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The mailbox: Did the reader really write?

Testy Business Copy Editor Phillip BlanchardThe mailbox

A reader writes: “A lot of columns and blogs start out with ‘a reader writes.’ How do I know if a real reader actually wrote?”

OK, so no reader wrote any such thing.

A reader writes

Photo: Jeffrey James Pacres

No doubt a lot of people in this business get real emails and letters with questions, but I’m willing to bet a lot of them are made up.

Please understand that I do not say that any specific writer fabricates communications from readers.  Absolutely not.  I mean only to point out that it often looks like writers put together a story, and then slap a question atop it to — do what?  To give the impression of reader interactivity? To make them seem more popular than they really are? I don’t know.

In an article that begins with a 135-word question from a reader, Geoffrey James writes about cold calling in great detail. I have no doubt that Geoffrey got the inquiry from a reader.  But the article surely would stand on its own.  Why slap a “reader writes” on it?

A column by Jill Schlesinger begins: “A reader writes: ‘My CD is maturing next month. What are my alternatives in this low interest world?’ I field this question at least once a week and all I can think is, ‘Pity the poor saver!’   It’s undeniably true that Jill gets at least 52 such inquiries from readers every year, but why didn’t she just write about the subject? Skeptics might say that the volume of inquiries was included as evidence of a big, active readership. That is clearly false in Jill’s case, but why invite skepticism?

A few years ago in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik wrote a perfectly good explanation of how the California state budget had closely tracked inflation and population growth. He topped it with a “reader writes,” and also reported in the story that he had received “scores of e-mails” expressing similar sentiment.

Obviously, Michael received the quoted communication and the scores of other e-mails that he mentioned. But, again: Why use this device?

To that, a reader might write: “‘A reader writes’ implies that a writer needs a nudge. Leaving it out might suggest that the writer is one-way, not interested in engaging his readership. He’s doomed both ways.”

To which I would reply, “Making your stories read like Dear Prudence  does nothing to buttress your standing in the journalistic world or in the opinion of your readers. Leave out the ‘a reader writes.’”

It is proper for editors to be wary of  this approach. If a story starts with “a reader writes,” it’s a good idea to ask to see the letter or e-mail, if only to check to make sure it has been transcribed properly.

Be prepared for objections. I have tried this several times over the years, with extremely limited success. I’ve done better with recasting stories to make readers’ inquiries unnecessary. One might say that leaving them out makes a story more authoritative, or, at least, that’s what I’ve told writers.




In Best Practices, Featured, Phillip Blanchard.

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