A letter in a major metropolitan newspaper may be read by tens of thousands of people. The letters page is one of the most read parts of a newspaper. Writing letters to the editor is therefore a good investment of your energy, even if only a few of your letters are published. What’s more, elected officials and reporters pay attention to letters about issues that involve them.
Tips for success
Be brief. If you go much over 200 words, the editor might have to cut material, and the letter is less likely to be published. Use a key fact when appropriate, but don’t overuse facts; a letter can’t include everything. Finally, it’s better to make one strong point than three weak ones. Speak to the undecided and confused. Get them off the fence. Remind the non-environmentalists why they benefit from environmental protection. Remind people why weakening environmental protection is bad. For example, instead of saying, “This would weaken our wetlands protections,” say, “This would weaken our ability to protect homeowners from flooding.”
Use specific and high-impact language. After your first draft, reread the letter to weed out weak prose. Substitute “polluted lakes and rivers” for “environment”. Substitute “cancer and birth defects” for “health problems”. Avoid bland emphasis words such as “very”, “many”, and “extremely”. Be wary of the adjectives “all”, “never”, and “always”—they require just one counter-example to be discredited.
Express a definite opinion. Make your values and your conclusions known. Be strong-willed but not emotional. Be truthful and honest.
And check your facts. Honesty is the best policy; don’t lower your standards even when you think your adversaries are lying with every breath. Remember, though, that honesty and balance are not the same. You aren’t obligated to give equal time to opposing points of view.
Before mailing your letter, have someone else read it and make suggestions. Then use your own judgment about whether to take their advice.
John Andrews, Thoreau Group, Massachusetts
Republished from the April 1999 Yodeler.