Writing Letters to the Editor
by Community Toolbox (University of Kansas), Contributor Jenette Nagy
|Learn how to write and send effective print and e-mailed letters to editors of various media types, together with examples, that will gain both editorial and reader support.|
- What is a letter to the editor?
- Why should you write a letter to the editor?
- When should you write a letter to the editor?
- Should you use e-mail to send your letter?
- How do you write a letter to the editor?
- How do you get your letter accepted?
WHAT IS A LETTER TO THE EDITOR?
You feel strongly about an issue, and you want to let people know what you think. You believe you can even influence people to take some action if you speak your mind. But, you want to reach an audience larger than just your friends or your group membership. Letters to the editor can be an effective way to get the word out.
A letter to the editor is a written way of talking to a newspaper, magazine, or other regularly printed publication. Letters to the editor are generally found in the first section of the newspaper, or towards the beginning of a magazine, or in the editorial page. They can take a position for or against an issue, or simply inform, or both. They can convince readers by using emotions, or facts, or emotions and facts combined. Letters to the editor are usually short and tight, rarely longer than 300 words (200 to 250 is fairly standard for most newspapers).
Using a few carefully placed letters, you can generate plenty of community discussion. You can also keep an issue going by preventing it from disappearing from the public eye. You can stimulate the interest of the news media and create more coverage for the matters you’re working on. You can also send a “good news” letter to bring recognition to people who deserve it or acknowledge the success of an effort.
WHY SHOULD YOU WRITE A LETTER TO THE EDITOR?
Letters to the editor are among the most widely read features in any newspaper or magazine. They allow you to reach a large audience. You can probably think of many more specific reasons why you might want to write to the editor, but here are a few general ones:
- You are angry about something, and want others to know it
- You think that an issue is so important that you have to speak out
- Part of your group’s strategy is to persuade others to take a specific action
Or you want to:
- Suggest an idea to others
- Influence public opinion
- Educate the general public on a specific matter
- Influence policy-makers or elected officials directly or indirectly
- Publicize the work of your group and attract volunteers or program participants
WHEN SHOULD YOU WRITE A LETTER TO THE EDITOR?
Letters to the editor can be written any time you want to shape public opinion, tell others how you feel about people, programs, or ideas, or just inform the public on a certain issue. They are a great way to increase awareness of the issues that you or your organization are working for, as well as to advocate for your cause.
Letters to the editor can also be used to start a community conversation about an issue important to you. A planned series of letters to the editor can stimulate public interest and media coverage. It’s up to you to determine when is the best time to start writing the letters, allowing time for them to be published.
The larger the newspaper or magazine, the more competition there is for letters-to-the-editor space. This means your letter will need to stand out in order to get printed. The tips in this section will help you write a letter that will be effective and stand out on the editor’s desk.
Keep in mind that if you want to inform the public of a certain action your organization is about to take, you may want to think of issuing a press release instead. If newspapers consistently ignore your news releases, your best choice may be a letter to the editor.
HOW SHOULD YOU SEND YOUR LETTER?
The reality for virtually every print publication is that they’d prefer to get letters and other material by e-mail, since everything they publish is set up on a computer and printed straight from software. If you send your letter electronically, all they have to do is transfer it directly to the “letters” page in the software in order to print it.
You can still send a postal letter, of course, but someone has to type it into the computer before it can be printed, and so it may not only arrive later than an e-mail, but may wait longer after it’s received to be printed.
HOW DO YOU WRITE A LETTER TO THE EDITOR?
OPEN THE LETTER WITH A SIMPLE SALUTATION.
Don’t worry if you don’t know the editor’s name. A simple “To the Editor of the Daily Sun,” or just “To the Editor:” is sufficient. If you have the editor’s name, however, you should use it to increase the possibilities of your letter being read.
GRAB THE READER’S ATTENTION.
Your opening sentence is very important. It should tell readers what you’re writing about, and make them want to read more.
