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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Letters, he writes letters”

In my column for the August 25th, 2010, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I wrote about my habit of writing lots of letters-to-the-editor. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Letters, he writes letters

Nearly every day for the past seven years I’ve written a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine — sometimes even more than one letter a day. Editors at such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Economist probably are tired of my regular barrages of 150-word missives.

Only about 7 percent of these letters get published. The overwhelming majority never appear in print. So why do I write so many letters to the editor?

Many reasons.

The first is that writing these letters is cathartic. The news media overflow with economically or historically uninformed “analyses” of current events — analyses meant to be taken seriously when, in fact, they often are laughably mistaken or, at least, deeply misleading. Writing a letter that highlights an especially wrongheaded notion or factual error releases the steam that builds up in me whenever I encounter dangerously bad economics or history. My blood pressure is kept under control.

A second reason is that at least some of my unpublished letters find their way to the pundits or reporters whose mistakes prompted me to write. I know some of my unpublished letters get through to these writers because I sometimes receive e-mails from them, either to challenge my interpretation of what they wrote or to ask questions about why my understanding of economics differs from theirs.

I have no idea whether I’ve ever changed the mind of even a single pundit or reporter, but it’s satisfying to know that they read my letters, at least occasionally, and might then be prompted to improve their understanding of economics.

A third reason I write so many letters to the editor is that I can post even my unpublished letters at the blog Cafe Hayek , which I share with my George Mason University colleague Russ Roberts.

A fourth reason I write these letters is that doing so is an excellent exercise in sharpening my writing skills.

Good writing is not a natural talent. Like becoming proficient at playing the piano or shooting hoops, becoming a good writer requires plenty of practice. My daily letters to the editor are a great way to practice my writing.

In fact, writing letters to the editor is an especially good way to polish writing and communicating skills. The ideal length of a letter to the editor is 150 words. That’s not a lot! (By way of comparison, the length of this column is about 750 words.) Fitting a complete and effective idea into a mere 150 words requires the writer to pay attention to every word — to waste not a single one, making sure each word conveys as much meaning as possible.

Being confined to such a low word count also demands that the writer choose carefully just what point he or she wants to make. And figuring out what point is most important to make itself requires careful thought, not only about how to make that point in the space of 150 words, but about how to make it as straightforwardly as possible.

A writer who has unlimited space to make a point enjoys the luxury of being able to work out his thoughts as he writes. A writer who must make his point in a mere 150 words doesn’t have that luxury: He must think hard about the point he wants to make in order to ensure that he’s able to convey it as accurately and as completely as possible in such a short piece.

In addition, writing letters to the editor trains a writer to distinguish qualifications and nuances that can be safely ignored from those that must be addressed.

My academic colleagues sometimes criticize my letters for ignoring the finer points of economic analysis. But a letter to the editor isn’t a scholarly article. A letter to the editor — or even an op-ed or a column such as this one — isn’t meant to explore every possibility of a situation, no matter how remote. Focusing on what is most plausible without mentioning unlikely possibilities is appropriate in a letter to the editor. Readers, after all, understand that no letter to the editor is meant to be the definitive word on any matter.

I encourage you to write letters to the editor when you have important points to make. Doing so not only will help you become a better thinker and writer, it will enable those who read your letters to become part of an important public conversation about matters vital to the public interest.