How to Write a Successful Letter to the Editor

Stay active in public health and environmental issues impacting your community by making your case in a local newspaper.

Now more than ever, people are looking for ways to stay engaged in the issues that matter most to them. And with public forums like town hall meetings with our elected officials, civic demonstrations, and neighborhood gatherings currently on pause, it’s even more important to rely on digital communications tools to make our voices heard. One such tool is a letter to the editor (LTE)—a brief piece, usually less than 300 words, that anyone can write and submit to a newspaper. As Maria Michalos, NRDC’s eastern regional communications manager, notes, such a letter can be written in response to a piece that’s already been published by a given media outlet, or it can be a proactive statement of support for or opposition against a particular issue that affects the publication’s readers. “It’s the perfect way to reach thousands of individuals and still remain publicly engaged, but without having to leave the comfort of your home,” Michalos says. Here are five tips to produce a successful LTE.

Personalize it.

“Newspaper editors typically select letters to the editor that are authentic and personalized,” Michalos says, so don’t be afraid to open up and use your own voice as you draft your LTE. For example, say you want to write a letter expressing support for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), which would directly improve transportation in your community. (Through TCI, a dozen eastern states and Washington, D.C., are proposing a policy that sets limits on transportation-related emissions, requires major industrial suppliers of fuels like gasoline and diesel to pay for the pollution their products cause, and invest those payments in cleaner transportation solutions that benefit everyone.)

To start off her own LTE on the topic, Michalos says, she’d open this way: “Growing up on Long Island and now living in New York City, I know firsthand that this antiquated transportation system needs help, from delayed buses and trains to congested roads.” Making personal opening statements helps establish the writer’s credibility as someone with firsthand knowledge of the given issue and grabs the reader’s attention.

If you’re responding to a published piece in the newspaper, make that clear.

In this case, your first sentence should directly reference the other article. This could help you build a point/counterpoint narrative for your letter, where you respond to specific statements from the piece with your own perspective, using data to back up your argument. It also shows you’re open to engaging other points of view on the topic, an important foundation for persuasive writing.

Submit a letter to the editor to help transform transportation in New York

Be authoritative and stick to the facts.

You’ll be able to state your case in a convincing way if you avoid opining; even better, mention your expertise where applicable. You may write from the perspective of your occupation, your own experience with the given topic, or as a long-standing member of the local community. For example, as a member of NRDC and as a lifelong New Yorker, Michalos knows that transportation in New York is a major source of air pollution that can worsen asthma attacks and heart and lung diseases, as well as accelerate the climate crisis. She can state these facts in a supporting paragraph, then move on to say that her state's participation in a regional policy called the Transportation and Climate Initiative offers a groundbreaking opportunity to fix its transportation woes and fight the climate crisis at the same time. Even if you use materials from other organizations to write your letter, avoid any copying and pasting of talking points so that your LTE remains authentic.

End with a call to action.

Keeping in mind that the piece shouldn't run any longer than 300 words (and that some publications have guidelines limiting letters to 150 words), wrap up with a line that lets readers know how to get involved or learn more. Then conclude the piece with a bold, final statement of your case. For Michalos’s piece, she’d write, "The Transportation and Climate Initiative would cut pollution; improve transportation, access, and equity; and enhance public health. It's a no-brainer that New York should support and get behind this groundbreaking initiative."

Submit the letter.

Now that you've written your LTE, don’t be shy: It’s time to send it off. Draw up a list of local newspapers serving your community and look online for each publication’s instructions on how to reach their editors. But keep in mind that every letter to the editor should be unique. It’s best not to submit the same piece to multiple papers; instead, just select one paper to contact, and if your letter doesn’t get accepted by the first outlet, continue to move down your list. Be persistent, and please reach out to us at our infobox when your letter goes up!

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