EXPLAIN WHAT THE LETTER IS ABOUT AT THE START.
Throughout your letter, remember the rule:
- Be quick,
- Be concise, and then
- Be quiet.
Don’t make the editor or the general public wait to find out what you want to say. Tell them your key point at the beginning.
EXPLAIN WHY THE ISSUE IS IMPORTANT.
If you are motivated enough to write a letter to a newspaper or magazine, the importance of your topic may seem clear to you. Remember, though, that the general public probably doesn’t share your background or the interest. Explain the issue and its importance simply. Use plain language that most people will understand
GIVE EVIDENCE FOR ANY PRAISE OR CRITICISM.
If you are writing a letter discussing a past or pending action, be clear in showing why this will have good or bad results.
STATE YOUR OPINION ABOUT WHAT SHOULD BE DONE.
You can write a letter just to ”vent,” or to support or criticize a certain action or policy, but you may also have suggestions about what could be done to improve the situation. If so, be sure to add these as well. Be specific. And the more good reasons you can give to back up your suggestions, the better.
KEEP IT BRIEF.
Generally, shorter letters have a better chance of being published. So go back over your letter and see if anything can be cut or condensed. If you have a lot to say and it can’t be easily made short, you may want to check with the editor to see if you could write a longer opinion feature or guest column.
SIGN THE LETTER.
Be sure to write your full name (and title, if relevant) and to include your address, phone number, and e-mail address. Newspapers won’t print anonymous letters, though in some cases they may withhold your name on request. They may also call you to confirm that you wrote the letter before they publish it.
CHECK YOUR LETTER TO MAKE SURE IT’S CLEAR AND TO THE POINT.
A newspaper may not print every letter it receives, but clear, well-written letters are likely to be given more serious consideration.
HOW DO YOU GET YOUR LETTERS ACCEPTED?
How likely your letter is to be published depends to a certain extent on the publication you’re sending it to. The New York Times probably receives hundreds, if not thousands of letters a day, only ten or so of which make it into print. A small-town newspaper, on the other hand, may print every letter it gets, since it may get only two or three a day.
In general, newspapers and magazines will publish letters that are well-written and articulate, and that either represent specific points of view on an issue, or that thoughtfully analyze complex issues and events. Most publications stay away from publishing rants, although they may publish short-and-to-the-point letters that make the same points as a rant might, but in a much calmer and more rational way. Publications also tend to stay away from attacks on particular people (although not from criticism of the actions of politicians and other public figures), and anything that might possibly be seen as libel.
Legally, libel is the publication of a false statement about someone that damages that person’s reputation. Thus to falsely accuse someone of a crime would be libel; to inaccurately print that someone had won an award for citizenship would not be.
Here are a few helpful tips for getting your letters accepted by the editor:
- Keep your letter under 300 words. Editors have limited space for printing letters, and some papers have stated policies regarding length (check the editorial page for this).
- Make sure your most important points are stated in the first paragraph. Editors may need to cut parts of your letter and they usually do so from the bottom up.
- Refer to a recent event in your community or to a recent article – make a connection and make it relevant.
- Use local statistics and personal stories to better illustrate your point.
- Make sure you include your title as well as your name – it adds credibility, especially if it’s relevant to the topic being discussed. If you are a program director, your title may lend credibility to the letter.
Including your title is also important to showing that you’re not trying to hide your interest in the topic. If you’re a program director and you don’t mention that in your letter, there may be a letter the next day accusing you of dishonesty for not revealing it.
- Editors may want to contact you, so include your phone number and e-mail address.
- If your letter is not accepted the first time around, try again. You might submit a revised version with a different angle on the issue at a later date.
You do not have to be the only one to write the letter: letters are often published with multiple signers. You also don’t have to be the only one to write a letter. Several people may write letters on the same topic with the same or slightly different points, and submit them a few days apart, so that the issue stays on the Letters page for a period of time. If you have talented writers in your group, you might encourage one of them to write an editorial article or an “Op-Ed” – that is, an opinion editorial that is usually printed on the citizen opinion page. Most of all, don’t limit your communications. Brainstorm for ideas in your group – how can you further your goals by speaking to the readers of your community paper?
