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Letters to the Editor: The Message You Control

Posted by on September 15th, 2011
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Messaging, Social Media    Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I recently blogged about how to place an op-ed piece, but there is an easier and likelier way to get your name and opinion into the newspaper: Letters to the editor.

Readers are interested in what others in the community have to say and are likely to read the editorial pages. And policy makers and other opinion leaders also pay heed; they know letters not only represent, but can influence, the attitudes of a larger segment of the community.

You might think that in our Internet age, where anyone can comment on anything anytime, letters to the editor have become irrelevant or obsolete. Yet letters maintain a certain cachet that online comments just don’t.

This particularly holds true for opinion leaders and decision makers because of their placement on the prestigious editorial page and because they are few chosen from many. The fact that they are printed makes letters appear less ephemeral even when you share them electronically with your supporters or those you are trying to influence.

Letters to the editor offer several advantages and opportunities to:

  • correct the record when a story gets the facts wrong
  • critique or support an editorial, column, or op-ed
  • praise or criticize a public figure’s actions or statements
  • motivate readers to act
  • build awareness of and credibility for your organization

What’s really great about letters to the editor is that they offer all these benefits while being relatively easy to write. They’re so short you can submit them on a regular basis and increase the odds and frequency of publication.

Here are some practical tips to writing successful letters to the editor:

  1. Identify publications you know are read by your target audiences—those people you need to reach to be successful. Getting a letter into the New York Times is great but challenging. So don’t overlook local and trade publications that may prove easier to get into.
  2. Monitor those publications for articles, editorials, columns, and op-eds addressing your subject matter. These days Google Alerts make it easy.
  3. Respond immediately! The quicker you respond, the better the chance of placement.
  4. Write a letter correcting the facts, offering a different or broader perspective, or supporting or opposing the position taken in the piece.
  5. Keep the letter short—no more than 150 words—pithy, and really well written. Make just one point simply and clearly in your opening line. Then follow up with a few supporting fact-laden sentences that make your case.
  6. Be witty if appropriate, or at least catchy and interesting, especially in your opening sentence, to grab the attention of both the editor and the readers.
  7. It’s okay to be emotional but not nasty or personal. And make sure you stick to the facts in making your argument.
  8. Don’t forget to reference by name and date the article, editorial, column, or op-ed you’re answering.
  9. Include your name, position, organization, address, email, and cell phone number. If the letters editors can’t easily reach you to verify your submission, they’ll move on to the next letter writer. Include any special expertise you have with your signature information, e.g., published a book or study on the subject, professional credentials, relevant experience, etc.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get published. Keep trying, maybe on a monthly basis. Over time, you can prove your expertise and increase the likelihood of publication.

Certain people are published repeatedly even in the New York Times. Have you ever noticed that Brown University professor Felicia Nimue Ackerman regularly publishes letters in the Times? That’s because they’re smart, thoughtful, tightly written,  and she’s got great credibility.

Have you seen letters you wish you’d written on subjects you know well? Follow these simple steps and next time, you’ll see your name on the editorial page.

Do you have any tips or success stories you’d like to share with us?


Susan Alexander is a Mission Minded Senior Strategist. She has decades of experience working with nonprofit organizations as a communications and fundraising consultant.

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