FROM THE PRESIDENT'S DESK

An Exciting Passion of Letter-Writing

 

Facts are sacred, opinions are free;

Cowards have no place in a civilised society.

This should be the ideal of a letter-writer to be!

 

By

Dr. Leo Rebello

(N.D, Ph.D, D.Sc, D.Litt)

 

 

‘Letters column’ is the soul of a newspaper. It is the most widely read column (surveys have revealed 95% readership). In fact, more people read the letters than the editorials, because they uphold the very ideals of journalism – objectivity, relevance and truth.

Without this column, a paper or magazine is incomplete and cannot succeed. A match-box, albeit small in size, contains enough match-sticks to start an inferno. Similarly, this column, though it occupies a small space of an issue, plays a vital role. It touches every sphere of activity under the sun and acts as the mouthpiece of society.

Letters reflect an amazing plurality of concerns and opinions. By reacting, the writer articulates ten others who think the same way. Essentially letters are community oriented. Letters provide useful material for historians and scholars who explore the making of our times. They also offer guidelines for planners and leaders.

In his book Perestroika - new thinking for our country and the world, Dr. Mikhail Gorbachev has observed that readers’ letters are the best part of newspapers, the world over. Gorbachev pays warm tributes to letter-writers, describing their letters to newspapers as ‘wonderful documents’ and ‘truly moving’. The Russian statesman feels that ‘letters from readers’ are more effective in mobilising public opinion than reports, round-table discussions and reviews appearing in newspapers.

John Kennedy, the late American President, likewise felt that ‘letters column’ was one of the most powerful instruments of social change and read them regularly before going to his oval office. Thereby, he knew the pulse of the people. Indian Premier, P.V.Narasimha Rao, a little before his term got over, passed a Government Resolution (on our recommendation) making it compulsory for authorities to attend to complaints/views voiced through letters column on priority basis.

Letters can broadly be divided into two : obligatory and discretionary. Obligatory Letters are those that the editor is morally bound to publish them. Otherwise, it will be construed as professional misconduct. These letters are : (a) corrections of published material (b) replies by people misquoted, mis-represented or defamed (c) appeal for help (d) important information to clarify a misunderstanding. Discretionary Letters are those which the editor may decide not to publish if the letters are anonymous, the information contained cannot be corroborated, etc.

The Times of London, which gives full page to letters column, prunes letters only with the consent of the writer. Adjudicating on one complaint about deletion from a letter, the Press Council of United Kingdom, once said, it was desirable to obtain consent from a correspondent to any substantial alterations to his letter. The Council also ruled that editing should be done solely to qualify a letter for publication, and it should never be allowed to defeat or obscure the point which the correspondent wished to make.

The letters can broadly be classified into the following categories on the basis of their contents.

1.. Opinion Letters : these contain the opinions of the writer on one of the following topics : politics, social problems and reforms, socio-political issues, economics, civic affairs and institutions, consumerist aspect, education, environment, sports, etc.

2.. Appeals : the letters of appeal ask for monetary and other help. It may be monetary help for an expensive operation, orphanages, health centres, old age homes, etc. Being of philanthropic nature, newspapers usually publish these letters to create a goodwill.

3.. Informatory : these are the letters which offer or seek information. These are usually warning, expository or clarificatory letters. These letters are turned into stories by editors.

4.. Corrections : these letters are written either by the very person who has written an article/report to make an apology or to give further explanation or clarify a point. Any reader may likewise bring out the errors - factual, typographical, grammatical, etc.

5.. Rejoinder and Response : a rejoinder or a response is a letter that responds to another letter published earlier. When the writer of the original letter again responds to a rejoinder, his letter in turn becomes another response letter. These letters can again be divided into two : (a) reply by the person accused defending himself against the allegations. Famous personalities or their PROs usually write these letters (b) reply by a third person. The letter either defends or attacks, based on the comments already published.

6.. Obituary : these letters are a tribute to famous personalities who have passed away.

Why write letters to editors?

You should write because letters are taken seriously. They are marked to appropriate authorities for immediate action. They are discussed in parliament, state legislatures and some times courts turn these letters into petitions if they raise issues of a fundamental nature or grave injustice has been done to someone. There are many instances when courts have turned letters into suo motu writs and dispensed immediate justice. To that end, a letter to the editor is often more effective than a hundred morchas. And opinion expressed on the electronic forums has international ramifications. 

How to Write?

In the composition of a letter on any subject, lucidity is of paramount importance. That which is everybody’s business is nobody’s business. Therefore, do not write gibberish, trash, stupid, stale letters. Write only when you have a purpose and a message, not to see your name in print. Above all, be brief, be bright and be gone! Accurate, Brief and Clear is the Mantra.

Pick up day-to-day issues that strike you as important. Compile information. List arguments, beginning with the main one. Cut out all adjectives. The ideal letter ought to be between 300 - 500 words. Do not be in a hurry to post the letter. Read. Re-read. Polish your writing. Remember that a successful writer polishes his writings often.

When you write a letter to the editor, or to an authority, or to anyone for that matter, write in such a way that it will be remembered for its value, for its excellence. You may encounter some difficulties in the beginning, but if you persist with confidence and patience, you are bound to achieve what you set out for.

In conclusion : Letters provide useful material for historians and scholars who explore the making of our times. They also offer guidelines for planners and leaders and set a future vision. There are very few independent newspapers in India. Most papers base their so-called editorial policy keeping their eyes firmly on business considerations or political fallout and letters are selected accordingly. Sometimes, the editors (who raise such hue and cry on official censorship and freedom of expression) turn, twist, change, distort, concoct the views of the readers to suit their views. They even blacklist those who point out to them their corrupt practices. Things should improve now since it has been decided to allow the foreign press to enter India.

(Note : This again I achieved by writing to various ministries. My reasoning was simple. Earlier there was one East India Company that ruled India for long. Today, there were more than 200 MNCs selling their spurious products like Pepsi, Coke, Chewing Gum, medicines, lethal arms, etc.  And if the Govt. cannot control porn, both in foreign films and television, which is invading our culture, why bar the print media.  It worked. I am now awaiting some one to join me to start a revolution in India through the mass media. Internet has already shown what it can achieve. Bush can ambush CNN, not the Internet! Voice of people is supreme - and that is how it should be).

  

*The above write-up is the sole copyright of Dr. Leo Rebello, President of AILWA.  It may be printed by organisations in social journals or used for training,  with due acknowledgment to the writer.