Editors Note Essay Contest

If our recent Student Editorial Contest left you wanting to write more about the issues that matter to you most, here’s your chance.

Our colleagues in the Opinion section are running a special competition for high school students this week that offers a chance to be published in the print edition of the Sunday New York Times.

All you have to do is write a letter to the editor about a recent Times article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay — but do it quickly, because the deadline is May 21.

Everything you need to know, along with some tips for making your letter stand out, can be found below.

Competition Rules

The Letters desk, responsible for publishing all letters to the editor, wants high school students to submit a letter in response to a news article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay in The Times published in the past few days. The letters editors will select and edit the best entries and publish them online on Friday, May 29, with a smaller selection in print on Sunday, May 31.

What else do you need to know?

Letters should be about 150 to 200 words and must include the headline of the article and a link to it.

Be sure to include your name, age, high school and grade, and city or town and state (for publication) and telephone number (for verification, not for publication).

Email your submission to letters@nytimes.com. Please put “Student Competition” in the subject line.

The deadline is May 21.

We’ve created this student handout (PDF) with the competition rules and writing tips. For examples of what the letters editors are looking for, see the letters published here.

And when this competition is over, don’t worry — we’ll be offering you a chance to speak your mind all summer. From June 12 to Aug. 14, just tell us what interested you most in The Times each week to enter our Sixth Annual New York Times Summer Reading Contest.

Tips on How to Write a Compelling Letter

We asked Thomas Feyer, the letters editor at The Times, to offer advice to students for how to get a letter published in The Times. Here are his recommendations:

What is a letter to the editor? It’s the reader’s chance to make his or her voice heard — to address the news of the day, usually in response to an article in the newspaper.

I’ve been letters editor of The New York Times for more than 15 years now, and an editor at The Times for more than 34 — mostly on the foreign desk before I moved to the opinion side of the paper. As letters editor, I’m privileged to spend every day doing something quite exciting — learning what’s on your mind.

The Times welcomes feedback from readers, and recognizes the importance of the free flow of ideas and information to the vital functioning of our democracy.

We have a loyal following of readers — including some harsh critics — who are not shy about expressing their opinions and who want to be heard in this forum. They want to talk back to us, and to the nation’s and the world’s leaders — “to speak truth to power’’ (as the expression goes) — and to read what fellow readers have to say.

We are, of necessity, quite selective in choosing letters. We receive hundreds of letters a day, and sometimes even 1,000 or more when the news is particularly intense. But space is extremely limited in the print version (usually 8 to 10 letters a day), though we do add letters online.

We edit all letters for clarity; we follow the rules of grammar and usage; we check facts for accuracy; we trim for space. And we try to present a reasonable sampling of opinion in a tight, readable package.

I would never presume to tell you what your opinion should be, of course — but I will offer advice about how to make your letter the most likely to attract my attention, and, perhaps, publication.

Here are some basic, practical tips:

Refer to an article in the paper. This goes without saying if you’re responding to a column, an editorial or an Op-Ed article. But it applies to news articles as well. You’d be amazed to see how referring to an article in the paper focuses your attention. It really helps you to respond directly and to the point.

Speaking of which …

Write briefly and to the point. Generally letters are about 150 to 175 words. It’s a good target to aim for. A rambling letter of 1,000 words is less likely to attract my attention than a pithy, well-argued letter of 150 words. We’re aiming to get as many voices on the page as possible. We can go a little longer for web-only letters.

Write clearly. Keep it civil in tone. No profanity (of course). NO SHOUTING. No gratuitous insults. Eloquence and elegance are key. Be engaging; try to charm me. Wit and humor, and a well-turned phrase, are always welcome, but irony and sarcasm often don’t translate well on the printed page. Argument and disagreement are fine — welcome, in fact — but confine your discussion to the substance of the argument, instead of attacking the writer.

Be prepared to back up your facts with evidence. We check all the facts in a letter, or ask you to provide backup, usually with links or citations.

