Ever wonder why there are often few or no letters to the editor in community newspapers? It’s because no one sent any in!
Getting in a local paper is easy; a letter meant for a major daily, however, must jump through some hoops. In political writing you need to get your point across fast and effectively. And if you frame properly your message will be effective.
What editors look for
- Letters to the editor go on the opinion page. Make them well-reasoned opinions.
- Stand strong; be direct. Don’t use weasel words, apologize for your views or discount them.
- Editors love a reaction to a story they’ve recently run. To them this is dialogue.
- One topic per letter. Be specific; don’t ramble.
- Don’t name call. You can criticize and even insult, but do so with declarative sentences not snarky words.
- Appeal to a large audience of readers and assume everyone is on your side. Take the moral high road.
- Have someone review your letter. But don’t let that person talk you out of making your point or sending it. And don’t write a letter by committee. Editors want to know these are your words. Another set of eyes, though, can keep you focused.
- Only send it to one media outlet and let them know they are getting exclusive use of the letter. The editors of the paper don’t want to wake up the next day and find the exact same letter to the editor in their competitor’s paper.
- Right size the letter to the media outlet. Don’t ask the metro newspaper to publish a letter about library branch hours in one small suburb. That should go in the community papers. Likewise your local weekly probably won’t run a letter about a statewide bonding bill with nothing local in it.
- The ideal letter to the editor puts in words something the reporter was thinking when he/she wrote a story but knew they couldn’t put it in the story without crossing the line of news and opinion.
The wonderful suggestions above are from Jeremy Powers, a former reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, longtime DFL activist and all around nice guy. They’re a window into how an editor decides to run a letter. Here are some tips to make your letter more readable and more effective.
A message is anything you say. There are good messages and there are ineffective and potentially damaging ones. An effective message is framed in a way that evokes core progressive values. Learn what “Framing” is. There are pages on this site that can get you started (in the Framing and Resources tabs above).
One reason conservatives are better at communication than we are is that they know the science behind how people think. We love to fling facts and reason; we debunk and point out hypocrisy. Cognitive science has almost a hundred years of evidence to show that those methods don’t work well. And consider that while we are constantly responding to our opponents and trying to prove them wrong, we never seem to get around to our message. Conservative strategists know all this and bait us constantly and we almost always take the bait.
- Stop for a moment and find the real underlying issue; it’s probably not what your opponent says it is.
- Drop the facts and debunking. Stay out of conservative frames and don’t use their code words.
- Roll with a well framed your message rooted in core progressive values.
- Consider attending one of our framing workshops.
Letters are great, but if you are a person with standing, you may get an opportunity to write a longer rebuttal or opinion piece. Standing simply means that through your job, your degree, your area of experience or other positions you’ve held you could be considered as someone who can speak with authority and credibility on the subject. If the issue is ethics in government, for example, a former legislator or local official has standing. If the issue is the environment, your position as chair of a local environmental group gives you standing. A teacher has standing on local education issues. If you do not have standing, recruit someone who does.
Even if you do all of the above, your letter will not be effective if you bore people.
- Don’t just tell people what you think, tell them why! (See framing above.)
- State your point up front. If you take too long to get to it, people lose interest.
- Don’t run on. People don’t read long letters.
- Tell a story; stories about real people are inherently interesting to people. The story should illustrate the point you are making.
- Use a metaphor to help people understand a new or complex issue. Ex: “The Internet is like a superhighway”.
- Use First and second person. The words “you” and “me” should not scare you! You are communicating with people.
- Use active verbs. Rather than “to run”, use “running” or “run”.
- Experiment with your sentence, word and paragraph order. It’s a wonder to move a word, sentence or paragraph and watch a whole piece crystallize.
- Be willing to excise great chunks of our lovingly birthed prose. Once you get used to it, the results in readability and effectiveness make up for the disappointment. As the advertising folks say: “Advertising is the art of giving things up”.
- Writing needs to ferment -leave it overnight and then reread it. You may find something you would have rather not said. You’ll also instinctively feel grammatical rough spots and excess wordage.
- Last, have someone else to read it. Make corrections and proofread again.
Remember: letters are free publicity for our candidates and issues!