“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
― Dr. Seuss
Letters to the editor may not earn you money, but they are a great way to get your name – and ideas – in print. If you are involved in a local club, group or project, letters to the editor, sent to the newspaper on a regular basis, can bring free attention to what you are doing and can gather readers to your blog or website. Well written letters catch the attention of the public and possible clients.
Before I continue, let’s be clear: A letter to the editor is not a column. It is also not an editorial. If the editor likes your well-crafted letter he may request a longer version to run as a column (happy-dance). The editor may also choose a well-written letter to run as the editorial for the day. As an editor, I have done both, but rarely.
Here are a few steps about composing a letter to the editor: Write out all your thoughts, focus on one idea, rewrite as crisply and concisely as you can, follow the editor’s guidelines, be polite.
Write out all your thoughts
If you’re like me, you feel passionate about a certain thing and want to express that passion to anyone who will listen. We’ll take the subject of chickens as an example. I believe that people living in town should be allowed to keep chickens for the purpose of fresh eggs and meat.
I write down everything I can think of in favor of keeping chickens in town: Independent living, encouraging green space and organic living, self-sufficiency and neighborly help, fresh food production, free fertilizer for home gardens, very little space needed, etc.
Then (and this is important) you must think about how people will argue your points. Chickens are noisy, chickens smell bad, chickens escape, chickens peck people, roosters crow early in the morning and will wake people up that just got off graveyard shift, chickens spread disease, chickens are dirty, etc. Many of these arguments are not true, but because you have heard them, you should consider covering them in your letter to refute the myths.
Once you have all your pros and cons written out, it’s time to check the guidelines for the publication that you hope will take the letter. If you try to cover all the pros and cons I have just mentioned, your letter is too long.
Remember the editor doesn’t have a lot of time for editing a letter. It needs to be perfect.
Scenario 1: Editor gets a well-crafted, clearly written letter with no typos, misspellings, or questionable grammar. The word count is within the limit. Editor smiles. Editor places the letter directly under the editorial for the day. Five minutes.
Scenario 2: Editor whispers a nasty cuss word as he reads the first two paragraphs of a jumbled, unclear rant. It goes on and on. Editor considers it because there are valid points.The editor needs letters, but this one will need to be cut and edited. Fifteen minutes at least. Editor isn’t quite sure what Mr. Writer really wants to say. Editor could call Mr. Writer and discuss it, another 20 minutes, but that is on the bottom of his uber-long to-do list. Editor leaves the rant soaking in his inbox.
Scenario 3: Evil Editor announces loudly to staff that Mr. Writer has attempted to get published on the editorial page once again. Editor reads letter out loud to staff. Staff laughs, or applauds, depending how unclear the letter is. Letter is trashed. Officially, Letter is “lost.”
All these events really happened. I am embarrassed to say I have been, on occasion, the Evil Editor.
I think you will agree that we all want Scenario 1, so here’s how you get there.
Stick to One Subject
State your subject, your opinion and perhaps why you disagree with the opinion of someone who wrote a letter a few days before, or a decision made by the school board, or a road closing in your area, or more information about a story that ran previously. Don’t go off on a tangent. Stick to one issue. You can always write another letter.
Make sure to include any facts you have on the subject at hand. Facts add relevance and believability to your stance.
Most people know what they want to write about. They are angry about something that happened: a decision by the government, or a community situation. They are happy about something that happened: a new store opening, the high school got the state championship, a community member achieved something inspirational. They have a question: why isn’t a certain road getting the pot holes filled in, why aren’t the trees trimmed, why is the electricity on Cherry Street going out all the time.
Know the paper you are writing to. As with a letter to a friend, you need to know what your friend is interested in, events in their life, history with you, etc. Choose a paper, study it, request (or go online for) the editor’s guidelines – just like you would a magazine or a blog. Then keep your subject about that community. Editors run letters they know their readers will enjoy, or will produce an emotional response, or get the community united about an issue.
Another safe bet would be to write a response to a newspaper story the paper recently published. Be sincere. Don’t praise a story just because you want to get on the editor’s good side. The newspaper thrives on discussion and argument. If you have additional information on a subject covered in the paper, share it. Remember to mention the story you are responding to with headline, date, and page (“This letter is in response to ‘City going for broke,’ May 15, 2017, Page 1”). This makes is easy for the editor to verify your facts (An editor does not have to verify your opinion). Caution: If you are responding to a newspaper story, your letter may be printed along with a response from the editor.
