How to write a letter to the editor
Is there something you want the public to know? Writing a letter to the editor is one way to express yourself. Follow these tips to increase the possibility of your letter being published.
The easier you make it for the editor, the more likely your letter will be published. So here are some tips:
- Figure out your purpose. Decide if you're responding to something that was already written, or if you're introducing a new topic.
- Know the audience. Who are the readers of the newspaper or magazine? Business professionals? Farmers? Retirees?
- Find out if there is a word limit. Sometimes the paper or magazine will have this information on its letters to the editor page.
- Focus. Limit your letter to one or two ideas.
- Get to the point. State your opinion/why you're writing within the first sentence or two.
- Keep it short. Even if there's no word limit, keep your letter within 250 words. If you look at a page with letters to the editor, pay attention to which ones you read first. It's most likely the shorter ones.
- Back it up. If you cite statistics or information that is beyond common knowledge, attribute it to a source. It gives you more credibility and increases your chances of getting the letter published. Media outlets have different policies on fact checking letters. Some editors won't run a letter if there's information in it that needs to be verified. They might not have time to check it or they might be afraid of wrongly libeling someone.
- Be clear. If what you wrote is vague or hard to understand, editors may not bother trying to figure it out. They've likely got plenty of other letters from which to choose.
- Get personal. If it's appropriate for the subject matter, draw on your own anecdotes. Personal stories can be powerful and compelling. Example: "I used to drink two liters of Coke a day, eat at McDonald's for dinner five nights a week, and drink a Frappuccino for breakfast every morning. My doctor told me my health was in jeopardy. So I enrolled in your food nutrition program, and learned to cut out the hamburgers and eat more fruits and vegetables. Thanks to the Oregon State University Extension Service, I can now fit back into my high school jeans." (Isn't that much more interesting than merely writing that the nutrition program is an important resource?)
- Be nice. Let the politicians sling the mud. You can criticize, but base your criticism on facts, not angry emotions.
- Identify yourself. Include your full name, address, phone number and e-mail address. Media typically publish only your name and the city you live in, but they need to have the other information to verify who you are and to contact you, if necessary. For example, they might need to clarify something your wrote.
Editing and Getting Feedback
- Read your letter out loud. This will help you catch words you may have omitted or sentences that are phrased awkwardly.
- Get a second pair of eyes. Ask someone else to read your letter for grammar and spelling.
- Vet it. If you're writing about Extension, it would be a good idea to have an appropriate supervisor review the letter. If it's a controversial topic, the letter could generate calls to Extension, and staff members need to be prepared for that.
- Sleep on it. If time allows, wait a day after you write the letter and then mail it. This is particularly important if you're writing about a controversial topic. Your original version might be too incendiary, and you might be so heated up that you don't recognize it. Setting the letter aside for a day may help put things back into perspective.
Sending and Follow-up
- Send it. If you're mailing it, make sure you have the right address. If available, e-mail is the best option because the editor doesn't have to retype your letter.
- Prepare to be edited. Editors may delete sentences or even entire paragraphs to make your letter more concise. They might even move paragraphs around to make it easier to understand.
- Be patient. Don't call or e-mail the paper or magazine to ask if the editor received your letter. They're busy and they can't be expected to remember your name on a letter that was e-mailed a month ago.
- Brag. Call up your friends when the paper finally does print your letter and tell them you've been published! Congratulations.