In addition to the big topics, write about something off the beaten path. If you write a letter agreeing or disagreeing with a particularly provocative editorial, column or Op-Ed article — and, by all means, come ahead — you join the crowd. If I run five or six letters about an article, I also have to reject dozens of other letters about the same article, although they may be perfectly worthy.

If, however, you send in a well-written letter about a smaller article in The Times, you may be the only one. So your chances of getting published go way up!

Your letter should be exclusive to The Times, and not previously published in any medium.

Finally, when sending your letter, please give full contact information, including daytime and evening phone numbers, and address (for our internal use, not for publication), as well as your current location (city or town, and state) for dateline purposes. If your letter is selected, we will contact you, and play back an edited version for your approval before publication.

The important thing is: Speak your mind, practice your writing … and have fun. Good luck!

Want more advice about writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times?

Mr. Feyer has also written a piece called “To the Reader,” which explains the mission and mechanics of the letters page — and he followed it up, a year later, with a column answering frequently asked questions.

Getting Access to Times Articles

If you already have a school, class or family subscription, then you have access to everything published in The Times. But if you’re not a subscriber, and you are getting frustrated by the Times paywall limiting you to 10 articles a month, here are some ideas:

  • Go to your school or community library and read the newspaper or NYTimes.com.
  • Download and read NYT Now on your iPhone free.
  • Sign up for the free Today’s Headlines or NYT Now morning email newsletter.
  • Click on any Times link on The Learning Network.
  • Sign up for a trial digital subscription, which costs only 99 cents for the first four weeks, or buy a copy of that day’s paper at your local store.

While the Letters desk is running and judging this competition, and not The Learning Network, we’re happy to field any questions you have. Just post them as a comment on this post.

Editor’s Note

Deborah Breen

Download this note

The College of Arts & Sciences prides itself on being the “heart of the BU experience,” and we—the instructors and staff of the Writing Program—pride ourselves on the centrality of our program to that experience: nearly all BU students take at least one class from the diverse offerings of the Writing Program. So, it seems a fitting connection to be reminded of a day last fall, when, hurrying on my way to a writing class, I was captivated by an advertisement on the side of the bus shelter that stands in front of the CAS building on Commonwealth Avenue. The image presented a highly feminized robot—a fembot, no less—with the clever caption “i text, therefore IM.” We could dismiss this play on words as nothing more than an amusing advertising ploy, yet I was struck by how neatly the words complemented Descartes’ famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” Serendipitously, the fembot of Comm. Ave. (as Bostonites, local and transplanted, call the street along which BU is situated)  gives this statement of consciousness a 21st century gloss, completing the stimulating circle that describes critical thought, communication, and the creation of text.

Let’s leave aside the contentious arguments about just what kind of writing is created through the act of technological texting; let’s focus instead on the broader meaning of text and extrapolate from the cool quotient of the fembot’s aphorism to assert, “I write, therefore I am.”  But how do students practice this contract between writing and identity within the liberal arts education that BU offers?  Let’s draw further on the connections that our glossy fembot suggests to consider writing as an affirming and performative act that enables students to enter, with confidence, not only their immediate scholarly communities, but also their vocations and avocations beyond the university experience.

As the fembot proclaims, the art of producing text is a fundamentally affirming act: it pairs thought and identity in the conscious act of writing. In other words, the text has a point of view, or as we would more likely term it, an argument. The twelve student authors represented here have been selected because their work presents compelling and thoughtful points of view, developed out of a passion for inquiry and refined through discussion and revision. Indeed, WR—a journal to be produced annually drawing on the strongest works of students within the Writing Program—showcases these individual voices: from Natalie Lam’s elegantly wrought discussion of the demanding truth of Kafka’s works, to Jenessa Job’s meditation on the meaning of autobiography in The Woman Warrior, and to Michele Bounanduci’s extended explication of a single work by Emily Dickinson, the voices of these student authors ring clear as they engage with texts and sources from their writing seminars in various disciplines. The centrality of this engagement to the writing process is further underscored by the students in their introductory comments: George Brova, the author of “The Emergence of Environmental and Social Sustainability,” notes the importance of a “strong passion or even a personal infatuation” for the topic; Perry Schein finds his topic in the meeting place between his professional interests as an engineering student and the poetry of T.S. Eliot; and Patrick Duggan reflects on the “great jumping-off point and lingering question” that inspired him to explore Oscar Wilde’s view of aestheticism. These students, as representatives of their peers, give us a timely reminder of the importance of passion to even the most academic modes of unity and argumentation.

