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Public Editor Public editor: Advice from a long-time writer of letters to the editor

Esther Shannon sent 312 letters to the editor of The Globe and Mail in one year.

Photo courtesy of Esther Shannon

For a full year, Esther Shannon tried a little experiment. She wrote a letter to the editor to The Globe and Mail six days a week for 12 months. Of those 312 e-mails sent, she had 11 published in the paper, an enviable record given the high number of letters received each day.

At the end of the year, she sent an e-mail to the letters editor explaining that her year-long project had come to an end. "My project was simply about daily writing within certain parameters. While the project began on impulse, I'm pleased that I managed to keep it going for a year and equally pleased that it's now finished."

I called her to ask what sparked that impulse. Ms. Shannon, who is a semi-retired writer and researcher, said she cares about journalism and she was concerned when she read that The Globe was no longer selling the paper in some regions of the country.

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She said she almost never comments online because she believes that you should be accountable when you are commenting by using your name just as you expect the paper to be accountable for what it publishes. "I have a right as a subscriber to hold the paper accountable and I have to be too. … It was basically an exercise in free speech."

In her published letters, she wrote about diversity in judicial appointments, world leaders, Canadian politicians, Toronto's mayor and the piñata, the Olympics, marijuana and oil spills among others.

Here is a sample that shows her deft writing touch and her humour:

Re Neutralize The Threat (letters, Aug. 1): I think we would have been far more reassured about the protection of our privacy if John Foster, the chief of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), had closed his letter to The Globe by telling us the CSE does not act unlawfully, rather than saying it has "never been found to act unlawfully." Perhaps it's time for a Mr. Big sting?

Ms. Shannon is hoping to mount a show of all 312 letters in Vancouver in the coming months.

She said she gets a "little thrill" when she sees a letter published, so I asked her, given her experience, what lessons she has learned and what advice she could give other letter writers.

She said she saw the news as repetitive at times, especially during the summer, and said it was a challenge to find an issue or article that was likely to evoke a response. "You have to pay strict attention to the parameters: Be topical, refer to something in the paper and pay attention to the word lengths. I also came to believe that you have to provide some additional information not covered in the news or a significant critique of the facts. You can't rely on your opinion, you have to offer something significant to say."

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It's great advice, not only for letter writers, but for all journalists.

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