Advocacy Made Easy: Letters to the Editor
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
A letter to the editor is a very short letter written by readers and printed in the opinion section of a newspaper. I love this form of advocacy because these letters can inform others in your community about an issue and even attract the attention of your member of Congress! Maybe you don't read the newspaper regularly, but congressional offices have staff checking the media every day to see what constituents are saying about their bosses. It’s an easy way to gauge public opinion and see what potential voters are talking about.
Writing a letter to the editor doesn’t have to be very different from writing a personal letter to Congress. But you must follow rules determined by the newspaper, which can generally be found in the opinion pages of a print edition or in the opinion section of a newspaper’s website.
Some papers publish every letter that meets its standards; other papers publish only a small fraction of the letters they receive. Today, I'm going to offer you my strategies I learned from RESULTS to boost your chances of getting published and to make your letters more effective...
Grab Attention with a Current Event
People have pretty short attention spans these days, so your first line should be highly engaging. Can you think of an interesting angle that hooks the reader in to read more? Connecting to recent national or local event always helps. In a recent letter to the editor in the Joplin Globe, I connected fears about the COVID-19 coronavirus to the fears of parents in poverty with no access to vaccines for measles and other deadly childhood diseases. One of the easiest hooks is to reference a piece the newspaper recently printed. If your letter is written in response to an article written within the last seven days, you will absolutely increase your odds of being published. If you can, use the name of the article and the date it was published in the first line of your letter. If you are submitting it via email, make it obvious in your subject line that your letter is in reaction to a major event or something in the newspaper. For example, in the subject line, write “Response to ‘Infections Climb in South Korea as World Fights Virus’ printed February 22, 2020”.
Use EPIC Format
Create your letter using the easy-to-remember "EPIC" format. "EPIC" is a handy mnemonic for remembering an order of statements to build your case for an action and engage your reader. Here it is:
Engage: Grab the reader's attention with a question or a startling statement. You could use a surprising statistic or a question.
Problem: State the problem that you want the reader to address.
Inform (or Illustrate): Inform the reader of the solution or illustrate how the solution can help.
Call to Action: CLEARLY state what you want the reader to do. It's best if you can do it in the form of a question that should be answered with a "yes" or a "no."
All you really need is one line for each section!
Be Clear and Concise
Newspapers have clear limits on the length of letters they will accept. Most papers will not print letters longer than 200 words, while others cut off at 150 words. The shorter the letter, the more likely it will be published. Editor Tod Robberson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shared with our local group that sometimes shorter letters are chosen because of a limit of physical space on opinion page. Short, focused letters are often favored. Stick to one subject and stay on topic.
Back to school for your daughter? That's a chance to
talk about 130 million girls missing out on primary
school education globally.
Connect to Your Community
Help your readers see the connection between your community and your issue. What experiences do readers have in common with your issue? For example, you can use the angle of back to school season to talk about global education or mention the local food bank to talk about the need for nutrition assistance programs.
Challenge without Attack
It's healthy and engaging to question what others have said or done. Challenging the status quo is what an activist does! However, I recommend avoiding emotional personal attacks. They are not respectful and rarely persuasive. Also, if you are representing a nonpartisan organization, be careful not to damage its reputation by making remarks that overly criticize a particular political party, candidate, or civic leader.
Call Others to Action
End your letter by asking for action from your members of Congress or from your readers. Mentioning names of specific senators and representatives will increase the likelihood that they will see your letter because many congressional offices do daily internet searches by name. Make a clear request that leaves no room to doubt what action you want them to take. If you have a number for a bill or resolution, like "H. Res. 189," be sure and include it.
Pay Attention to the Details
Include your name, address, email, and a phone number with your submission to the paper. The newspaper won’t publish this information, but they may use it to contact you and confirm that you are the author. And be sure to check the Letters to the Editor page of your newspaper or its website for guidelines on submitting a letter. Some prefer emails; others require you to upload your words through an online form; others accept physical, mailed copies.
If you have an advocacy group, send in batches of letters to the editor from different volunteers to maximize your odds of getting published and to emphasize the importance of the issue. Whether the paper prints your letters or not, you are demonstrating that more than one person in the community cares about a particular issue. This might influence them to run more articles and opinion pieces about it!
Write Letters, Send Them In
Hands down, this is my favorite piece of advice. Willie Dickerson of Snohomish, WA gets more media published than any volunteer I've ever heard about...and he should! He writes at least one letter every single day. He estimates he's been published over 1000 times. When he says, "Write letters, send them in" he is rightfully pointing out that a letter sitting on your desk will never get printed. Don't agonize over it so long that your hook goes stale or you just lose courage. Send that sucker in! These days, as an experienced letter-writer, I usually have to write five or ten letters to get one published. So, just send 'em in and keep trying!
Do you write letters to the editor?
What are your favorite tips or tricks for getting published?