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Getting Heard In 250 Words

You read something in the paper that made your blood boil and you want to tell the world. Or maybe you didn’t read about it and you thought you should have. Or maybe you just have an opinion you think the nation (or at least your town) ought to hear. What can you do? Sure, you can tell everyone you meet, but for most of us that means a couple of hundred people, tops. However, there is a forum that provides thousands, maybe even millions, of audience members, and you don’t have to be Ted Turner to access it. It’s called the letter to the editor.

After headlines and comics, letters to the editor are the most read items in a newspaper. A lot of people wonder what others like them think on issues. Of course, only a small publication can publish every letter they receive. Editors hold the power of choosing which letters will be published and which won’t. And a lot of the letters won’t be published. Here are some tips that will increase the likelihood of your letter being published:

[+] Study the publication you plan to write to. Many have guidelines for letters to the editor which indicate length. Studying the letters will also tell you what sorts of letters the paper publishes. Some papers publish a wide range of ideas and opinions, but most larger papers and publications are looking for relevant letters, offering feedback or criticism and/or praise for recent articles and events. Look for the editor’s philosophy and respond accordingly.

[+] Focus your letter on one topic and mention that topic in the first line of the letter. For instance, “Your November 3, 2002 article entitled ‘Beanie Babies, Delightful or Deadly?’ misses the fact that all stuffed animals are dangerous …. “ will let the reader know exactly what your are responding to and why. It’s better to write well about one point than to write pointlessly about several.

[+] Keep it pertinent. Newspapers are about news, so make sure your topic has recently been in the public eye. Also, keep the geographical influence of the article in mind. Readers in New York are probably not interested in the town hall meeting in Little Richington, Va., unless it has some real reason to impact them.

[+] Be specific when correcting facts and backing up opinion. A letter declaring “Mayor X is a big fat liar” is inflammatory and unsupported. Stating “Mayor X has not followed through on campaign promises and in the case of Y has proceed to do the opposite” adds weight to your opinion, which will be taken more seriously. Also, refrain from name-calling, personal attacks and offensive language.

[+] This is not the place to proselytize, nor is it free advertising for your business. While it’s fine to mention religious or professional affiliations, keep your writing to the subject being addressed. Don’t let a letter on school lunches turn into a call to repent or a recommendation that they buy your school lunch products.

[+] Keep it short. Most papers have a word limit of 250 (about four short paragraphs) for letters to the editor. Any more and your letter could be cut or rejected. Check the average length of the letters in the publication you are considering if they don’t state it in their guidelines. If you can’t address your topic in that length, call the paper and ask about doing an “op-ed” (opinion editorial).

[+] Review your letter and see if it can be tightened. Make sure the sentences are short and get to the point. Check for spelling errors. Put it down for an hour or so, then read it again. Get a friend to review it. A good letter can take several drafts to polish.

[+] If possible, type the letter. Handwriting can be hard to read and is more likely to result in a misprint.

[+] Include your name, address and daytime phone number. Most editors will not publish anonymous letters. Your address is important because people want to know that the writer is someone local. And the editor will usually call your daytime number to make sure you wrote the letter yourself. Your daytime number will not be published.

[+] Wait a few days. If your letter doesn’t appear, call and ask why. Some editors are open to sharing why letters are rejected, some aren’t. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

See Also

[+] Keep trying. Papers can’t publish every letter they receive, but if you keep writing, eventually your voice will be heard.

Newspapers aren’t the only publications that print letters to the editor. Most magazines do as well, and even some news programs are starting to read letters on air. The same tips for getting your letter noticed applies to them.

So take the opportunity to express your views. It’s easier than you think and you may be surprised at the impact it can have.

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