Tips on Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

The letters sections of newspapers and magazines present great opportunities for getting your message to a wide audience. In local and regional papers, letters to the editor are read by local activists, government officials, legislators and many community members.

Your letter can support and expand on something already in the news, make a point that was omitted, or disagree with/correct misinformation from a news story, editorial or another letter.

The most effective persuasive writing appeals to both emotion and logic — incorporate an element of each if possible in the space allowed.

To maximize your chances of getting published:

Do:

* Respond directly to an article or commentary published within the previous two days (for daily newspapers) or previous issue of a weekly or magazine and follow the citation format used in the target publication. The typical format is: Re "Talking With the Taxman," (national news, Jan. 13). Your report neglected one key fact…
* Keep it concise and focused on one important point (don’t try to address two separate issues in one letter). Be sure to follow the guidelines and word count limit of the target publication (100 to 250 words is typical for local and regional papers, many larger outlets have a lower limit). To maximize your chance of being published, edit your letter to remove all non-essential words. This also minimizes the chance of the editor changing the letter in ways you may not like.
* Use verified facts. Take the time to check original sources (rather than repeating a "fact" cited in another media outlet, for example).
* Look for ways to create immediacy by indicating how readers will be affected by the issue you address when possible. Give people specific and concrete actions (e.g. ask your state and federal representatives to support the Free Speech for People Amendment) This includes your elected representatives — by including their names in the letter and asking for action, you get their attention.
* Point people to a resource for more information.
* When writing to your local newspaper (not recommended for larger city or national publications), follow up with a polite phone inquiry about its status if it doesn’t appear within 4-7 days to ensure it was received and considered.
* E-mail your letter in the body of the email (never send unsolicited attachments) and put "Letter re Your Topic” in the subject line. If you wish to copy others or submit to more than one publication, do it in a separate email. Include your address and daytime phone number for verification.

Things to Avoid:
* Don’t overstate/exaggerate your point. Rather than say “corporations will now dictate who gets elected and control office-holder,” try something like “corporations will enjoy tremendous influence over who gets elected and who chooses to run for office.”
* Don’t use pejoratives (insulting your opponents);
* Avoid jargon or acronyms (spell out any name the first time you use it, followed by the acronym in parentheses);
* Omit needless words. Don’t say "I’m writing to…" or "I think…" It’s obvious.
* Never use all capital letters or bold test to emphasize a word. It will almost never be printed that way and may prevent your letter from being considered. You can italicize one or two words, but most papers will print it as plain text regardless — the words need to speak for themselves. Use quotation marks to indicate the title of a book, article, etc.

On Magazines
The range of acceptable lengths for letters to the editor in magazines varies widely, so be sure to look for guidelines and observe the range and style used in each publication. Letters to major news weeklies tend to be extremely short (100 words or so).
Consider who the typical reader of the publication is, and keep them in mind when writing. Many magazines tend to be read by like-minded people, rather than the broader cross-sections of society that most newspapers do.

On Websites
Treat online comments like you would a brief letter to the editor (proper language, spell-check, etc), but add relevant links.

Final Notes
* Strunk and White’s booklet The Elements of Style is a brief book full of great suggestions to help you write concisely and powerfully.
* Be a student of persuasive writing. Pay attention to letters and comments by others. Note effective and ineffective approaches, style, length, etc. This will improve your writing rapidly.
* Don’t consider your effort a failure if your letter is not used in larger publications where even the best letters face long odds. Each letter, however, is read and plays some role in molding the thinking and content selection of the editors.
We love to get copies of letters written by our supporters and we’re happy to offer editing help.

© 2009 ReclaimDemocracy.org. Please contact them if you would like to reproduce or adapt this document.
 

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