every few days. The Roundtable page includes only letters that are composed exclusively for publication in The Spokesman- Review. Participation in our regional forum requires a personal stake in the region.

Failing to meet requirements doesn't always mean immediate dismissal; 28 requests were made for revisions from the authors. Letters revised in response to these requests were counted again when they were used in revised form. We cannot respond to every letter, though, so a letter that is publishable as received is far more likely to be used.

I foresee many refinements of how these numbers are collected in the future. But even in their crude form I hope they encourage anyone who is hesitant to jump into the discussion.

Don't let the imposing word "policy" scare you off. We use the word "invites" for a reason. The S-R wants to print your letters. Our readers want to read them. Keep up the good work.

By the numbers
.
301: letters printed from May 15 to June 14

296: received letters not printed

•235 received by e-mail

•58 received by mail

•3 received by fax or in person

Reasons for not printing letters:

•77 violated letters policy below (fewer than 30 days since last letter, over 200 words)

•54 were received from outside the circulation area

•49 were received with inadequate information to verify authenticity of authorship

•21 were form letters

•9 contained unverifiable/ potentially libelous facts

Lynn Swanbom is letters coordinator for The Spokesman-Review.  Her column appears every third Thursday of the month on the Roundtable page.  She can be reached at (509) 459-5428 or lynnsw@spokesman.com.