___You know what a letter to the editor is.
___You know why you should write a letter to the editor.
___You know when to write a letter to the editor.
___You understand the pros and cons of using e-mail to send your letter.
___You know how to open the letter.
___You grab the reader’s attention.
___You explain what the letter is about at the start.
___You explain why the issue is important.
___You give evidence for any praise or criticism.
___You state your opinion about what should be done.
___You keep it brief.
___You check your letter to make sure it’s clear and to the point.
___You know how to get your letter accepted.
EXAMPLE 1: WRITING A LETTER IN FAVOR OF A PROPOSED ACTION
To the Editor of The Herald:
The U.S. House of Representatives has recently proposed a law (H.R. no. 396) that will ban the sale of cigarettes from vending machines. This is a landmark piece of legislation that everyone in our community should support right now.
Many people don’t realize it, but vending machines are one of the main places that children are able to purchase cigarettes. In fact, it is estimated that 10% of all cigarettes purchased by minors take place at these machines. If this new legislation goes into effect, it will not only make it more difficult for youth to break the law by buying cigarettes, it will lower the chances of young people smoking in the first place
There are many reasons (besides the legal ones) why we should try to curb smoking by our children. 1) Research shows that most people who smoke started when they were underage. 2) Many people fear that smoking cigarettes serves as a “gateway” to harder drugs. 3) Smoking is a very expensive addiction (particularly for a teen who makes minimum wage) And, finally, 4) smoking can cause many life-shortening or fatal health problems (such as lung cancer and emphysema). Our young people would not smoke before they are really able to understand or accept the long-term consequences.
The vending-machine bill has been proposed, but now it needs to be passed. Your voice will count here. We encourage you to write or call the representative for your district (for those of us in District 8, that’s Congresswoman Fisher) and let her know that you support her as she tries to get this legislation passed. The more support she gets, the more likely it is that this bill will become law. Contact Tobacco Free Youth for further information about this important issue.
Jonathan Friedman, Director
Tobacco Free Youth
123 Forest Road
EXAMPLE 2: WRITING A LETTER OPPOSING A PROPOSED ACTION
To the editor of the Lawrence Journal World:
Bulldozers began moving dirt last week at Lawrence High School and the Centennial Virtual School, but city commissioners and school district officials have been bulldozing this community for months with an athletic facilities expansion plan that is fiscally irresponsible, unnecessarily redundant and probably illegal. Our elected officials have misled the public, violated zoning codes and set taxpayers up for a $10.3 million loan that will take 10 years to pay off and cost taxpayers $2.25 million in interest.
Why was the public repeatedly told that this project could be built with leftover bond money when those funds don’t even represent a third of the proposed budget?
Why is it necessary to build two separate football stadiums at a cost of $4 million?
Why is it inconceivable to parents that both teams could play in a shared stadium at FSHS? The situation would be no different than it is in swimming, where both schools compete at the Indoor Aquatic Center.
Why are city commissioners allowing the school district to build a stadium for 4,000 spectators at LHS without also requiring the district to provide the 1,300 parking spaces required by city zoning ordinances?
Why did the school district repeatedly assert that the proposed facilities would only disrupt neighbors a few nights a year when it clearly intended to lease the fields for nightly city softball, baseball and soccer games?
We need new leaders with a clear vision, a commitment to fiscal responsibility, and the ability to balance community and educational needs.
Jerry Schultz, Bob Tryanski, Jeanne Klein and 10 other signers,
EXAMPLE 3: WRITING A LETTER OPPOSING A COMPLETED ACTION
To the Editor of The Herald:
I am outraged by the County Commission’s recent decision to terminate the lease of the Head Start program at the County Court House. With this decision, a much-needed, already under-funded program may simply have no place to go!
