Letters to the editor are important tools in your advocacy arsenal. They are quick to write, relatively easy to have published, and are the most widely read section in the newspaper. Many politicians and government agencies routinely clip and circulate letters to the editor as indicators of what is important to their constituents.
Letters to the editor, while often “reactive” to news already reported, can keep the story alive and the debate raging. Journalism is one of the rare professions in which controversy is good – there are at least two sides to every story and journalists want to report them all.
A furious war of words on the letters-to-the-editor page encourages debate in the community and at the newspaper, frequently resulting in newspaper-run editorials on the same subject.
If you get a letter published, make sure to send a copy to the office of your elected official to ensure they know your issue is important to the community they were elected to serve.
Ten Tips for Writing a Great Letter to the Editor
- Find a “hook.” Use current events in the news locally or nationally that can be linked to your issue. Your hook could be a recently released League of Women Voters’ report, an upcoming summit or conference, even a controversy that is attracting public attention. Attract some of that attention to your issue by pegging your letter to that news. Papers like having readers respond directly to their coverage, so scan the headlines, editorials and the letters sections for opportunities to tie your message to their news. Issue-specific hooks are good for broadcasting letters to more than one paper.
- Write short. Be catchy and snappy. Always end your letter with a conclusion or demand for action by public officials. If you can’t say what you want in three paragraphs or less then you should contact the newspaper about writing an op-ed, which is longer and therefore allows more in-depth discussion of a particular topic. Editors want creative, concise and insightful commentary. Do you have a perspective that someone hasn’t yet thought of? Don’t overwhelm your arguments with too many figures! Use only a few to support your arguments.
- Adopt the proper tone. Be respectful and polite. Don’t let anger or slander get in the way of a good opportunity to get your point across.
- Use the “cut and paste” approach. If you are going to the trouble to write one good letter to the editor, why not try to get it published ten or twenty times? If you e-mail your letter, make sure you send the letter to each paper individually by cutting and pasting the text into a new message.
- Display authorship. Papers will confirm authorship of your letter so always include your name, address, e-mail and a daytime telephone number in the signature block.
- Pick a dynamite title. Once you have completed your letter, give it a title that will draw attention. Newspapers generally will write their own headlines, but don’t let that stop you from proposing an attention-getting title. It may well get your letter published.
- Send it out. Just like the lottery, you have zero chance of winning if you don’t play. As mentioned above, sending your letter to more than one paper only increases your chances of being published.
- Be persistent. After a couple of days if you don’t get your letter published, call the letters editor to ask if your letter has been receive and, if so, why hasn’t it been published. Find out what it would take to get one published next time.
- Collect your letters. Be vigilant and don’t miss your letter if it is published. Ask friends and family to watch newspapers for your letters.
- Use the letters as your calling card. Who needs to see that published letter? Everyone! Distribute copies to people you want to influence. You worked hard to accumulate those letters: let them be your calling card!