The six functions of the editor's letter

MARIE O'RIORDAN, editor of Marie Claire, is a very busy woman. Her typical day begins with "a quick check with picture desk to see if digital photographs… have arrived from Paris". Later she writes some coverlines, conducts a beauty meeting (while standing up — how outré!), thrills her subs with some "instant decisions" and finally — phew — those pesky pics turn up from Paris after all.

I know this because she put it all in her July editor's letter.

I'm sure O'Riordan's publisher will be satisfied to hear such an expensive employee is fulfilling her basic editorial duties.

But do Marie Claire readers really care?

The ed's letter is widely perceived as a perk of the top job: An ego-fest, a personal hallmark stamped on the graft of faceless others. And it goes alongside a photograph which is usually the apogee of the airbrusher's art. You can, if you choose, add a few folksy family tales, name-drop famous friends or climb aboard your private soapbox. It's like having a column, except you also get to commission and edit it.

Strange then, that almost all editors I spoke to dread writing their letter. "The poor chief sub is harassing me with an electric cattle prod," emails one miserably, late at night.

"Any ideas?"

They detest it, because it is so hard to pitch right, so easy to sound an arse. Few editors are also good writers: Lindsay Nicholson, Alex Schulman and Dylan Jones (when he's not spreading himself Marmite-thin) are exceptions. And the only guaranteed readers are your arch rivals, when they fancy a good laugh. So why bother? Successful magazines — Take a Break, Heat and OK! — manage without. But a letter fulfills many functions, depending on the nature of the magazine.

1. The Meet & Greet — for weekly eds, a cheery hello and a 100-word whizz through your contents will suffice. Huge national institutions, such as Radio Times, benefit from a human face to avoid the assumption they are churned out by some BBC committee.

For a newsy title such as Closer, an ed's letter need be no more than a bitchy aside on Kerry Katona's love life. But the classic weeklies are afflicted with the much-parodied "we're all very excited about scones this week" mumsy blather.

There is also the trap of the GMTV segue: "And moving on from egg donation… we have a feature about how to make the perfect omelette." A notable offender is June Smith- Sheppard in Pick Me Up, whose letter is a favourite among her peers for its unintentional humour. And June has just promoted herself: besides a column at the front, her random, pointless anecdotes now fill the entire back page.

2. The Friend of the Stars — on a fast-paced newsstand, the glossies' only remaining USP is their super-exclusive access.

Cosmo and Elle editors lard their page with Polaroids of themselves with celeb coverstars.

But Jo Elvin at Glamour is the undisputed queen of the "to bring you this fabulous issue, my fashion team abseiled down the Gherkin in Miu-Miu heels accompanied by Colin Farrell and the cast of The OC" breathless bragging. Elvin also uses her letter to have a poke at gossipy rival Grazia, sniping that Glamour talks to the stars themselves, not merely to their anonymous "friends".

3. The People's Editor — some readers don't want to hear that their editor is a regular at The Wolseley. They wish to believe s/he understands their lives, feels their pain. (Or in the men's sector, letches over the same birds.)

Lindsay Nicholson writes her last missive for Good Housekeeping this month. Although she has never pretended to be a domestic diva, her tone — gravitas mixed with humour — spoke to GH woman. Moreover, she was prepared to reveal a great deal of her life. I still recall vividly a letter she wrote (when editing Prima) about her daughter Ellie's death.

But what if an editor is not the living embodiment of the brand? For example, if you edit a youthful title, but you're in your mid-30s, happily married, and it's an eon since you had snog-rash or a crap date, you just have to dredge through your distant past. "It can get quite confessional," says one such editor.

"You find yourself sometimes writing things half your friends didn't know."

There is a fine line, however, between "sharing" and too much information. Although she edits a mass-market title, Karen Pasquali Jones writes a 400-word weekly dispatch in Love It! about her Ab Fab champagne binges (one night her friend ends up wearing her knickers) and how she's currently living in a luxury hotel while her house is redecorated, rarely mentioning the contents of her mag. Her writing has a mad brio, but I wonder what her readers — and her proprietor, the abstemious Mr Murdoch — really think?

4. The Product Placement — Susie Forbes in Easy Living makes little attempt to engage with her reader, except to issue her a monthly shopping list. Editors' letters commonly mention products — or name-check designers — at the bidding of advertising or marketing departments. An editor's recommendation is gold dust. Is that why Forbes has even plugged goods by her own husband, leather designer Bill Amberg?

5. The Spokes-editor — a hard-hitting feature combined with a passionate ed's letter is a launch pad for a campaign.

Yet there is no British equivalent to the letters of Graydon Carter in Vanity Fair; his rage at the Bush administration has morphed his missive from wry social flimflam into an eloquent monthly liberal call to arms.

6. The Attack Dog — gonzo former Maxim editor Greg Gutfeld used his letter to demand free suits "like that old, bald guy at GQ". He then published pictures of pornographic origami, fashioned from Anthony Noguera's editor's letter in Arena.

It's not big or clever, but at least it's more entertaining than letters such as O'Riordan's this month: humdrum dispatches from the world's most prestigious desk job.

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