How to Write and Format a Letter to the Editor
These types of letters should be quick, persuasive, and useful
The opinion page is one of the most-read pages of any local newspaper. The others sections are the sports page and the obituaries.
People read their newspaper's opinion pages because they're relevant — the letter is either responding to a recent article or a recent editorial crafted by an in-house editor.
Determine Your Reason for Writing the Letter
Before you put pen to paper, you need to understand exactly what you want your letter to accomplish. If you're clear about the end result, it will be easier for you to accomplish your goal — getting the editor of the newspaper to publish your letter. Let's look at some typical reasons why you feel the need to write a letter to the editor:
- You live in a small community and you want those in your area to know that you're angry about a particular issue.
- There's someone in your community that has done something worthwhile (e.g., a high school student started a food drive to help feed homeless people) and you want to publicly congratulate them.
- You're knowledgeable about a subject and there's misinformation in a news piece and you want it corrected.
- You support a cause (e.g., climate change) and you want to influence public opinion to recycle more.
- You want to get others on board with an issue you believe in (e.g., getting out the vote) and you want to persuade those in your community to take action.
- You want to influence the elected officials in your district to take action about a particular issue.
- You want to spotlight an organization’s work in connection with an issue that's been in the news lately (e.g., the work the Board of Alternative Transportation is doing to cut down on vehicular traffic in mid-town).
Length and Focus
Every newspaper has a different requirement regarding the length of its letters. Some papers (especially the major national ones) will only publish 200 words or less. Others (usually the small local papers that are community-oriented) will publish a 700-word manifesto if the editorial staff finds the letter compelling enough. To be safe, it's best to cap your letter at 200 words.
Just like writing a press release, you want to be sure to give your letter a snappy headline — to pull in the editor. Even though your letter must be informational and support the point you're making, it also needs to be persuasive. The goal of persuasion is to push people to make a decision and to take action. If your next-door neighbor read your letter, what do you expect them to do? What action do you want them to take? Think about it in real terms. Whatever it is, include that in the headline.
And, just like a news item, make your most important point right in the beginning. And, it goes without saying, you always write a letter to the editor in first-person.
At 200 words, your letter will not be long enough to cover all the ground you probably want to cover, so only focus on one major point, and provide evidence to support that issue. This will help the reader identify on a personal level with the issue you’re raising.
What to Include
You always have to include all of your contact information at the top of the letter. Don't just include your address. Provide your email address as well as the best phone number for someone to reach you. Most editors will get back to you via email but you may hear from a fact checker (by phone) to clarify some of the data you provided.
Even if you're using the newspaper's online submission system, there will be enough space to include all the necessary information. If not, provide the contact information where people can reach you between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
Also, it's important that you include two or three sentences stating the credentials that make you qualified to address the issue at hand.
Every newspaper is different, but the following guidelines should always be used:
- Write your letter within two to three days of the news piece and reference that right up front
- Be respectful, no matter how much you may disagree with the other person's (or groups) perspective
- You want to be relatable so no matter how well-versed you are in the matter, sound human
- Make your comments specific and be sure to base them on evidence
- Don't be too wordy — stick to brief, concise sentences
- Always have another set of eyes check your letter for grammar, spelling, and context
Support Your Claim With Evidence
Once you've made your position clear, back it up with hard-core facts. This is where you need to do your research — and make sure it's current research. Just providing three or four key facts will make all the difference in the world — it positions you as an authority.
Here are some ways you can turn yourself into an authority:
- Reference recent events in your community noting dates and other specifics
- Include statistics, surveys, and other relevant data that you culled from reliable sources online
- If you have a compelling personal story that makes an impact, use that
- Look at events on the world stage and use them to support your claim
Say What Should Be Done
Once you've made your point, and bolstered it with concrete evidence, conclude your letter by letting readers what steps can be taken to address the issue. Perhaps raising awareness of an issue is good enough — action always starts with awareness. However, you may want to accomplish more. You may want to initiate action.
Think about including the following:
- Get readers more involved in the issue by giving them specific actions they can take.
- It should be easy to point readers to a website or an organization where they can get more information as well as ways to get involved in the cause.
- Tell readers straight out what they can do. For instance, have them call their local congressperson or join a volunteer organization in your community.
Why Newspapers Welcome Letters to the Editor
Letters to the editor are underutilized. Editors and reporters will roll their eyes if you ask them how many press releases they get every day because most businesses have an in-house or outside PR person seeking newspaper coverage.
Letters to the editor are the opposite of self-serving press releases. Most newspapers want more letters, not less. Every editor is happy to get a well-written, documented letter that is thought-provoking.