Back in the olden days—pre-digital—people wrote letters to the editor. Actual letters, in longhand, delivered in recently licked envelopes with two-cent stamps. They were all ethical. Today, they are no less important, but come via the Internet, stampless, and visible on pixel-rich monitors—the modern equivalent of an envelope.

The point of a letter to the editor has not changed in 150 years. People write to the editor because they are happy, mad, in sadness and health, depressed and uplifted, to rant or inform, and to express outrage or agreement. Facebook and other social media platforms devour digital letters to the editor like sperm whales in a plankton splurge. Tens of thousands of FB writers aren’t really writing to BFF’s; they are writing to the world. Whoever, whenever, however one wants to make a point, they write about it.

What ethical norms moderate or mitigate this once quaint practice? The first clue is embedded in the name of the particular piece of writing—a letter to the editor. The ethics of writing letters to the editor are bottomed not so much in the letter writer as they are in the recipient of the letter—an editor. In every writing genre, authors are told to write to “someone.” Don’t write to the world, the company, or the US Army. Write to someone you can visualize—maybe at the hospital, or at their kitchen table, or in a foxhole. In this situation, that someone is an editor. They read what you write with a purpose—to edit what you write.

The second clue to finding ethical norms lies in why you are writing to the editor. It’s not for his or her information, amusement, reaction, or shame. It’s to get your letter published.

The third and final clue is how your letter is received by those who read the published version of it.

All three clues assume the first ethical norm—truth. All is for naught if you are writing lies, half-truths, or make-believe.

The second ethical norm is a derivative of truth—honesty. I don’t mean the letter must be the honest truth; I mean the letter itself must be honest, as in real, acute, and heartfelt. Editors have unique insight about honesty, especially the “letters editor” in the print and digital media worlds. They might not know with certainty whether you are writing the truth, but professional “letters editors” are alert to whether the writer is honest. Do his or her words feel flat, phony, made up, squishy? That all transfers to the ethical norm—honesty.

The third ethical norm is sincerity. Being sincere about the truth is being genuine. Is your letter sincerely written about something you really care about, or are you writing just to get your name in the paper? Take the everyday “thanks,” as an example. If someone says “thanks” for something you did for them, it’s usually because they’re grateful. But sometimes you say it not meaning it—you’re just responding. You should only write to the editor when you have a good reason and sincerely mean what you say.

Other ethical norms? Sure, how about all the synonyms for sincerity—authentic, earnest, real, heartfelt, or wholehearted? They all get to the same ethical high ground: don’t write it if you don’t mean it.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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