How to Get Your Letter to the Editor Published
The editor is looking for a few key things. Here's what they are.
One reason professional writing is frustrating? It’s hard to know why something is accepted or rejected for publication. Good work is no guarantee. Acceptance depends a lot on the editor’s priorities and mood.
Which means all we can do is identify those elements that don't depend on mood or taste, and get them right. Fortunately, that raises our odds considerably.
Using the method I'll lay out here, my graduate students achieve, on average, an acceptance rate for letters of 40 percent. Compared to typical rates for op-ed placement and press release response, that’s insanely high.
So let’s get you in the club, too.
This is one of my most popular how-to essays.
I'm re-running it this week by request. ML
To write a letter to the editor that gets published, keep in mind that a letter is a response. The newspaper publishes something, and a letter is your reaction. A letter is not for raising new topics but for contributing to a discussion already begun. With that as a foundation, start thinking like the editors you are trying to impress. They are looking for four things:
First, they want to know what you are responding to.
Second, they want a super-brief summary of your response, no more than a sentence or so.
Third, they want to know what qualifies you to comment to the public.
And fourth, they want to see the key evidence or explanation supporting your opinion.
That’s all they want. Don’t add anything else, ever. Ever.
Editors get hundreds of letters each day. One way they sort through them is to look for a reason to stop reading yours. If an editor has to struggle to understand your letter, or if she has to read deep into the piece to learn what it’s about, you are out of the running. Why should she choose a letter that will need more editing and attention? Better to look for a letter that’s ready to go.
To create such a letter, write out those four things the editor wants, and in logical order.
Start by identifying the article to which you are responding by title, page number or link, and date. Check the style the newspaper uses, and follow it. Next, fairly and calmly restate the idea in the article to which you are responding. Don’t do name-calling, and don’t be sarcastic. The more reasonably you present the other side’s case, the wiser and more serious you come across. For instance:
In your April 19th editorial “The Mayor Is A Birdbrain,” page C1, the author asserts that Mayor Cottonhead has failed to diminish traffic congestion in the city.
Now state your response in a few words. Include what qualifies you to offer an opinion. Are you an expert? Do you have relevant experience? Your credential doesn’t have to be formal or profound, but it must qualify you to comment:
As a daily commuter into the city from the western suburbs, I have seen firsthand that our highways are less crowded than they were when the mayor took office, and that they now move considerably faster.
Finally, add evidence—not just your casually asserted opinion—or reasonable supporting explanations:
I attribute this to the mayor’s program to set up ridesharing programs near city parks, along with his promotion of bike lanes and mass transit. Recent statistics from the state transit authority have measured the improvement. In a survey released in February, the average commute time is now down 15 percent.
A letter is a response, and it has four elements -- no more, no fewer.
Put those three paragraphs together and you have yourself a letter that an editor will seriously consider publishing. Why? It delivers just what an editor is looking for: It needs little or no editing, it avoids fluff, and it adds to the discussion in a helpful way. Most important, it fits hand-in-glove with the editor’s professional concerns.
Don't overwrite. Make your point. Then stop.
Don't get creative and artsy. For every editor who appreciates your effort to be the David Foster Wallace of current affairs, there will be literally dozens more who have no time for your shenanigans. Instead, look up the specs on the newspaper website—length, how to submit, to whom to submit—and follow them. Who knew simplicity could be so successful?
If you're interested in one-on-one coaching, email me. It's affordable and we'll focus on teaching you what you want to know. Slots opening mid-July.
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