Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

This article first appeared at LocalCommentary.com in 2004 and is presented here slightly edited.

I’ve written a lot of letters to the editor and some opinion pieces that were published on the op/ed page, not as letters. Here’s a list of 17 things I’ve learned along the way, mostly by experience — and not all of it good experience.

  1. Pick a current issue you care about and take sides. If it has not been discussed recently in the publication, it should at least be of some interest to the publication’s readers. Link your message to current events where possible.
  2. Check the publication’s letters policy. Most daily newspapers publish their policy at least once a week on the editorial (op/ed) page. Some papers limit letters to 200 or 250 words; stick to their limits. Publications are not obligated to print what you write; the easier you make it for them, the more likely it is to happen. (For a news magazine or radio show, a typical limit is 100 words.) If there is no clear policy, look at the types and lengths of the letters already published.
  3. Remember this is the 21st Century. The newspaper or other outlet to which you are writing may publish your letter at its web site, even if your letter is not selected for print or broadcast.
  4. Don’t try to write a thorough treatise on your topic. Pick one or two points which are either most important or have been neglected in the public discussion. Make them clearly and concisely, and be done. A well-written, clearly reasoned letter of reasonable length is more likely to be published.
  5. Make your major points in the first two or three paragraphs, because editorial cuts are most likely at the end. (Then you can cut paragraphs four and five yourself, before the editor has to do it.)
  6. Type your letter in an ordinary, 12-point font, double-spaced, with ordinary margins, or send it as plain text by e-mail. Note: Newspapers rarely print italics or underlines, and text in all caps seems like YELLING, which may keep readers from reading your letter at all.
  7. Proofread. The publication is not likely to correct your grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Use your spell-checker, then proofread the old-fashioned way. Then proofread again. Then have a friend proofread. Then proofread again. (Sometimes it helps to proofread a printed page, rather than text on a computer screen.) Use conventional punctuation. Never use more than one exclamation point or question mark in a row, and never ever use more than two!!! (See, it looks amateurish.) Generally, it’s best to let your words, not exclamation points, give emphasis to your thoughts.
  8. Most publications will expect you to give your name, phone number, and address, even if they will only print your name. For online publication, they may expect your e-mail address and a link to your blog or web site. (They may publish the latter but not the former; check their policies.) They will frequently use the information to verify that you, not someone posing as you, actually wrote the letter over your signature. If you are sending the letter by mail or fax, be sure to sign it. (Anonymous letters tend to look cowardly and generally should be avoided. In special cases, if you don’t want your name published, put it on the letter, anyway, and emphasize before and after the body of the letter that you do not want it published. Some publications will not publish anonymous letters.)
  9. Most publications have a specific address, e-mail address, or fax number for letters to the editor. If yours does, use it. It will usually be published on the editorial page with the publication’s letter policies.
  10. Recruit others to write on your topic. That way, you don’t have to say everything there is to say about a topic in a single letter – and even if your letter doesn’t get published, others’ might.
  11. Be conscious of deadlines, especially when writing to weekly or monthly publications. If you don’t know the deadlines, and they’re not published, call the publication and ask. Your letter endorsing a candidate is not likely to be published before Election Day – and therefore not likely to be published at all – if you wait until the afternoon before Election Day to submit it. Overall, your odds of getting published are far better if you don’t wait until two minutes before the deadline to send your letter. Better a week early than a day late.
  12. Don’t lose your cool. Avoid name-calling. Especially avoid comparing things you don’t like to Nazis, Communism, or the Holocaust – unless they actually do involve slaughtering millions of people. In Utah, avoid referring to “Satan’s plan” or the Celestial Kingdom, or anything else that might look like you don’t know there are a million non-LDS Utahns.
  13. Make sure your letter stands by itself. You don’t have the space to write a massive treatise, but don’t assume that the reader even read, let alone can remember, someone else’s letter from days or weeks ago, to which you are replying.
  14. Be sure to check your facts. Then check them again. Then check them again.
  15. Avoid sarcasm. It’s the lowest form of humor, it’s terribly overdone, and worse yet, it’s virtually certain that someone will miss it, and therefore miss your point.
  16. Use your title as a member or officer of an organization only if you are authorized by the organization to write your letter in its behalf. However, it is helpful to mention in your letter why you care – for example, if you live in a neighborhood that will be affected by a specific city council decision.
  17. Let your draft cool off. You are passionate about your subject, or you wouldn’t be writing. But try to contribute more light than heat to a discussion. Support your feelings and opinions with facts. And, if you have the luxury, write the letter, then set it aside until tomorrow. Tomorrow, come back to it, read it, tone it down a little, and make it tighter and clearer before you actually send it. If you can’t wait until tomorrow, find someone else to critique it, or let it sit for an hour or two.

This list is a work in progress. I’ll watch your comments for good things to add to the list.

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