Head Start is a fantastic program. It makes sure that poor and other at-risk pre-school children will have the nutritious food and special attention they just may not get elsewhere. It gives these children a true “head start” in a world where they may not get many other chances. And there is plenty of evidence to show that Head Start makes a big difference to kids later in life.
The Commission’s recent decision to oust the program to make more room for a ”state Gifts Shop” is ridiculous! If the leaders of our community would like to run a store to sell Kansas-made goods, I’m all for it. However, neither my Kansas pride nor my greed run so deep as to wish to take away the breakfast of 30 hungry three-year-olds. And I am deeply saddened to see that the County Commissioners value profits over people.
This decision is shameful to all who live in Dade County. The County Commissioners should reconsider the situation and revoke their decision immediately. I hope all readers will let the commissioners know how they feel about this terrible situation by calling them at 913-432-1200 or writing to them at the County Court House.
3960 Mount Hope Drive
EXAMPLE 4: WRITING A LETTER OPPOSING A COMPLETED ACTION
To the Editor of the Lawrence Journal World:
Are we to praise our City Officials and their crews for hauling away all of the remnants of a homeless site on our river east of the Northern Santa Fe Depot? Is this supposed to be retaliation for notifying our City authories of yet two more deaths on City premises–these of an 18-year-old and a 29-year-old–in their “sophisticated” (J-W, Nov. 1) homeless campsite down by our river?
Do we really think clearing out this makeshift campsite (four City dump trucks full) will solves our City’s (and nation’s) homeless crisis? –Or lessen the number of vulnerable people dying way before their time for lack of treatment and shelter in our community? Are these people being punished for suddenly coming into eyesight of our authorities by having reported these unfortunate –(and preventable) deaths?
How many homeless deaths will it take for this caring community to come up with constructive answers?
Perhaps the best we can do before winter sets in is to designate SOME area where the building of makeshift wood and cardboard shelters will NOT be razed–and some of us even might be willing to help in its rebuilding…
Perhaps these deaths and the devastation of their only “shelter” will spur us on to building that warm and decent shelter–able to serve more than the 31 hapless people now sleeping on thin mats, wall-to-wall, at our present homeless shelter –with winter coming…
EXAMPLE 5: WRITING A LETTER IN FAVOR OF A PROPOSED ACTION
Opinion Piece to the Jackson Free Press
The Center for Disease Control currently ranks Mississippi second in highest infant mortality rates in the nation—in 2016, the state lost 325 babies before their first birthday. Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that more than 900 infant lives per year may be saved in the United States if 90 percent of mothers exclusively breastfed for six months. This shows that if we want to improve the health outcome of babies and increase the number of those that reach their first birthday and beyond, we must center our efforts on removing systemic barriers to breastfeeding.
Moving the marker on breastfeeding and infant health takes the coordinated efforts of communities, hospitals, the government and industries to ensure that mothers’ rights to breastfeed are protected through policy, support, space and time. That is one reason why the Mississippi Urban League has partnered with the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Mississippi State Department of Health to take on the important work of developing and sustaining a culture of breastfeeding here in Mississippi. Our partnership, which the national BUILD Health Challenge funds, wants to change systems so that they will support, and never inhibit, our community’s efforts to be healthy.
We see the value of a supportive environment for breastfeeding as we work with parents who come to our SIPPS Baby Café, a place where moms and dads not only receive important health and wellness information, but also support from each other. Moms who come to the café say the network of support they receive helps them make the decision to start breastfeeding and motivates them to continue. Knowing that those women, many of whom are the only ones in their family to breastfeed, have someone to call or if they have questions or need encouraging words makes this work fulfilling. This is how we build sustainable support within the community.
In an effort to normalize breastfeeding, we bring breastfeeding out of the café and into the community. SIPPS M.O.B.s (Mothers Out Breastfeeding) provides opportunities for moms to breastfeed in public in a supportive group setting. These outings are designed to educate and sustain a culture of breastfeeding.
