Write Letters to Newspapers
Writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper is an effective way to let elected officials know how their constituents feel. Elected officials read letters to the editor daily. Letters to the editor can be powerful vehicles for influencing or sparking public debate by making a case for your issue. The following are tips to help you write effective letters.
- Keep it short. Ideal is 100-200 words, beyond 300 is long.
- Focus your letter on one concept or idea.
- Referring to previously printed articles or letters will increase your chances of being printed. Responding quickly helps.
- Check the website of the newspaper for specifics on their requirements.
- Submit by e-mail. Papers often don’t open attachments.
- Combining your personal experience with response to a current issue is most effective.
- Always include your name, address and daytime and home phone number so the paper can contact you with any questions.
- Be accurate, be verifiable, be sourced
To be found credible both by the editor and the reader, make certain any information you provide is accurate. Be accurate in quoting what someone wrote or said, or voted on, i.e. attending a town hall meeting, referring to a representative’s vote, or giving dollar amounts spent by the school board etc. Be able to verify the data you give. Provide the source of your information in the letter, or at least be able to provide it if the editor asks or someone responds by questioning your credibility.
- Frame your information
FRAMING IS SO IMPORTANT: Do not reinforce the opposing side of your argument by using their mantra such as “No new taxes”! For example, in referring to the repair of roads and bridges, you could use terms such as “long term solutions” or “long range investment”. That is better than starting out by bashing the “no new taxes” group or the “tax and spend liberals”. Avoid labels and inflammatory language. You want to engage as many people as possible in a constructive and thoughtful public dialogue on the issue. (Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff is an excellent book on framing.)
- Write from both heart and mind
Passion plus informed position carry a lot of weight. As soon as you experience a strong feeling about an issue, sit down and write out your response to it. Craft your letter, but always wait before sending. Reread it later or have someone else read to see how it sounds. Did you really mean to say this?
- Distinguish between your opinion and factual data
Make certain your letter is clear between what you think about an issue and what you know to be fact. Many local letters confuse their personal interpretation of data and the actual facts. For example, if you mention a yay or nay vote by a local representative, his vote is factual data and you can verify the accuracy of that vote by citing the House of Representatives website. Your personal objection to this vote is your opinion. Your proposed solution is also your opinion and it is good to distinguish that.
- Be clear
Avoid acronyms and jargon. Let a friend or colleague review the letter to see if it makes sense to them.
- Use word cues to underscore your point
For instance, preface your conclusion with “The important issue is…..” Preface the facts with “Research proves….”
- Include a call to action
Suggest what people may do to address the issue.
- Raise the level of public discourse
Because we live in an age of extreme political divisiveness, I believe many letters to the editor fall better into the category of “tabloid journalism”. I think it is imperative to try to raise the general standard of public discourse by addressing the issues and refraining from labeling others or calling them names. If we remind ourselves that any political representative if first a person with feelings, families, and connections in the community, very much like ourselves, our letter will reflect that. No matter how much we may disagree with the politics of the politician or someone who writes in support of him or her, if we critique the issue, not the person, we will raise the level of public dialogue.
OUR GOAL SHOULD BE PRODUCTIVE PUBLIC DISCOURSE ON THE SERIOUS ISSUE THAT FACE US
- Be accurate, be verifiable, be sourced
Prepared for River Valley Action, October 2007.