Letters in newspapers and magazines are prime forums for getting your message to a wide audience. These tips will help you maximize both your chances of getting published and the impact of your letter.
- For large publication, respond directly to breaking news or an article or commentary published in the previous day or two (or the current issue of a weekly paper or magazine). Follow the target publication’s norm, but a typical format is: Re “Talking With the Taxman,” (news, Jan. 13). Your report neglected one key fact… Smaller papers may have looser rules, leaving you free to raise an issue without responding directly to something published.
- Focus on one important point and don’t try to address separate issues in one letter. Be sure to follow the publication’s guidelines and word count limit (up to 250 words is common for local and regional papers, but many larger publications demand more concise letters).
- Maximize your chance of being published by removing every non-essential word. For example, don’t say, “I think…” It’s obvious. This also minimizes the chance of editors changing the letter.
- Use verified facts. Take the time to check original sources rather than repeating a “fact” cited in another media outlet.
- Create immediacy by indicating how readers will be affected by the issue you address when possible; try to balance criticism with a positive — ask readers for action when practical. This includes your elected representatives — by including their names in the letter and asking for action, you can get their attention.
- Try to balance any criticism with a positive call to action. Point people to a source for information or to engage when practical.
- Envision a person you seek to influence when writing. This will help focus your message better than writing for “everyone.”
- When writing to your local newspaper (not recommended for large publications), follow up with a polite phone inquiry about its status if it doesn’t appear within 4-5 days to ensure it was received.
- E-mail your letter in the body of the email (never send unsolicited attachments ) and put “Letter re: your topic or article name ” in the subject line. If you wish to copy others or submit to more than one publication, do so in a separate email. Include your address and phone for verification.
- Pay attention to letters and comments by others. Note effective and ineffective approaches (especially letters that argue a position you oppose), style, length, etc.
- Speak in the language and literacy level of the publication’s readers.
- Don’t limit yourself to critiquing articles. A story that reports favorably on your group or issue presents a great opportunity to repeat a key point while adding one of your own. This also helps build the perception of being a positively-focused group.
- Though urls may not be included in print, if your target publication includes links in letters published online, include relevant link(s).
- Have someone proofread your letter before submitting and ask them to read your letter before seeing the original article! (Many readers will not have read or won’t recall the original, so your letter must stand on its own).
Practices to Avoid:
- Don’t overstate/exaggerate your points. One overstatement makes every following point suspect.
- Don’t insult your opponents.
- Avoid jargon or acronyms (spell out any name the first time you use it, followed by the acronym in parentheses).
- Don’t use all capital letters or bold text to emphasize a word. It will rarely be printed that way and may prevent your from being considered — the words must speak for themselves. Use quotation marks to indicate the title of a book, article, etc.
- Acceptable lengths for letters in magazines vary widely, so look for guidelines and observe the range and style used in each publication.
- Many magazines tend to be read by like-minded people, rather than the broader cross-sections of society who read most newspapers. Consider the typical reader of the publication, and keep her in mind when writing.
- Don’t consider your effort a failure if your letter isn’t used in large publications (even the best letters face long odds). Each letter is read and plays a role in molding the thinking and selection of the editors.
- We love to get copies of letters written by our supporters and we’re happy to offer editing help. Send drafts via our contact form or to info@… (our domain name)
- Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a timeless collection of great suggestions to help you write concisely and powerfully.
- Also see our primer on Tips for Effective Calls to Talk Radio.
Writing for ReclaimDemocracy.org
If you wish to propose writing an article for us please email us your query and at least two published samples (links to publication preferred). These may include letters to the editor. We have written a similar primer on op-ed writing that is available upon request.
The creator of this primer, Jeff Milchen, previously directed Reclaim Democracy! Contact him for information on workshops for op-ed writing, letter-writing and other media trainings.