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Correspondence School: Letter To The Editor Basics

writealetter.jpgIt is Columbus Day, a federal holiday, and thus calling Congressional offices would likely be an exercise in futility for a whole lot of us.  What’s an activist to do?  Spend that time productively on a letter to the editor.

Today is Correspondence School:  Letter To The Editor Basics.  (Following up on Correspondence School: Congressional Contacts.) 

Why bother writing a LTE in your local newspaper?  Two big reasons:  (1) congressional staffers scan these LTEs to gauge how much attention they should pay to particular issues and votes; and (2) editorial staffs keep a watch to gauge which issues deserve more news coverage.  A well written letter to the editor can sometimes sway local public opinion, or at least spark some debate and that is well worth the price of a stamp.  Additionally, a lot of local talk radio folks pull commentary ideas from LTE topics.

I want to first direct you to the spot-on angry letter-writing piece that TRex did for us a while back. A key point:

…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….

That particular aggrieved yet caring tone can be a very effective one for letters to the editor, and much more readable than angry ranting for most folks who are not so politically involved. Which leads me to the considerations for letters to the editor:

— No more than two paragraphs, max.  Try to limit yourself to the 100-200 word range.  As TRex said, this is no time for the Unibomber Manifesto.  Be succinct and you are more likely to get published.  Longer letters are more likely to be edited by someone else — you are much better off doing your edit yourself.

— Stick to a single issue.

—  Mention your Representative and/or Senator by name.  Their staff is much more likely to pay attention, and the editorial folks at the newspaper will as well.   A lot of Congressional offices use clipping services to pull LTEs for them where the name is mentioned, so you have a much greater chance of them seeing your letter by including names.

— Highlight the local impact of the issue, this has a much more effective reach for your letter and makes a broader potential statement to readers who may not be as familiar with the subject matter.

— Do send in LTEs to your local newspapers, to newsletters in your community and other smaller publications.  These have quite a reach in terms of readership, and you are more likely to be published there than in a larger national publication. 

— Humor can be very helpful.  So can doing a little research on the style of your local newspaper and its editorial staff.

— Avoid being shrill, name-calling, or getting personal.  You want to criticize facts not beliefs.  Be sure to do your homework on your subject.  Use facts, figures, and expert information in the form of short quotes where it is useful. 

— Always proofread.  And then proof it again.

— Try to read your letter from the perspective of a reader who has no background in the subject.  Will it make sense to someone who isn’t watching a lot of C-Span?  Who doesn’t read blogs?  This is important, because those are people you are trying to reach.

— Always include your name, address, day-time phone number, e-mail information and signature.  Editors like to verify letter content before publication, so make it easy for them and you are more likely to get yours published.

Some helpful sites on this:  here, here, here and here.  And try here for information about local media contacts.  Take a peek here (PDF) to see the sort of wingnut/congregation outreach set-up that the right wing has been doing for years, and see why we all need to get on the ball to rebut these points.  Someone has to do it — why not make that someone you?  Just remember the following:

Letters to the editor should be thought of as bits of a sustained civic conversation. You are not going to change hearts and minds with a single letter. But you might have a chance with several, well-written letters offered over time. Write for the moment. Write for the one point you’re making today. Don’t write as if you expect to slam-dunk the issue for all time. Ain’t going to happen.

As egregious says, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Give it a try today.  Let’s start with SCHIP as an issue to hit nationwide.  Do share some examples of what you plan to do in the comments and we can all talk about tailoring the message for different regions and helpful facts to include and such.  Let’s get typing!

(Photo of letters being written with iPod via fernando [pixelstains].)

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com