Writing an Effective Letter to the Editor
Letters to the editor are a very effective tool for members of an organization to educate the public and political leaders about an issue. Letters to the editor can be written to newspapers, magazines, or other printed publications. They can serve a number of purposes.
For instance they can:
- express a position either pro or con
- serve to educate readers on a particular matter
- influence policy makers and elected officials
- keep an issue in the public eye
- tackle myths and pessimism
- be part of a strategy to get others to take a specific action
Letters to the editor are read by thousands. Over and above their power as a public awareness tool, they are also regularly monitored by political leaders and their staff. In short, letters to the editor are a great way to shape public opinion and advocate for your cause.
How to write a letter to the editor
Each publication will have guidelines for submitting a letter to the editor. They are often found on the editorial page and almost always have a word limit of 150 or 300 words. So step one is to review the guidelines.
Your writing must be crisp and to the point so that you can express your idea effectively within the stated limit. If you are writing about an issue that has many facets, you will want to choose one key point to make. Choose the point you feel most passionate about. If a group is writing about the same issue, each member should consider writing about a different aspect of the topic. In that way, you may be able to get all of the points across with a series of letters, each from a different writer.
As with any letter you write, start with a greeting. The salutation “To the Editor” is all you need.
Make sentences count
As you begin the body of the letter, remember first sentences count! An effective first sentence will draw the reader’s attention and make them want to read more. If you are writing in reference to a news article which has been printed in the publication, reference that article in your first sentence. For example, “I am writing in reference to your June 12 article, “Why we need assisted suicide in Massachusetts.” If you are writing about an issue, tell the reader what the issue is right away; don’t make them read halfway through your letter to find out what point you are trying to make.
The next paragraph should tell the reader why the issue is important. It’s obvious to you, but it may not be to others unfamiliar with your cause. They may not share your interest or have your background. Be clear and to the point; use simple words and plain language. To reach the widest audience, use mostly two syllable words to express your point. This ensures that your letter will be understood by readers with at least a sixth grade reading level. The more three and four syllable words in a sentence the higher the educational level that is needed by the reader to understand your point. In this age of cultural diversity, where English is not the primary language of many who live in urban areas, using simple, plain language is the most effective way to get your message across.
In telling the reader why the issue is important, cite relevant facts to support your case. If your letter is about a pending or upcoming matter, be sure to state why it will have good or bad results. If the purpose of your letter is to get the reader to act, tell them what they should do, e.g. call their legislator, vote, participate in a forum, etc. If you are writing your letter to support or criticize a policy or particular action, offer suggestions on how to make things better. The more reasons you can give, the better.
When framing your argument to gather support for your side, there is one very important point to remember. Avoid using the language of your opponent. For example, if your argument is about assisted suicide and your opponent is using the phrase “death with dignity,” you don’t use the words “death with dignity” in your own argument. Using your opponent’s words is like giving them free air time. Instead, you might use something like “end of life care” in referring to the same idea.
Determine word count
After writing the body of the letter, determine your word count. If you are using Microsoft Office Word, you can use “Tools” in the toolbar and scroll down to “Word Count.” If your letter is longer than the publisher’s allotted word count, review your letter to shorten it. You can either rephrase things or eliminate sentences. Rather than highlighting two points of an issue, use one. Instead of offering three suggestions to improve things, cite one or two. However you condense your letter, make sure you do not lose any coherency in the process.
Although shorter letters have a better chance of being published, if you find that you cannot shorten it, check with the editor of the publication to see if you could submit your longer letter as an opinion piece or guest column.
Lastly, do not forget to sign your letter. Write your full name, and contact information including your address, phone number, and email address. Use any titles or credentials you have, e.g. Rev., Attorney, MD, RN, event organizer, etc. that will lend authority or credibility to your letter. Editors do not print anonymous letters, but they may withhold your name upon request. Your contact information is important. The publication staff will usually contact you to ensure you are indeed the person submitting the letter before they publish it.
Submitting your letter
There are three ways to submit your letter: by email, by post or by fax. Email is the best method to submit a letter, because the editors will not have to re-type your letter into their computers. Mailing your letter means it not only takes longer to arrive, but then it must be typed into the computer adding further delay before it is printed. You may be able to fax your letter and although it will reach the publication quickly, your document will still have to be entered into a computer, just like a letter sent by post. If you fax your letter, remember that most fax machines are in public areas and others may have access to your letter first. Be sure to include a cover page with the name of the person your fax is intended for.
Getting your letter published
Newspapers may not print every letter they receive. The larger the circulation of a publication, the harder it may be to get your letter to the editor published. Clear, well-written, concise letters are more likely to get published. If you are arguing a point in your letter, presenting a well thought-out argument will also improve your odds. Most importantly, exactly following the guidelines for submission of a letter will increase the likelihood it gets printed. Letters that serve as a rant or are highly critical of individuals are less likely to be published.
Other tips include:
- Keep your letter to no more than the stated word limit of the publication.
- State your most important ideas in the beginning of your letter; if an editor has to cut your letter they usually do it from the bottom first.
- Make it relevant by using local statistics, personal stories, referring to a local event or recent article.
- Add a title to your name if you have one to add credibility or authority.
Do not get discouraged if your letter is not accepted the first time you submit it. Consider submitting it to a different publication or submitting a revised version, possibly with a different angle at a later date.
Letters to the editor are not only easy to write but can be an effective tool for presenting your case to a larger audience and changing public opinion.