Late Nite FDL: Home Security By Strunk and White
(A Houma Indian blow gun and poison-tipped darts.)
Good evening, my fine Firedog friends. Tonight I hope to impart to you a valuable skill that will serve you for the rest of your life. It is an ancient practice that I was taught at my fire-breathing liberal mother's knee. The angry letter is a staple of activism, whether it's to a newspaper, an elected official, or even to the airline that lost your luggage. It is something every cantankerous liberal should know how to do. It can make you a more effective media critic and in some cases can even help you actually get what you want from the person or entity to whom you are writing.
An angry letter, when properly executed, is a thing of beauty. It is a perfect poison dart to the neck of your enemy, flying swift and true to the mark, penetrating the skin, and spreading paralytic poisons throughout your quarry's system. Sound good?
Let's get started!
You will need:
1. A computer.
2. A printer with paper.
3. An envelope.
4. A stamp.
Now, angry emails can be a beautiful thing. I've got nothing against them. They are the one-night-stand of complaints. They are typically brief and satisfying and require no real level of commitment. However, this makes them all the more easy to disregard by editors, reporters, politicians, and ex-lovers. To really, really show that you mean business, nothing works quite so well as an actual letter on paper that you took the time to seal, stamp, and mail. I have also found that paper letters are much, much more likely to elicit a personal response from the addressee.
Step One: Keep it Short
This is the alpha and omega of the angry letter. No one is going to read your eleven page Unabomber-style manifesto. The poor souls you forced to look it over before you sent it were just being polite to you when they handed it back saying, "Uh, it's fine!"
It's not fine. It's too damn long. An editor, ombudsman, or congressional aide is going to open it and see the rows and rows of tightly-packed print and immediately wad it up and toss it in the garbage. No one has time for all the meandering digressions of your rant. This is not a blog post. The addressee didn't come to you to ask what you think. You have come to them in the middle of their busy day of scarfing cocktail weenies, sipping Kool-Aid, and having two hour breakfasts at tony DC hotels. You've got under three minutes to make your case, so make it good.
1. No more than four paragraphs.
2. No more than twelve sentences.
This is crucial. When I say no more than twelve sentences, I don't mean fourteen. I mean twelve or fewer. The tighter and more compact you can make your beautiful poison dart, the further it will fly and the deeper its poisoned tip will bite into the skin.
Step Two: Don't Swear
Again, this letter is not a blog post. The more intelligent and authoritative you can be in your delivery, the greater your credibility will be with the addressee. If you are a 58-year-old grandmother of two, it helps to include this information. You are merely a concerned citizen who is speaking up in the name of decency, integrity, and Everything that Makes this Country of Ours Great. (See Step Three, "The Moral High Ground")
So, remember, you're not angry. At least, not on paper. Even if your hands are visibly shaking with rage as you type, your prose should be as calm and imperturbable as a glacial lake. You can be appalled, shocked, disgusted, disappointed, saddened, and embarrassed for the author, but the one thing you are not is angry. Starting with a tone of 90-decibel rage is only going to make your reader defensive and angry themselves. So, start calmly and coolly. That way if you must pour on the boiling oil in the last paragraph or two, you've left yourself some room for that.
Step Three: Assume the Moral High Ground and Do Not Let Go
This is one of the most important aspects of an angry letter. As much as every person would like to believe that they are an adult, fully capable of reasoning and making decisions for themselves, everybody on this earth has a momma and a daddy, which means that everybody at some point has been soundly scolded by someone. The key to successfully assuming the moral high ground is to take this tone with your addressee from the outset and cue up their frightened, "Oh, shit! I'm in trouble!" instinct before they have the time to think better of it.
To this end, one should write as if you are doing your duty to the addressee by snatching them up by the scruff of their neck and setting them straight. You are saving them from future embarrassment and error. You are doing it For Their Own Good. This is where phrases your parents used on you can come in very handy, "I'm not angry with you, I'm just very, very disappointed" or "It grieves me to have to point this out to you, but I thought it best for your reputation and career that I do it rather than someone who really, really hates you."
