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INSIDE TRACK: Express your opinion and help shape the debate

IN her third novel, Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf writes:

"Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost. Life would split asunder without them." She is guilty of some exaggeration, but the gist still holds: letters matter to this day, despite predictions to the contrary and the advent of the ubiquitous 140-character tweet, and they are a vital and vibrant part of this newspaper. Our Letters Pages provide a platform for lively, informed discussion at a time when such debate has never been more important.

As custodian of these pages, my role is a curious one; at once umpire and second. I'm there to hold the jerseys for the combatants, but also to try to ensure fair play.

That last point is crucial: the aim at all times is for a balanced debate in which all sides are allowed a fair hearing.

Sometimes, of course, this is neither possible, nor just. If we receive 30 letters giving one point of view and one the polar opposite, it would not accurately reflect the balance of opinion if we were to publish just one letter from each side. Minority views, however, are most definitely not ignored.

I am often asked what you have to do to get a letter published; the first, obvious, answer is: send one in. I have had people phone to complain about their point of view not being represented, then admitting that they had never considered writing in themselves. Email, fax or good old post; everything is read, nothing is ignored.

Secondly, be reasonable, both in tone and in volume. Owing to the constraints of the printed page a 1000-word tome is unlikely to see the light of day, especially when others make the point just as cogently in half the time.

While verbal sparring and witty ripostes are welcome, rudeness is not. Personal insights are fine; personal insults, not so much.

A perusal of the Letters Pages over a period of time will, no doubt, throw up the fact that some names appear more often than others. I can, however, assure everyone that there are no cliques, no favourite correspondents. If someone writes 50 erudite letters and five are published, that is not favouritism, merely the law of averages in operation.

This year, our correspondents have been waxing lyrical on such diverse subjects as same-sex marriage, nuclear weapons, bankers and bonuses, the health service, education, renewable energy, strict liability on our roads, speed cameras on the A9, and much, much more. Most have been in response to reports in The Herald, but some have led to issues being reported for the first time.

Of course, the hot topic of the past two years has been the independence referendum, and it will continue to be so in 2014. Both sides of the debate are argued with zeal and passion, though it has to be said that those who propound the Yes Scotland case currently outnumber their opponents by a factor of two to one. It is for psephologists and psychologists to debate why this should be so, but remember, this is a democratic forum. You have the power to shape the debate.

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