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How to Write Letters to the Editor

A personal note by Cliff Schaffer:

Over the years, I have written a lot of letters to the editor and about three out of four of them get published. A lot of people have asked me what are the good techniques for writing letters to the editor. The first thing I tell people is to remember that they fit about ten letters in a typical editorial section (out of the hundreds they receive) so the ones they publish either:

1) Are the best single expressions of what many people said.

2) Make some point exceedingly well.

3) Are signed by some prominent person.

In all cases, the letters are usually short and to the point, and the editors have edited them even further to make them shorter. Most people who write letters to the editor would probably like the satisfaction you get when you see your letter published. That way, at least you are certain that they read it. However, it is also apparent that the media can be influenced by letters they do not acknowledge. We have found many times that a simple letter to someone in the media wound up in major media coverage weeks or months later.

I was going to write up a formal set of rules for how to write letters to the editor, but I found someone who had done it already. He did quite a good job in saying the same essential things I would have said.


How to Write Letters to the Editor by Richard Rider

Short, concise letters are always more likely to be published than long, meandering ones; try to keep them under 150 words. The longer letters are also more likely to be edited. It's better that you do your own editing.

Ever notice how you read letters to the editor in the paper? Most people read the shorter letters first and then perhaps later read the longer ones. Thus your shorter letter has a better chance of being read.

WHAT TO WRITE? Unlike single-issue or special-interest groups, libertarians can select from an enormous range of subjects. Replying to editorials, agree or disagree, is very effective.

Every day the news offers us all too many topics on which to comment.

Be timely; try to respond within two or three days of the article's publication. Pick an issue of particular importance to you - don't be afraid to let some passion show through.

Here are some stylistic considerations:

1. State the argument you're rebutting or responding to, as briefly as possible, in the letter's introduction. Don't do a lengthy rehash; it's a waste of valuable space and boring to boot.

2. Stick to a single subject. Deal with one issue per letter.

3. Don't be shrill or abusive. Editors tend to discard letters containing personal attacks. Even though you're dying to call Jesse Jackson a preachy parasite, stifle the urge.

4. Your letter should be logically organized. First a brief recitation of the argument you are opposing, followed by a statement of your own position. Then present your evidence. Close with a short restatement of your position or a pithy comment

("Jimmy Breslin says possession of firearms should be limited to law enforcement officers. I say when only the police have guns, the police state is just around the corner.").

5. Use facts, figures and expert testimony whenever possible. This raises your letters above the "sez you, sez me" category. For instance: "Anthony Lewis calls for taxing the rich as a way to balance the budget. Is he aware of the fact that if we confiscated the entire income of the top wage earners in this country (those with income above $200,000), this would run the federal government for exactly 8 days?"

Readers respect the opinions of people with special knowledge or expertise. Use expert testimony to bolster your case ("George Will claims we need to draft to defend America. But General Edward C. Meyer, Army Chief of Staff, recently stated . . .").

6. Proofread your letter carefully for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. Newspapers will usually edit to correct these mistakes, but your piece is more likely to be published if it is "clean" to begin with. Read your letter to a friend, for objective input.

One suggestion is that a letter shouldn't be mailed the same day it is written. Write, proofread and edit the piece. Then put it aside until the next day. Rereading your letter in a fresh light often helps you to spot errors in reasoning, stilted language and the like. On the other hand, don't let the letter sit too long and lose it's timeliness.

7. Try to view the letter from the reader's perspective. Will the arguments make sense to someone without a special background on this issue. Did you use technical terms not familiar to the average reader?

  1. Should your letter be typed? In this day and age, generally yes. Double or triple space the letter if it is short. For faxing purposes, we appreciate it if the letter is all on one page, so single spacing might be the only option available.
  2. Direct your missives to "Letters to the Editor," or some similar sounding title.

10. Always include your name, address, day-time phone number and signature. The papers will not publish this information, but they may use it to verify that you wrote the letter. If we are fax broadcasting your letter, do not put a date on it. We may have to wait a day or two before broadcasting it out, depending on how many letters are waiting for dissemination.

11. Most important - WRITE! Do not try to do a perfect letter. Just give it a good effort and send it off. Letter writing is the one thing that any one of us can do on our own without the need to work through a group. No committees are necessary. Just do it!

Don't be discouraged if your letter isn't published. The editor may have received more responses on that issue than he feels he can handle.

If we are faxing your letter, you will almost certainly be published somewhere. The only drawback is that we do not have a good feedback system, so you may not know which of the papers publish your letter, particularly the smaller ones.


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