A visit to the Gray Lady

The New York Times recently held a reception at its Manhattan skyscraper for its “regulars” — a group of about 60 people whose letters it prints on a regular basis.

The Times receives 400 to 600 letters a day from every geographic location and partisan persuasion. Out of this flood it prints as many voices as it can, but the regulars get printed over and over, sometimes for decades.

These writers are favored because their letters are topical and well written. Each day the editors have to choose interesting, accurate letters that will appear online that same afternoon and in print the next day. There’s no time to waste and no tolerance for misrepresentations. Those who send better letters more often get chosen more often. One woman has had over 200 letters published in the Times over 30 years. I have been writing to the Times since 9/11 and have 60 or 70.

It is considered a coup to get a letter published in the Times, which is one of the most influential newspapers in the world. It’s gratifying to have one’s views on important matters recorded in the “paper of record” and read around the country, by politicians in Washington D.C., and even by presidents (if not this one).

Our much-anticipated gathering was held on a warm spring evening after a very hot day. We were on the 15th floor with the Hudson River shimmering nearby through a canyon of skyscrapers, which also shimmered in the late sun.

We met the paper’s three letter editors, all of whom we had known by name (Sue, Tom and Mary) for years. We also met senior staff of the editorial department who gave a talk and answered questions. All supported our interest in having our voices heard. It helps them too.

There were tables of refreshments, and we drank and snacked and drank some more. We mingled. We chatted. We laughed. We danced to a 50-piece orchestra (well, not that), but there were funny individual presentations, a quiz about the Times that few did well on, and a compilation of favorite letters written by everyone. One person even had his published letters made into a book. Our complimentary NYT tote bags probably would have cost about $8,000 apiece if you bought them in Manhattan, judging from the elegant lunch I purchased when I got off the train that afternoon (BLT and a bottle of water, 10 bucks).

We finally parted into the sultry night. Some attendees had flown in from the West Coast. Others lived as close as Manhattan. I caught the 9:52 to Wassaic out of Grand Central.

As to how one gets repeatedly published in the Times, it’s simple: be topical, be pithy and be prolific.

Write about breaking news or current issues, referring to its specific coverage in the Times. Send your letter early in the day before the space for letters gets filled up.

Say it succinctly and to the point. Three or four paragraphs at most, two or three sentences each. Sometimes a single sentence makes a fine letter.

If you want to get one letter published in the Times, write 40. Most will be rejected even if they’re good. The Times doesn’t publish more than one letter per person every two months, so if you’re in the habit of writing several letters a week, you might get a few published each year, if that. There are always competing letters from politicians, professors, artists, actors and curators. Most of your letters will be read just by the editors.

Making it even tougher is the fact that the paper is physically smaller than it used to be. The letters section has shrunk from three columns to two. It used to print about 15 letters a day; now it’s seven to 10. There’s no space for verbiage.

And the paper is liberal. Eighty percent of its political letters support the left. If you write from other points of view, you have even less chance of seeing print.

Regarding its bias, the Times often prints letters that disparage the intellect and motives of Republicans, but not of Democrats. If you challenge anyone on the left, it better be impersonally.

Perhaps the best practice for writing letters is writing emails. Ernest Hemingway said newspaper cabling was good practice for a writer. “Cablese” helped him form his spare prose style. Emails are similar, and your teenager who spends all day texting might be a budding novelist or the next great letter writer to The New York Times.

The morning after the reception I submitted another letter to the Times, which was published online that afternoon and in print the next day. It never hurts to hobnob with the editors either.


Mark Godburn is a bookseller in Norfolk and the author of “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets” (2016).