Some people write a letter and send it to every newspaper they can find thinking they are sending out an alarm to the masses. This may not work because editors can see through that. Editors know editors and will call each other on occasion to chew the fat and joke about that guy that writes letters every week about conspiracies (whether those conspiracy theories are true or not).
Sign Your Name
You can use words like “Thank You,” “Sincerely,” and “All the Best,” before your signature, but it’s not necessary. Steer clear of “Love,” “Hearts and Flowers,” and “From The Front Lines,” unless your letter is attempting to insert a little humor into a depressing subject. I knew a gentleman who wrote about farming and farmer’s concerns and signed it “Out In Left Field.”
Use your real name. Editors know people who know people who know other people. You will be found out.
Include Contact Information
Most newspapers need phone numbers for verification. Check the newspaper’s guidelines.
There was a gentleman who sent us several emails that contained interesting information, but something didn’t sound kosher. One of my tech ladies did a little investigating and found our gentleman on Facebook. The page had been created suspiciously two weeks before the emails began. I then requested an interview over the phone to ask a few questions. The gentleman never called. We had our suspicions as to who the real person was. Every editor is different, but I had an aversion to calling out elected officials via Letters to the Editor from people with made-up names. However, I did use the information in the emails for pointed questions to aforementioned elected officials.
A Word About Anonymous
As editor of a small paper, I would receive anonymous letters about once a month. The problem with most of them was their libelous nature, insinuations and name calling. I did not print them. I did not want to get caught in a law suit. However, there are instances I think should be anonymous: Ex drug users, victims of abuse, minors, etc.
You may expect a call from the newspaper, either the editor or one of his staff. They want to verify that you are indeed a real person with a real opinion and not some wingnut trying to get his jollies by seeing his fake name in print (see “aside” above).
Other General Guidelines and Advice
If you decide to write second letter, make sure you check with how many times you are allowed to be published in any given year. Our newspaper had a guideline of every 30 days. Regular writers carefully dated their letters and stuck to the 30 days. We could count on them to submit like clockwork.
Keep your letter short. Most newspapers don’t accept anything over 300 words.
P.S. Every editor is different. All the information I just gave you may be completely the opposite of what you need for your local paper. Be prepared for the unexpected.
P.P.S. The New York Times is one of the largest and most influential newspaper in the world. I have learned a lot about journalism and newspaper composition from their example. Here’s what they have to say about sending a letter to them (Good Luck!):
“How to Submit a Letter to the Editor”
“Letters should be exclusive to The New York Times, or The International New York Times. We do not publish open letters or third-party letters.”
“Letters should preferably be 150 to 175 words, should refer to an article that has appeared within the last seven days, and must include the writer’s address and phone numbers. No attachments, please.”
“We regret that because of the volume of submissions, we cannot acknowledge unpublished letters other than by an automated e-mail reply. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified within a week. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.”
To send a letter to the editor:
- firstname.lastname@example.org (for readers of The New York Times)
- email@example.com (for readers of The International New York Times)
For a great article about writing a letter to The New York Times go to:
Featured photo credit: Inforrm’s Blog
Rachel H.T. Mendell
Rachel H.T. Mendell writes freelance from home in her office that she grabbed when her sixth child moved out, which is much nicer than the converted closet she wrote in for almost 20 years. Rachel writes novels, poetry, plays, essays, columns, articles, short stories, long letters, devotionals and experimental allegory. She has been published in various magazines as well as the Galion Inquirer, The Morrow County Sentinel, the Crestline Advocate and online at Richland Source. You can find a few of her articles in Heart of Ohio Magazine and floating around cyberspace. She keeps a blog, Domestic Mobility (http://domesticmobility.blogspot.com), and has recently started a website (http://www.rachelhtmendell.com). Rachel happily answers emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is married and has seven children and one grandson. When Rachel is not writing, she’s gardening, caring for chickens, rabbits, and cats. She lives with her family in Morrow County, Ohio.
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