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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
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As I See It

Choose a good topic and get to the point quickly

December 5th, 2011 8:44 am by Robert Houk

Can you write a better letter to the editor than a 2nd grader? I’m sure most adults could, but I have to say there are some things 7-year-olds know that their parents seem to have forgotten — such as the importance of being brief and getting to a point.
A few months ago, Robin Swain — a student teacher at University School — sent me a few short letters to the editor that her class had written. My favorite was from Elijah, who wrote: “Obey the law. Do not be mean — be nice.”
Good advice for someone of any age.
Then there were comments which particularly struck a chord with the inner child in me: “More recess will help our state.”
Indeed, it would. There was also the shameless pandering by Jacob, who wrote: “Thank you for the newspapers. You are respectful. You keep on doing it and you’ll be good at it.”
I’ll try to do that, Jacob.
I have no illusions as to what most people turn to first on the Opinion/Editorial pages. Reading letters to Forum — not the local editorials, political columns or even the editorial cartoons — is the reason many say they open the Editorial page. I can say unequivocally that most calls and emails I receive most days have something to do with letters to Forum.
The Op-Ed page is different from the rest of the newspaper in that it is, well, opinion. It is comment and criticism from a number of different viewpoints and perspectives. A daily reading of our letters alone is more than enough to start a lively discussion around the office water cooler.
There are a few things, however, that would-be authors should know before they dash off a 700-word letter critical of the devil worshippers who live in the house next door. For starters, we don’t publish letters that are more than 300 words.
Secondly, we don’t run letters that simply serve to air grievances the writer may have with a neighbor, a boss or an ex-spouse. The letter must make a point about a topical event or issue relevant to the entire community.
In that regard, I am reminded of an admonishment that ran on the Editorial page of the Johnson City Staff-News: “Letters written simply for the venting of the spleen of the individual, or letters which willfully misrepresent matters of known fact will not be published.”
Years ago, one writer sent a handwritten note (along with an outrageously politically and biblically incorrect religious tract) and informed me I would be doomed to hell if the Press did not print his letter. I appreciated his concern for my soul, but his letter did not meet our guidelines.
My advice to letter writers is to keep it simple and stay on message. It also is important authors include their names, street addresses and telephone numbers with their submissions. The latter two are needed to verify the authenticity of the letter.
Letters can be faxed to 929-7484, or mailed to Mailbag, P.O. Box 1717, Johnson City, TN 37605-1717.
You can also send those letters by email to Please do not send letters via email or fax that are typed in all capital letters.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at

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