Comm 101: Letters to the Editor

There's a few basic rules to keep in mind when writing a letter to the editor. If you spend a little time formulating your thoughts and pay attention to details, there's no reason you can't write an effective letter. For these purposes, I am going to assume you want to influence policy of some sort.

If you're just writing to complain or praise, simply write as you would to a friend and fire it off. I say "as you would to a friend" because those words taste better when you have to eat them later.

One: Decide specifically what your goal is with the letter. Clarify what you want to accomplish in a single sentence and write it down. That way you can review your letter during the writing process to make sure that all of your words build towards a single goal.

Two: Identify the problem for the reader in clear, simple terms. If you can document instances of the problem do so and state your sources. In the September 19th issue of the Frankfurt Times, article such and such says...

If you're not talking about factual data, then don't bother quoting someone else. State your opinion. That's the entire reason for the Op/Ed page in the first place. Quoting a famous person, the Bible, or even a fable is at best wasted space.

Typically 10-20 percent of the readers agree with you automatically and the same number will disagree with you completely. You're looking to influence the 60-80 percent of the "undecided" population. The wrong outside quotation can negatively influence your numbers substantially. Stick with your own thoughts and your own words and save the quotes for speeches.

Three: Be very brief. In your first draft try to write things as sparsely as possible. It's easier to add to your story later than it is to try to pare support from a lengthy argument. In initial drafts, a single sentence paragraph is fine. Remember to check the rules for letters to the editor as many will have a particular word count limit.

Four: Have someone else you trust read your work and edit it. Then actually listen to their suggestions and make the cuts. All too often we become so attached to our "babies" that we are unwilling to make a cut or change.

Five: If you have a thought that has a shelf-life then get that letter written quickly! Then hand-deliver the letter to the editor if possible. Personal contact may get you more than your letter in the form of a follow-up story, additional space, or even possibly wooing the paper over to your side.

Six: The final thought that I would suggest is to avoid personal attacks and slurs. It increases the chance that the paper may not run your letter and again turns off more people. You can attack policies with ferocity, but praise the person. Your foot will taste better in your mouth if you sweeten your words this way.

Have fun writing letters to the editor!



Anonymous said…
It's also a good idea not to address any specific person by name in the letter, even if your letter is in response to one that person published about you earlier. The idea of a letter to the editor is to inform the public as a whole.
People who are unsure of how to direct their letter should ask the editor for help in selecting the proper words. Most editors will will agree to do that; it's easier than dealing with the fall-out afterwards.
Irwin Fletcher said…
One of the earlier questions was whether letters to the editor work. Yes they do.

Any time you are afforded the opportunity to put your message out to the masses, people will be impacted to some degree no matter what you say. It's simply a matter of content and numbers.
Haggs said…
Thanks for writing this guide, PP. I had been thinking of writing letters to the Argus opposing the abortion ban and Amendment C. Now I have a guide to writing an effective letter.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Fletch, great advice and now we can look forward to well written leters to the editor. You bet your boots letters to the editor work and at best if not presented like some wacko.
Douglas said…
Unfortunately, "wacko" is in the mind of the beholder.

Good comments and a good post anyway.

The Argus seems to have a habit of butchering LTTE to the point subjects and verbs don't agree and by the time they get done, the letters aren't worth sending or they have diddled around so long the issue is dead.

Not sure about the RC Journal. They seem to realize that a lot of people would just as soon read a few letters to the editor as one long editorial and appear to be generous with space. The Argus seems mighty penurious.

But, what the heck. We got blogs to fill with wisdom anyway.

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