Good Friday: wrote to The Herald, a response to a letter from a General Practitioner. The vexed topic: Assisted Suicide. His was a nuanced letter, carefully stated and well expressed. This was no surprise, as the writer is a regular contributor to the paper. I know him. We went to the same medical school, and greet one another at RSNO concerts. So while my response expressed an opposing point of view, I hope I was polite and courteous. It occurs to me that it would be best to extend that similar level of courtesy to people I don’t know. There’s nothing to be gained from cheap point scoring.
But why write to the papers? I can think of a few reasons, perhaps worth rehearsing, why not to write:
- You might not be published. This can be disappointing, particularly if you’ve put some care and effort into the composition, you are pleased with the result, and feel you have a point worth making. I used to be crestfallen when I got rejected, but I’m much more philosophical about it now. It’s no big deal. Bernard Levin used to remind himself that his carefully crafted articles for The Times were wrapping the fish and chips that night. Sometimes I’ve regretted writing something and hoped to goodness it wouldn’t get published. Naturally on these occasions such sinful follies appear in print the very next day.
- You might be published, but in an abridged, edited form. I used to have Beethovenian tantrums about this, and imagine myself seizing the editor by the throat and ranting: “Don’t change a word!” But again I’m more relaxed about it now, so long as the essential meaning isn’t distorted.
- When you write, particularly on a contentious issue, you are sticking your head above the parapet, so people are liable to take pot shots at you. It pays to check for ripostes and rejoinders the next day: “Dr Campbell needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Can he really be so naïve as to imagine…? I won’t be making an appointment at his surgery any time soon…” And so on. It doesn’t do to be too thin skinned. And remember, you’re not checking for injuries to the amour propre, rather looking for counterarguments that again need to be rebutted in an ongoing debate. Some of the comments are liable to be “robust”, but at least The Herald won’t publish anything downright offensive. If you want the offensive stuff, go on line. I once did. Never again. I can’t say I’m liberated from all that junk because I was never entrapped. I don’t really understand why young people get dragged down by online abuse. Just Log Off. Easy for you, you old codger, I hear you say. You’re past it anyway. You have no idea of the pressures… Well I don’t accept that. And I’m impatient with those who mentor the young, who feel constrained to say that there are good sides too to social media. No there aren’t, not if somebody is driving you to despair. Switch the bloody thing off and crush it under foot. But I digress. Back to reasons for not writing to the papers.
- You, in turn, might find that it is you yourself who are the intemperate and loud-mouthed bully. When I find myself spluttering indignantly into my cornflakes over some piece of (to my mind) arrant nonsense, I remind myself that it pays not to fire off a quick broadside, but to take time out for reflection in silence. I remind myself of the words of Oliver Cromwell (I’ve said this before but it’s worth repetition) “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” So order your thoughts, and compose yourself before composing your piece. Don’t be mean and sarcastic, avoid the “argument ad hominem”, and address the issue, whatever it may be. If you are only writing to vent your spleen, maybe it would be better to maintain a dignified silence. I once made a pact with myself never to write to the paper unless I had something positive and constructive to contribute. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of my correspondence diminished.
- There is the ever present possibility that you sound like a barrack-room lawyer. You have no time for nuance; your arguments are pat. A statement of the bleedin’ obvious, mate. Or, as we say north of the border, story’s endit, pal. This I fear.
- You might make a mistake. It might be trivial, or it might be serious. Either way, it is liable to be pounced upon. I remember once, in a letter whose content I’ve long since forgotten, invoking the Writ of Habeas Corpus. Next day: “Habeas Corpus won’t do Dr Campbell any good north of the border. He means ‘The Protection gin Wrangfu’ Imprisonment Act’…” or some such. Clever dick.
- You might make an error of judgment. You might unconsciously betray a prejudice that goes against the current zeitgeist. We live in a Pharisaic age. “Dr Campbell should hang his head in shame…” I particularly dislike the “hang his head in shame” imagery. People who hang their heads in shame are defendants in a show trial. Their belts are removed so they have to hold their trousers up while standing in the dock. They are clearly guilty.
So. Plenty of reasons not to write to the papers! Why on earth would you ever do it? It’s simply the creative impulse. You conjure an idea that you want to share, and you try to express it as succinctly and coherently as you can. Mindful that column inches are at a premium, you go through your draft and cut out all the deadwood, all the clichés and redundant expressions, the self-indulgences, and the purple prose. You murder your darlings. Then you read it through once more and think, “Am I going to regret this?” But, taking the long term, isn’t it true that you always regret the sins of omission more than the sins of commission?
So you take a deep breath and press “send”.