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Letters to the Editor

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What is a Letter to the Editor?

A letter to the editor is, unsurprisingly, exactly what it sounds like. They can be written from an individual or from a group of people (often written from [Your University] Secular Student Alliance) and writing letters to the editor of your campus, local, or regional newspapers is an easy and effective way to inform your elected officials and the general public how important a particular issue is to your campus and greater community. 

A letter to the editor is a written way of talking to a newspaper, magazine, or other regularly printed publication. Letters to the editor are generally found towards the beginning of a newspaper, or in the editorial page. There are a lot of reasons to write letters to the editor: they can take a position for or against an issue, or simply inform the public, or both. Unlike press releases, letters to the editor can convince readers by using emotion, facts, or some combination thereof.

Using a few carefully placed letters, you can generate plenty of discussion. You can also keep an issue going by preventing it from disappearing from the public eye. You can stimulate the interest of the news media and create more coverage for the matters you're working on. You can also send a "good news" letter to bring recognition to people who deserve it or acknowledge the success of an effort.

Why Write a Letter to the Editor?

The best ways to use letters to the editor are to correct or interpret recently released facts or biased articles, to explain the connection between a news item and your issue of concern, or to praise or criticize a recent article or editorial.

"Letters" pages are one of the most highly read sections of newspapers and magazines. Moreover, having your name in the paper as a frequent letter writer makes you "somebody." Thus when you send a press release or make any other contact with a reporter, or when you seek to go on a talk show, people can Google your name and see the letters you've written. That will give you credibility. So write often and everywhere.

Ultimately, you can write a letter to the editor because

How to Write a Letter to the Editor

Open the letter with a simple salutation. Don't worry if you don't know the editor's name. A simple "To the Editor of the Daily Sun," or just “To the Editor:” is sufficient. If you have the editor's name, however, you should use it to increase the possibility of your letter being read.

Grab the reader's attention. Your opening sentence is important! It should tell readers what your letter is about and convince them to keep reading. 

Explain why it's important. It may seem obvious to you why you're writing this letter, but that may not be the case for the general public. Offer some background as to why this issue is important to your group (or you personally). 

State your opinion about what should be done. You can write a letter just to ''vent," or to support or criticize a certain action or policy, but you may also have suggestions about what could be done to improve the situation. If your university dean did something that offends non-theists on you campus, call for an apology and invite him to your meeting - the more good reasons you can give to back up your suggestions, the better.

Give evidence. If you want readers to take action on a particular issue, explain why. "If x happens, this can be beneficial [to the community, to the campus, etc] because y and we feel that this is best because z."

Keep it brief. Letters that are shorter are more likely to be published (and therefore read). Go over your letter and see if anything can be condensed or cut. If it can't, consider contacting the editor to write a longer opinion feature or column.

Sign the letter! Not only will most periodicals not publish letters that aren't signed, but you're theoretically sending this in to get attention for your SSA affiliate group! Make sure you also include all the ways people can get in touch with you. They won't print your address or phone number, but if someone wants to join your group, at least list an email or your Facebook group.

Proofread. Nothing says unprofessional more than a letter filled with typos! Have at least two people try and look over your letter to the editor for grammar and spelling, as well as to see if anything could be made more concise. Clear, well-written letters are more likely to be given consideration for publication.

Tips

  • Know the policy of the paper regarding publishing letters to the editor. Often, papers will not publish a letter if you do not include your full name, address, and phone number (although your address and phone number would never be printed). Rules are posted on the Internet. Letters are usually supposed to be short and not posted elsewhere.
  • Be timely. A letter to the editor has the best chance of being printed if it is in response to a recent article, op-ed, or editorial. (If the letter is a response, be sure to mention the name and date of the article in the first line of your letter.) You can also capitalize on recent news, events, or anniversaries. For example, the anniversary of an Act or other landmark legislation, the introduction of new related legislation, or the release of a new report that has implications on the issue provide good hooks for writing a letter to the editor.
  • Stay on message. Be sure your letters are concise, informative, and to the point. Focus on one subject. Keep the length to no more than three or four paragraphs. Have only one or two points to make. Write your first line so it is short and compelling, and don't be afraid to be controversial.
  • Get personal. When it comes to local or regional publications, community is an especially big focus for newspapers. Editors often prefer, and thus print, letters that demonstrate local relevance. Also, by showing the importance of your message to local issues, it will likely have a greater impact on readers.
  • Follow up. Don't be discouraged if your letter is not printed. You can send a revised letter with a different angle at a later date or to a different publication. If your letter is published, you might want to send a copy to your local politicians, with a personal note attached.

Sample Letter 

Here's an example of a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that Fred Edwords wrote in October 2008, which was accepted for publication, though it got bumped at the last minute.

Dear Editor,

The Washington Post got it right ("What Colin Powell Also Said," Tuesday, October 21, 2008; A16) when it commended Colin Powell for standing up for Muslim Americans in the wake of claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim (he isn't) and that this would somehow be an un-American thing. But now could someone please stand up for nontheists, who are slandered more than any other "religious" group when it comes to running for office? After all, people have also stated that Obama is un-American because his mother was a secular humanist. Yet when does anyone of prominence stand up and say that there's nothing wrong with that, either? The U.S. Constitution stipulates that there shall be no religious test for public office, and that encompasses both freedom of and freedom from religion. In that spirit, a nontheistic child should also be able to dream that one day she or he could be president.

Fred Edwords
Director of Communications
American Humanist Association
1777 T Street, NW
Washington, DC

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