Our partnership also works with businesses to develop policies that allow mothers to use their break time to pump and store milk or breastfeed; and have lactation rooms and lactation education programs on site. We know that due to the absence of universal paid maternity leave, many mothers must return to work shortly after giving birth.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, a global program to encourage implementation of the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding and the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes,” in 1991. The BFHI assists hospitals in giving mothers the information, confidence and skills necessary to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or safely feed with formula, and gives special recognition to hospitals that have done so.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center is among the few Mississippi hospitals to be designated a “Baby-Friendly Hospital” and refers mothers to the SIPPS Baby Café to support and educate pregnant mothers, and support breastfeeding in a community setting. We understand that some mothers are unable to or choose not to breastfeed, and no one should infringe upon their rights to access breast-milk substitutes. Our collaborative effort is aimed at providing education, creating policies and developing supports to ensure that systemic barriers do not influence a mom’s decision not to breastfeed.
We know what is best for the long-term health of Mississippi children. All babies need a head start to have a healthy future. We know breastfeeding the future generation of babies is a part of making that future a brighter one. We must not let our nation’s stance on the World Health Organization’s breastfeeding resolution discourage us. We will continue from the ground up with the momentum we have created to ensure a healthy future for Mississippi children.
Writing Activity: LETTER-WRITING PARTY
The responsibility of writing a letter to the editor can be shared. One way to do this is to hold a letter-writing party, at which you and your friends or colleagues write a planned series of letters that will be sent to the editor. At the party
- Pick your topic.
- Have each friend write a letter addressing the topic–these are Group #1 letters.
- Have each friend write a draft letter in response to letters from Group #1–these are Group #2 letters. These will be left incomplete so that specific references to Group #1 letters can be filled in.
- Make a few of your letters provocative so that others will respond.
- Get permission from others to sign their names so that one person can handle the campaign.
- Use different types of stationery.
- Send copies to the “signer” as the paper may call him or her.
- Let the “signer” know if the letter is published.
- It may require only 5 or 6 people to develop a huge community response.
- Mail Group #1 letters. Some may be published. Mail Group #2 letters, with specific information related to those published added, in response to them soon after the Group #1 letters are published. This exercise is great for group morale. It can be fun, too.
Advocating for Change is an online PDF provided by the Treatment Advocacy Center with tips to writing and submitting an effective letter.
Advocates for Youth provides this guide to writing a letter to the editor and gives ten tips and a sample letter.
Effective E-mail Communication from the University of North Carolina provides tips on professional e-mail writing and communicating via e-mail.
Letters to the Editor Tips is a guide provided by the American Diabetes Association. It includes links to a tip sheet for a successful letter, as well as an online tool to find local newspapers in your area.
Media Advocacy Basics is a mini-guide for hospice advocates and professionals.
Media Communication Tip Sheet provides tips on contributing to the local news, tailoring language and style for the media, developing messages to reach the public, and evaluating media coverage.
Using Effective Communications from UNISON is a guide to communicating effectively in both formal and informal settings.
Using Print Media as Advocacy is an article titled, “How to Write a Letter to the Editor,” with tips on effective communication with the media.
Letter to the Editor from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was written when he was a student at Morehouse College
Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most famous open letters, published to numerous newspapers over the summer of 1963.
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Martinez, B., & Weiner, R. (1979) Guide to public relations for nonprofit organizations and public agencies. The Grantmanship Center.
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Ryan, C. (1991). Prime Time Activism. South End Press.
Seekins, T., & Fawcett. S. (1984). A Guide to writing letters to the editor: Expressing your opinion to the public effectively. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas.
Stonecipher, H. (1979). Editorial and persuasive writings: Opinion functions of the news media. New York, NY: Hastings House.
U.S. Government. Managing Correspondence – Plain letters, Washington, DC: Superintendent of Documents
Wallack, L., Dorfman, L., Jemigan, D., &Themba, M. (1993). Media advocacy and public health. Newbury Park. CA: Sage Publications.