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posted: 5/24/2012 5:00 AM

The delicate art of keeping letters lively, civilized

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Letters, we get letters.

And most of them need the close attention of an editor.

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And sometimes they don't get as much as they should.

In the first case:

The mission of Fence Post, the Daily Herald's letters to the editor column, is to host a forum on topics of public concern entirely determined by the public and presented in the singular voice of each individual who writes. But that mission is more easily described than implemented.

For one thing, as much as critics may decry the occasional errors of grammar or style that make it into the newspaper, the citizens inspired to take to their word processors over some outrage, injustice or public cause display a wide range of skills with the written word. If we didn't work to improve sentence structures or fix spelling and grammatical mistakes, the point of many writers' letters could suffer or be lost entirely. Some writers, fearing public ridicule, might be too intimidated to even try to make their case.

Just as often, some writers have much less discipline at the keyboard than others, and, unable or unwilling to control their passions, can run on for pages. If we didn't impose a 300-word limit for all letters and trim those that exceed it, these writers could well commandeer the forum and squeeze out those who are more succinct.

Most lay writers, too, are much less concerned than we are about matters of taste, sensitivity, libel and, yes, accuracy. Lacking the resources to fact check every claim made in hundreds of letters each month, we tend to let readers determine for themselves the credibility of many matters that letter writers present as "facts." Fence Post, in short, is not the place to turn for authoritative research on a topic, though certain writers may well lead you to discover facts about an issue you had never realized.

We do edit or withhold letters containing patently ridiculous claims or highly questionable statements that are difficult to verify, though more frequently we have occasion to take the electronic scissors to words, phrases or whole paragraphs built on wild, often even acknowledged, rumors. And of course, even while striving to preserve a writer's personal tone or intensity, we constantly eliminate ideas that are vulgar, offensive or insulting to an individual, group or another letter writer.

Which brings us to the second case:

In spite of our best efforts, we don't always succeed with every letter in hitting the perfect balance between decorum and personal style. In one such instance last week, we failed to eliminate from a letter a word that is not just inflammatory but demeaning and highly offensive to an entire ethnic culture. Offended readers questioned the judgment and we immediately recognized the oversight. We eliminated the word from the letter at our website, but the damage could not be undone in print.

We were left only to apologize. And to emphasize that the management of a productive, engaging, civilized and generally unrestrained forum on matters that stir people's emotions is more art than science. Complete lack of regulation leads to chaos and a reduction rather than an expansion of productive ideas. Over-regulation can avoid the chaos, but has the same stultifying effect on public discourse.

You can help us, certainly, by always writing your views in concise, grammatically correct eloquence. But you should know that when you don't, your views are just as valuable; we just may have to adjust some things here or there to help get them across while respecting the rights and sensibilities of others.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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