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, formerly NRDC’s senior executive 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.
“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 community composting services at risk of being cut from your city budget. Do you compost? Do you rely on the organizations in jeopardy?
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. Even if you use materials from other organizations to write your letter, remain authentic, and avoid any copying and pasting of talking points.
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.
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, a climate activist who is a member of NRDC and a lifelong Pennsylvanian is in a strong position to urge their state to join RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program dedicated to cutting carbon pollution from power plants across the Northeast. The letter writer may start off by stating the fact that the Keystone State is the biggest polluter in the region by far, then move on to highlighting the program’s success in helping avoid hundreds of asthma attacks and other health harms. If the letter writer is the owner of a small business, they might point out that the program provides valuable cost savings—residents of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have saved at least $1 billion on their energy bills through RGGI.
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.
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!
This story was originally published on April 2, 2020. It has been updated with new links and information.
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