The person to whom you are writing has failed in some way. The purpose of your letter is to address this failure and make certain that the recipient will think twice before making this kind of error again.
Step Four (Advanced): Be Manipulative
As much as you are comfortable doing so, play head games with your opponent. You are writing as a sort of friend, a concerned member of the public who wants to save your addressee future embarrassment, both personal and professional. An openly angry letter can be dismissed out of hand, but a letter that whispers persuasively to a person about their own fears and feelings of inadequacy can keep them awake at night for years to come. Yay!
Most Americans define themselves through their jobs. So, ask yourself what this person's fears about their job are likely to be. Are they afraid of being a laughingstock among their colleagues? Are they afraid of damaging their movement as a whole? Are they afraid of being outmoded and left behind by new generations of writers and thinkers? Or conversely, are they just a beginner who is frightened of making mistakes that will keep them out of the big leagues forever? As much as you can ascertain these things, make use of them in your letter.
Use words like "unprofessional", "sub-standard", "unacceptable", "sophomoric", and "amateurish". Avoid words of screaming condemnation as much as you can, like "cowardly", "lying", "despicable", and the like. You are attacking the person's stance, not the person.
However, words that convey a value-judgement about their job performance like "tawdry", "shallow", "meretricious", and "disingenuous" are all good. Just make sure that you're making a distinction between the person and their position. Telling a person that they're a scum-sucking, worthless waste of good protein whose highest ambition in life should be to become good compost may make you feel better, but it will do nothing to change that person's performance.
Remember, this is an advanced step. If you feel it is beyond your ken, despair not, gentle reader. Merely state your case plainly and authoritatively and everything will be just fine.
Finally, a couple of minor stylistic points. It's best not to begin your letter with "I", as in, "Dear Mr. Russert, I am writing to you because blah de blah diddy-blah…". A wise grammarian once told me that formal letters never begin with "I". Of course, this is one of those things like the serial comma by which grammar geeks like me swear and other normal people disdain as an infringement on their personal writing style.
I just think it's best to start your letter with the facts of the matter, as in:
Dear Mr. Russert-
On Sunday, March 4th on your show "Meet the Press", you allowed Right Wing author and columnist George F. Will to state several blatant falsehoods uncontested. As a concerned viewer, I feel that it is my duty to point out to you that letting this kind of misleading information stand as fact on your program reflects badly on television journalism in general and upon you in particular.
I am aware of the doubts cast on your objectivity and professionalism by revelations brought forth in the Libby trial. I trust that you are doing everything in your power to push back against the resulting perception of you as a ventriloquist's dummy for the White House. It would be a shame to see your entire career as a journalist become a footnote to Mary Matalin's characterization of you as an easy mark for the Bush administration's talking points.
T. Rex, Esq.
See how simple that is, and yet manages to call into question Russert's entire reason for being? Sometimes, you can accomplish a lot more by speaking in a low, reasonable tone than by writing, "Dear Mr. Russert, Yo, Pumpkinhead! What the FUCK are you THINKING?!, etc."
Also, spell-check rigorously. Then spell-check again. Nothing says, "Hi, I'm an ignorant rube!" quite like mixing up there, their, and they're, or to, too, and two, and so forth. Don't use words that you aren't intimately familiar with, and be on your guard against dropping too many "impressive" vocabulary words where simpler, clearer language would do. Nothing shoots your argument in the foot quite like poor spelling, bad grammar, and malapropism.
Now, take this advice and practice overnight and in the next few days, I will be offering up some targets for you to try out your new skills on, hopefully something to do with getting Ann Coulter's column dropped by some major papers. Come on! It'll be fun!
PACHACUTEC SAYS: If you'd like to get a head start, you can try writing to Harry Reid about this.