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his week’s LifeLines started out very differently from its current form. It first came to our attention as an inbox letter that described a single episode and ended with a cryptic note: There is more to this story. If you are interested, let me know, and I will tell you.

I asked C. Saphir to find out what that “more” might include, and the result is this week’s rich and emotive story. It’s not the first time we’ve intuited a bigger story from a reader’s letter, and we hope it won’t be the last. But readers’ letters don’t only hold kernels of stories. Sometimes they hold the key that nudges an articulate letter writer through the doorway to become a steady contributor.

My favorite example of a letter-writer-turned-contributor is our nutrition columnist, Shira Isenberg. Years ago, a letter came into the Family First inbox. If I remember correctly, it protested the way fats had been described in a health-related feature. The e-mail was signed “Shira Isenberg.” I remembered that distinct spelling from my year in seminary, so I responded personally and asked if this was the same Shira who’d attended seminary with me. The exchange inevitably led to a quick catch-up, and I realized that she might be a good fit for a new column we were hoping to launch. Years later, we’re all still enjoying her lively, informative column.

To be honest, there’s a virtual club of letter writers — a group of regulars who send us their feedback faithfully. This unofficial club, whose members have never met one another and probably don’t even know they belong, keeps us educated, entertained, and sometimes squirming with their incisive feedback about the magazine. And among its members, I can easily name at least two other steady columnists and another feature writer who followed the same trajectory: sending letters that caught our attention and then being invited to write for the magazine.

Are we actively searching for writers in the inbox collection? Is this the new recommended way to land a job? Not exactly. There’s a tried and true path to magazine writing, and writing great letters is not it. But a major prerequisite for a writing position is to know the publication, get a feel for what it does, and understand its readership. Some of the questions I’ll ask potential writers include: What’s your take on the overall balance of the magazine? What kind of stories are readers particularly hungry for? Who do you consider a strong contributor to the magazine and why? What’s something our readers would enjoy and aren’t getting?

And one of the most disappointing (and sloppy) answers is, “Well, I’m not so familiar with your magazine, so it’s hard to tell.”

Maybe that’s why these inbox letters grab us. Yes, they broadcast writing ability, drama, or wit, the art of the compelling opening and resounding closing. But more importantly, they articulate a familiarity with the product — there’s no one like a letter writer to point out the tiniest problems or inaccuracies or that letter from two weeks ago that made them so angry. They demonstrate a sense of buy-in — you have to be angry or disappointed or thrilled, but above all, connected, to actually sit down and write a letter to a magazine. And more than anything, they tell us what it is that our readers want.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 760)