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Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are an easy way to voice your opinion to policy makers and to educate people in your community about the issues your organization addresses. You can use letters to correct or interpret facts in response to an inaccurate or biased article recently published in a newspaper or magazine; to explain the connection between a news item and your organization's issues; or to praise or criticize a recent article or editorial. Whatever your purpose, your letter will reach many people in your community - without exception, the letters section is one of the most highly read segments of newspapers (and magazines).

The majority of this information can be found at the 20/20 Vision web site.

Steps to Success

Step 1: Know Your Paper's Policy

Find out the newspaper's (or magazine's) policy for printing letters. Some have requirements for length of letters, some want letters to be typewritten, and almost all require that you include your name, address and phone number. (Of course your address and phone number would never be printed. Most publications will want to call you before they print your letter to confirm that you really did write the letter and that you want to have it published.)

If the paper doesn't publish its letters requirements next to the letters it prints, don't be afraid to call. Ask to whom you should address your letter, if they have any length restrictions, and in what format they would like the letter.

Step 2: Be Timely

Responding to a recent article, editorial or op-ed is one of the best ways to increase your chances of getting published. (Be sure to mention the name of the article and the date it was written in the beginning of your letter.) You can also capitalize on recent news, events, or anniversaries.

Step 3: Keep it Simple

You already know how to write letters to policy makers that are concise, informative and personal. The same should be true with letters to the editor. Make your first sentence short, compelling and catchy. Don't be afraid to be direct, engaging, and even controversial. Keep your points short and clear, stick to one subject, and, as a general rule, try to limit your letters to under three or four paragraphs in length. Most publications ask that letters be kept to 250 words or less. The shorter the letter, the better its chances of being printed.

Step 4: Get Personal

Newspapers, at their core, are community entities. Editors will be much more likely to publish a letter, and the letter will have much more impact, if it demonstrates local relevance.

  • Use local statistics. For example, a letter focusing on a vote on the Clean Water Act should point out how many rivers and lakes are unsafe for swimming in your community or state.
  • Use personal stories. For example, if you or someone in your family has become ill because of contaminated drinking water, you should talk about your experience in a letter to the editor addressing the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Use names. As congressional aides have repeatedly told us, if a letter to the editor mentions a Representative or Senator's name, they will see it. They care about how they are being perceived in the district, and they will pay attention to a letter that asks them to co-sponsor legislation, or to take a specific action in Congress. You should also urge your readers to support your position and to let their elected officials know their views.
  • Use your credentials. If you have expertise in the area you are writing about, say it!
Step 5: Increase Name Recognition

Letters to the editor are an excellent opportunity to let more people know about your issue. As a general rule, you should sign your letter to the editor with your affiliation. On the other hand, if you and many other representatives from your organization are writing letters to the editor as part of a targeted campaign, you may not want to include your affiliation. Publications will not print letters they think are part of a manufactured campaign.

If you are the only one writing to the editor, you may also want to work your organization's name into the text of your letter. For example, in a letter about food safety standards you could say that, "The (your organization) recommended guidelines for improving food safety standards to protect our children just last year."

Step 6: Don't Forget the Follow-up

Don't be discouraged if your letter is not printed. Keep trying. You can even submit a revised letter with a different angle on the issue at a later date. And if your letter is published, be sure to send the clipped version to your member of Congress as well! While your representative or senator will probably have clipped your letter, it carries more weight if it comes from you with a personal note attached.

Steps 7: Think Strategically

You should think about letters to the editor as a regular strategic campaign tool to increase the effectiveness of your organization's actions. Try to target several different papers in your area at the same time and encourage people to explore different angles on the same issue. However, do not send the exact same letter to more than one newspaper in the same market. If you want to be published in more than one paper in the same market, rewrite the letter slightly or choose a different angle to approach the subject at each publication. Newspapers do not like to print "form" letters.

"It is especially good if the letters are geographically spread and the issue is repeated in a few areas. It creates a ripple effect. It shows that the issue has reached far into the congressional district which, in turn, gets noticed by the policy maker." - Congressional Aide

Sample letters

  • Getting it straight on Alar
  • Debunking junk science
  • Rebutting bad PCB study

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