Learn How to Write and Format a Letter to the Editor
Letters Are Quick, Persuasive, and Useful
The opinion page is one of the most-read pages of any newspaper. The others sections are the sports page, comics, and obituaries. My theory: after you cry about the White Sox losing again, you'll want to laugh, and then you want to see who you've outlived.
People don't read the opinion pages for the sane and reasonable editorials, which are typically unsigned. They don't read the opinion pages for the Pulitzer-prize winning syndicated columnists.
No, people read their newspaper's opinion pages for three reasons:
- George Will won't be writing about whether the county should allow a new coal plant to get built by old man Miller's farm,
- Their friends and neighbors will be writing about local issues -- and people -- that matter to them, and
- There is a good chance that somebody wrote an op-ed or letter to the editor that is more than a little nuts. And that's always entertaining.
I'm not suggesting you write crazy letters to the editor. Far from it. But if there's ever a time where you can use humor and wit, this is it.
Writing Letters to the Editor: Length and Format
Different newspapers will have entirely different requirements on length. Some papers will only publish 200 words or less. Others newspapers run 500-word manifestos if they're interesting enough. But let's keep it simple: stick to 200 words, and you'll be safe, no matter which newspaper you're targeting.
Here's the format:
Give Your Letter a Snappy Headline
Letters are persuasive, not informative, so give your headline a point. Persuasion is about getting people to make decisions. If they read your letter, what do you want them to do? Put that in the headline.
A letter to the editor is first-person and all about the message.
It's not an essay or a term paper. If you want to see bad examples of writing on the opinion page, hold it out at arms-length and look for pieces littered with quotes, numbers, and acronyms. They're easy to spot. And nobody will read them.
Your format is also important. If you write a letter to the editor using the inverted pyramid -- most important thing first, least important last -- it won't be persuasive. It will be boring. Build up to your conclusion. Think of it as the climax of an action movie: the final showdown with the villain doesn't come first. It's the last scene of the movie.
At the end of your letter, put these things:
- Your name
- Your town
- Daytime phone number
- E-mail address
They're not going to publish your phone number or e-mail. These two things are included when you submit a letter so they can verify that you sent it. You're going to send it by e-mail, and it's easy to fake things by e-mail.
Am I saying you can't send a letter to the editor by fax or snail mail? Yes. I'm saying that. Newspapers still list their fax numbers out of habit, and their snail mail addresses because people send them checks that way, and they sort of like checks. But no editor wants to spend their days retyping letters and op-eds.
Ship your letter to the editor by e-mail, and look on the editorial page for the right e-mail address.
Why Letters to the Editor Are Wonderful
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. I know an AP bureau chief who gets 700 to 1,000 press releases every day. Think about having to wade through all of those. Your index finger will develop a callous from hitting the DELETE key.
Letters to the editor and op-eds are the opposite. Most newspapers want more, not less. They're happy to get good pieces written by local public figures.
The purpose of a letter to the editor is to express your individual views about a current issue. Letters to the editor are published in nearly all magazines and newspapers. Anybody can write a letter to the editor, but generally, the composers of letters to the editor are those individuals who are passionate about particular and topical issues.
The tone can be informal or formal, depending upon the publication in which it is to be published. This is because the audience is the readership of any given publication. A letter published in The Economist is likely to have an extremely formal tone, whereas letters to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald have various tones, dependent on the audience that the composer of the letter is targeting.
Features of a letter to the editor
- A letter to the editor is an expression of opinion on a topical subject (usually one that has been recently published in the publication to which it has been written).
- A letter to the editor is a persuasive text, with the aim to express views to a wider public.
- Effective letters to the editor rely on fact as well as opinion.
- Letters to the editor are often responses to articles form the particular publication, or to other letters to the editor.
- Always start with 'To the Editor,' and then leave a line.
- Sign off briefly, with either your initials or your first initial and last name and suburb.
Hints for writing effective letters to the editor
- The secret to writing good letters to the editor is to combine persuasive language with well researched evidence.
- Short, concise letters are more likely to be published than longer, waffling letters (around 200 words is a good maximum length).
- While some letters to the editor are composed in an informal tone, keeping a formal tone will help your letters to carry an air of authority.
- If you compose a letter to the editor on a subject that you know very well, be careful to not use jargon and technical terms unless you are absolutely sure that your intended audience will understand them.
- The use of the first person is standard for letters to the editor.
- Persuasive techniques are necessary for this task. You are trying to persuade people to see your point of view. This means that you can use a tone that is outraged, happy or interested. It also means that a number of persuasive techniques can be employed.
Structure and format
- Briefly outline the issue that you are writing about.
- Include your opinion.
- Explain your opinion.
- Give evidence for your opinion.