Upset about something going on in your community? Annoyed with the local newspaper’s editorial stances? Want to commend someone for something done well? Express your sentiments by writing a letter to the editor.
The letter to the editor is a venerable institution. It has existed since newspapers first hit the streets and the readers disagreed with the stories. A letter to the editor most often expresses dissatisfaction with something the publication has done or is doing. However, it may also address local or national politics, local, national or global issues, religion or most any other subject under the sun.
Many people would like to write a letter to the editor, but don’t really know what they need to do in order to write an effective letter that has a chance of being published. It’s not difficult, if the person will follow a few guidelines.
First, become acquainted with the publication’s letters policy. Shorter is generally better. If the publication has a word limit, stick to it. Don’t try to “stretch” a 300-word limit to 350 because what you have to say is so “important.” Publications have serious space rules, and a letter to the editor that falls within in the word limits is much more likely to be published.
Also, include all requested contact information. Even if you would like your letter to remain anonymous, include your name, address and phone number. Most publications use a name, city and state. They rarely print phone numbers. Be willing to accept the publication may not print anonymous letters, and don’t push for it if this is not their practice.
Second, stay on topic. If you’re writing about the city council’s approval for funding the new subdivision, stay on that topic. Don't drift off into all the other reasons why you’re annoyed with the council, or launch any personal attacks on any of the council members. A publication can be sued for whatever appears in its pages, even if no one on staff wrote it. Therefore, personal attacks pretty much guarantee the letter will be discarded. Some people feel the need to include such information anyway, just to “let someone know” how crooked or immoral the person is. Don’t do it. It just makes you look like a nutcase.
Third, type or e-mail your letter, and pay attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but a letter submitted in all caps, without any punctuation will likely be trashed. If it is approved, someone has to decide where the punctuation likely should be, and will spend time editing the letter that could be spent on other tasks.
A handwritten letter to the editor is an invitation to the trash can. They are impossible to read and must be completely re-typed by hand. E-mail is preferable, but use the program’s spell-check function and make it look like someone wrote it who has more than a passing acquaintance with our mother tongue. Most publications have a caveat saying letters may be edited for clarity or grammar. Unless someone completely changes the meaning, don’t call and gripe because someone edited your letter to the editor. That’s part of the process.
A letter to the editor can be a valuable resource for editors and publishers to determine public opinion. The letter to the editor is a crucial part of a free society.