Writing is also an act of performance, a notion which the directors of the Writing Program have actively endorsed. First, Professor Michael Prince, the founding director of the program, consistently reminded instructors and students alike of the comparisons between training as an athlete or a musician and the journey of a writer: the quality of the performance rests on the supporting preparation and practice. Now, current director Professor Joseph Bizup reaffirms the vision of writing as an act that moves from cognition to creation in a series of performative movements: our students imagine and envision the intellectual conversation through the readings of texts, rehearse the academic argument in class discussion, and create their own contributions to this scholarly performance through the process of writing and revision. Many of the students whose essays are included in this inaugural edition of WR reflect on these aspects of their work: Aneesh Acharya gives us a lighthearted glimpse of the preparation and revision behind his timely analysis of financial institutions; Rachel Fogley explains the painstaking process of annotation and argument-development; and other students similarly highlight the importance of peer revision, instructor feedback, and presentation of their ideas to a wider audience as a means of refining their arguments.

Our Comm. Ave. fembot also reminds us that text is embedded in networks. In their comments the student authors presented here bring this notion into the university context: writing is not only a way to express an individual voice, but is also a means to enter an intellectual conversation. These students, whose work represents much of the gamut of Writing Program topics from the humanities to the social and natural sciences, are inspired (as Chris Meyer, the author of “The FSA Photographs” writes) by the views of significant authors in relevant fields to pursue their own intellectual investigations. The students—as Gordon Towne in “Peak Oil” and Militza Zikatanova in “Legend of King Cormac and King Conn” so ably demonstrate—engage with relevant thinkers, ideas, and texts in the formation of their own arguments. They draw, as Mariah Sondergard shows in “Identity in Ulysses,” on critical scholarly sources to illuminate their own discussions, and in so doing, learn the conventions of the academic conversation: engaging with texts, whether these are factual, exhibit, argument or theory sources; finding a question that can be meaningfully pursued; identifying gaps in drafts; and working with the feedback of colleagues to produce a stronger, more compelling argument.

It takes courage to join these active and frequently intimidating conversations, and as we present these essays, I reflect on the Comm. Ave. fembot’s final lesson: that writing now, more than ever, takes place in the domain of technology. WR, as a new online journal, is evidence of that shift. Far more significant, though, is the way in which students now create and store their work in cyberspace: they post and revise their work via Blackboard folders; create communal spaces where they collaborate on writing projects; and upload portfolios with illustrations and links to other technologically enhanced sites. This confluence of technology and the public performance of writing means that students now contribute to the scholarly community far earlier, and in a far more transparent way, than previous generations. These essays are a courageous foray into that community, and we, as readers, should engage with the authors in a conversation that is as encouraging as it is critical.

On behalf of the editorial board, which in turn represents the instructors who teach the great diversity of classes in the Writing Program at Boston University, I welcome the student authors whose work is presented in this first issue of WR. They enter the scholarly conversation knowing that what they have to say perhaps represents a beginning, rather than a final position. Indeed, several of the authors reflected just this wish as part of their comments: if only they could write or revise a little more! Instead, the essays have been lightly copy edited, and most are presented here in the same version that students submitted to their instructors. To draw on Natalie Lam’s reflection of Kafka, writers must confront the “paradox and struggle” inherent in any act of writing. WR celebrates the work of these twelve students who have so ably recognized and taken up the struggle of the act of writing.

— Deborah Breen


This online journal is a new venture for the CAS Writing Program, but it follows in the footsteps of an earlier collection of students’ work, the Journal of Exemplary Writing, edited by Allison Adair in 2006.

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