Writing to editors, authors, and other public figures

Melvyn Magree

This article was “triggered” in part because of a letter I recently received and in part by the email conversation I mentioned last week with Michael Mann, author of “The Hockey Stick”.

I have an unopened letter sitting on my desk.  It has no return address and the envelope is covered with a diatribe against Obama.  I generally put these unopened into the recycle bin.  Maybe I kept it as a fodder for this column.  I assure you that I will eventually put it unopened into the recycle bin.

My brief conversation with Michael Mann began with appreciation for his book and a quote that Adam Smith warned about “the denial machine” Mann mentioned.  I was surprised that the conversation went on so long; I should consider that he has many more things to think about than the wandering thoughts of an old man in Duluth.

After I finished a series of fantasy novels, I sent the author a letter of appreciation through her website.  She emailed a nice reply, but I didn’t follow up except possibly with a thank you.  I think these were all through her website because I have no copy in my mail box.

I had read a book or two by an author of military-political affairs, and I sent him an email thanking him for them.  He replied with a thank you and a suggestion for another of his books.  Then he came to Duluth and I got to meet him briefly.  I didn’t say anything significant; I’m a writer not a speaker.

And sometimes an email to an author leads to a long-standing friendship.  Some time ago I sent an appreciative email to a regular “Local View” contributor to the Duluth News Tribune.  We have some major differences of opinion, but our common ground is a basis for lunch every month or so.

Another local writer had a website that invited conversation.  I had had many email or face to face conversations with this writer.  I was surprised when he cut me off that he had more to do than have email conversations with me.  I wonder if I had written something he found offensive or if he really was very busy.  I hope he is very busy with many lucrative projects.

Over the years I’ve submitted many a letter to the editor or even an opinion piece.  Some of them were published; probably many more were assigned to the circular file.  But basically your letter or article should be timely, concise, and based on “facts”.  I put “facts” in quotes because “facts” are too often some group’s talking points rather than some observable set of information.  The hard part is that a fact in one situation is not a fact in a similar situation.  But be forewarned, many editors rewrite letters to conform to the publication’s guidelines.  In doing so, they can “flip” your meaning to just the opposite from what you intended.  It has happened to me at least twice in two different publications.  If you are lucky, the editor will send you a copy of his or her revision for your approval.

I have all but stopped writing to politicians.  Almost all of them have staff send a position paper.  Too often these position papers are barely related to the subject of the letter or website comment.

Probably with electronic communication, even their staffs are overwhelmed.  Count opinion for or against.  Find position paper that seems to address issue.  Send it out with politician’s automatic signature.

I miss Rudy Boschwitz’s replies.  Whether he agreed with my letter or not, he would send it back with a one-sentence germane comment and a smily face.  I wonder if I have any of these in my very disorganized files.

Two letters from famous people that I thought I had kept I have not been able to find in several years of trying.
One was to Alex Haley, author of Roots.  I was sysop of the Genealogy Roundtable on GEnie, GE’s competitor to CompuServe.  I invited him to attend one of our weekly online chat sessions.  He responded with a kind letter declining the invitation.  I think his reason was that he was a typewriter guy and hadn’t really moved to use of computers.

The other was to a well-known movie actor.  I was going to write that you should note my middle initial.  But it isn’t in my byline.  It is “D”.  If you are under sixty I’m sure you will have no clue to what D stands for.  Your clue is the movie Being There Shirley McLaine, Peter Sellers, and ...

I wrote to this actor posing this same question.  He wrote a delightful reply.  Again, I can’t find it in my messed up files.

What’s the point of all this bragging of hobnobbing with famous people?  Well, my original title was How to write to editors, authors, and other public figures.  With my catalog of correspondents this article became longer and longer, and it had only a nod about how to write a letter to the editor or an opinion piece.

So, here is my brief advice on corresponding with a famous person.

If you have something important or interesting to write, don’t hesitate to do so.  Many appreciate comments from their readers, customers, or constituents.  For many famous people, you can easily find an email address or website that takes comments. You only need three guidelines: be polite, be factual, and be brief.