I Know You're Angry... or Overjoyed... or Something
You want to sound off. Here's how to raise the odds that the newspaper will publish your letter to the editor.
Everybody has an opinion, especially right now. But not everybody gets to see theirs in the newspaper.
In recent weeks I've shared tips for getting the paper to accept your op-ed. This week I'll share tips for a goal that's a little easier to reach, getting your letter to the editor accepted.
Everything flows from this: write your letter to address what the editor needs to see.
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 hold an opinion worth publishing.
And fourth, they want to see the key evidence or explanation supporting your opinion.
Don’t add anything else, ever.
Editors get hundreds of letters each day. One way they sort through them is to look for a reason to stop reading any particular letter. Do you fail to make your point immediately and clearly? If so, you're out.
Are you writing just to signal your virtue, to engage in snark, or to disparage your opponent? If so, you're out.
No editor has time to decipher your poorly expressed intention or wade through a page of attitude. Her time is valuable. Better to look for a letter that’s ready to go.
To create a letter that gets serious consideration, execute the four elements above like this:
First, identify, by page number or link, and date, the article that prompted your letter. Don't just write out of the blue. Pick an article and reply. There's always something in the paper that ties to what you want to say. Find 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 reasonable you present the other side’s case, the more seriously people will take you:
In your April 19th editorial “The Mayor Is Wrong,” page C1, the author asserts that Mayor Cottonhead has failed to diminish traffic congestion in the city.
Next, summarize your response in a few words. A single sentence is your goal. You'll get to expand on your ideas a little later.
Include what qualifies you to offer an opinion. If you're a bona fide expert that's great, but your credential doesn’t have to be profound. It has only to be relevant to the matter at hand:
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 traffic now moves faster.
Finally, add evidence or supporting explanations:
I attribute this to the mayor’s ridesharing programs near city parks, along with his promotion of bike lanes and mass transit. Even better, we can measure the improvement. Statistics just released from the state transit authority reveal that the average commute time is now down 15 percent from the same time two years ago.
Make it clear. Don't add fluff. Respect the editor's time as if it were your own. Click here to learn more.
Put those three paragraphs together, add additional evidence and analysis as you like, 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 an ongoing discussion in a helpful way. Most important, it fits hand-in-glove with the editor’s professional concerns.
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?