A letter to the editor of your local newspaper can be an invaluable tool for advocacy. Letters are short, easy to write, and have an outsized impact for the effort – in short the juice is worth the squeeze. The information below will help you understand the full impact a well-written and well-timed letter can have and provide some sample text and pointers on how to effectively write a quality letter, as well as tips on getting it published.
Why should you bother?
At first glance it may seem like writing a letter to the editor may just be something else to eat up valuable time while not producing any real impact. Some may question the value of having what seems like only a handful of local citizens read the letters. It is important to note that decision makers, and their staffs, will read them and they mean a lot to people who depend on votes to keep their jobs. Every U.S. Senate and U.S. House office as well as state legislator offices collect and read news clips from their State or district every day. As a result letters can be an effective way of reaching any legislator directly – they will want to know what is going on with the people who vote for them.
Tips to ensure legislators pay attention:
- Timeliness – Our issues can seem like small potatoes compared to massive spending bills, debt ceiling issues, immigration reform or other big issues of the day. The way to cut through is to be timely. Any grassroots activity that doesn’t have a sense of immediacy can easily be put to the side by over worked staff and effectively ignored by legislators; however, something that requires immediate attention is more likely to be considered. This doesn’t mean wait until the last second, but, if for example, a trail is going to be closed, mention in the letter that unless action is taken riders will be shut out when the trail is closed in a month or whenever the deadline is, as this will effectively set a timeframe for action.
- Mention the legislator(s) in question by name – Letters that directly reference legislators by name WILL be read by the Members and their staffs. While important news clips can be missed by staff, they will not miss a letter that has their boss’s name, as many offices use services that will flag any letter that includes the Member’s name. It is important to avoid negative language when writing about a Member. Remember you want him or her to help – name calling or shaming will not help make them inclined to support you. If possible note in the letter how the Member can help and request action.
- Be a Constituent – Elected officials want to hear from those who can cast a vote for them, but not so much from those who can’t. While you may have a very real interest in a riding area in another State or Congressional District, your letter will have maximum impact when you speak as a constituent.
Tips to get published:
Know what the papers are looking for – Take time to read letters to the editor in your paper irrespective of the subject. You will soon see patterns in the sorts of letters that get published. Are they predominately concerned with local issues? Do some of them have facts and figures, or are they more centered on how the writer feels about a subject (likely)? Are they witty, or are they straightforward? You can get a good sense of what the editor will publish by reviewing many letters on varied topics.
- Strictly follow instructions – Every newspaper has strict instructions for letter submissions. Be sure to follow every detail. Most will have a word limit (some as few as 200 words, some more), will require a name and a hometown, and will have a specific format for how it would like to receive the letter (some will have online forms to fill in, others will prefer word documents, and still others will want the letter pasted into the body of an email). Know the rules and follow them. Letters that do not meet the requirements are easy to dismiss.
- Timeliness (again) – A great time to have a letter published is after the paper runs a story on the issue at hand. For example, if a paper runs a story about an upcoming public meeting to help decide the fate of a particular trail, then send a letter a day or two after the story and reference the article. This won’t always be possible, so if you are sending a letter on an issue that hasn’t been covered by the paper, make sure you reference the timeline and that action must be taken before time runs out.
- Responding to Opinion Pieces – If an opinion piece runs on your issue, this may seem like a perfect time to respond via a letter to the editor, and it is – sometimes. Some papers highlight a debate on an issue and will want to publish lots of letters and op-eds to get all sides, but others avoid running letters to the editor referencing opinion pieces as they don’t want to feel obligated to run back-and-forth opinions ad infinitum, or be responsible for handing one side the final word.
Tips on writing effective letters:
- Stick to the point – Rambling letters that cover several issue areas or that try to cover too much ground are almost certain to be rejected. Instead, stick to one or two main points. Brevity is your friend.
- Including facts – If you include specific information, like the economic impact of a riding area for example, be sure to know where you got the information and provide it along with your letter. Editors will not print something they can’t verify and they will often be unwilling to do a lot of research to confirm your facts. As a result, it is a good idea to include links to credible websites backing up the information you include. But, again, less is more. Having one or two facts that are easily verifiable is OK, but editors simply will not take the time to verify lots of facts.
- Be yourself – Remember you are one of the citizens that the paper wants to hear from. While well-written letters are a must, editors do not expect you to be Shakespeare. Write clearly and make your points and you will have a good shot.
Below is a sample letter that was written several years ago when California Governor Jerry Brown was considering opting out of the Recreational Trails Program (he didn’t):
Continue funding the RTP
Gov. Jerry Brown is facing an important decision: Whether or not to continue funding the Recreational Trails Program (RTP).
The RTP funds the development and maintenance of recreational trails and facilities for motorized and non-motorized uses, including hiking, bicycling, equestrian use, dirt bike riding, ATV riding and other recreational uses. The program derives its funding from gas taxes collected at the pump when OHV enthusiasts fill up their machines and embodies the user-pay, user-benefit philosophy. The fuel taxes collected are leveraged with millions of dollars of outside funding multiplying the impact that RTP has on recreational opportunities.
As an avid off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiast, I know it is vital to my sport, and all non-motorized recreation, that Gov. Brown NOT opt out of the RTP in California.
Federal transportation reauthorization legislation signed into law by the President last year continued the RTP essentially unchanged, except that the governor of each state has the authority to opt out of funding the program. While California’s recreational community is grateful that Congress decided to retain funding for the RTP, it is imperative that Governor Brown recognize the positive economic and social benefits of retaining funding for this important program and not opt out of the RTP.
Only Governor Brown can protect funding for the RTP that is critical to ensuring that millions of Californians continue to have access to recreational trails. Let’s hope he makes the right choice.