First off, the name is all wrong. We call them “letters to the editor,” but they are not letters “to the editor” or even letters to “an editor.”

We get those, believe me.

What you see on these pages, seven days a week (including on digital-only Mondays), are really letters to a community of readers from one of their own. We’re always working to bring readers a rich mix of perspectives, exposing them to angles or issues that they haven’t thought of before.

But sometimes the freshest takes we offer our readers come from our readers themselves, 250 words at a time.

I started thinking about letters this week when my colleague Sarah Collins and I were invited to speak at a forum put on by the Maine Library Association. They wanted to know what we look for in a letter to the editor and how to make sure theirs would be accepted for publication. If you see a lot of letters next month that mention April is Library Month, you’ll know if we did a good job.

First, we told them about the process.

Most letters come to us as email, although we still get hand-written notes through the U.S. Postal Service and even faxes.

We receive more letters than we can print, which is kind of amazing when you consider the many ways people have to publish their opinions these days.

Unlike many of the online commenting opportunities, we require letter writers to sign their work with their real first and last names and town of residence. We don’t publish anonymous letters, or ones “authored” by organizations or committees.

We know this keeps some views out of the newspaper because writers don’t feel safe exposing themselves to the consequences of their speech. But at least in this forum, we think there is value that comes from a signed letter.

I am usually the one who gives the first read to letters that come in, and I flag candidates for publication. There’s no science to it. I’m looking for a variety of opinions within a topic and a variety of topics. If we get three letters that make a similar point, I’ll usually pick one, and it’s usually the shortest.

Quite often, a letter writer will bring up an issue that has not been reported on by us before. Sometimes those letters will alert us to a developing trend that leads to more reporting.

But I’m always looking for letters that respond to something that appeared in our pages, a letter that adds some context to a story or puts a reported fact in a different light.

After I flag the letters, our intrepid news assistant Deborah Sayer contacts the writers and verifies that they sent the letter. Deborah was the 2018 winner of the Maine Press Association’s Unsung Hero award, and considering that anger is one of the more common motivations people have to write to us, it’s not an easy job.

She puts the verified letters in the system, where Sarah gives them the final edit before they reach the page. If you get a verification call, it’s likely that your letter will get in, but it’s not guaranteed. News moves quickly and we try to keep up with it.

People ask if we fact-check letters, and we do. We won’t print something that we know to be false, and we will correct any errors that get by us. When an assertion seems overstated or an opinion is presented as fact, Sarah will often work with the writers to express their view in a way that doesn’t mislead.

“My goal is to help writers say what they have to say more clearly, and to say it in their voice, not mine,” she says.

Then one of us, usually Sarah, puts together the package that you see in the newspaper or online. That’s it.

What’s a good letter to the editor? It’s short, makes a point and supports an opinion with facts. What makes a great letter to the editor? One that makes us see something we had overlooked. One that makes an emotional connection and invites a response.

Is that too much to ask in 250 words or less? Somehow our readers pull it off all the time.

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