Letter to the Editor

With most types of personal, analytical, and promotional writing, the aim is to convince the reader to accept your opinion or message. Sometimes you also try to get the reader to take action like, for example, taking a stand against a government policy. Writing to persuade or put forward your opinion on a topic that's important to you can be exciting and involving, and can also be an excellent way to break into print. Many authors have begun or boosted their writing careers by having a letter to the editor or a review published and noticed — longtime New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael began her career by reviewing movies for free. Some authors have also gone on to develop their letters and opinions into much longer articles or even books. While you won't be paid for writing a letter to the editor or an unsolicited movie review, if your piece catches an editor's eye and gets published, you'll have a clipping to accompany your next for-pay article proposal.

If a local or global issue is important to you, writing a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper or a larger, national paper can be a great way to share your ideas with others. If your letter is printed, you may persuade thousands of readers to join your cause.

The best letters to the editor are written in a clear, strong voice. The letter focuses on one specific issue and relates all information to that point. Letters to the editor can include both facts and opinions. For example, you can quote statistics on teen-related car accidents while you state your opinion that the minimum driving age should be raised. You can also outline action that the reader can take if he or she supports your idea. For example, you could urge readers to write their state representatives and senators to advocate raising the driving age in your state.

Some letter writers like to reveal that they have a connection to the issue to add clout or to provide readers with their particular perspective. A person writing about raising the minimum driving age might explain that her friend's car was struck by a truck driven by a teen driver and point out the difficult aftereffects that the writer witnessed firsthand. Or a writer with a strong opinion about the state of local schools might add credence to his claims by letting readers know that he's a teacher. But writers who simply want to let others know their opinion and not their bias can write powerful, compelling letters as well.

Here are some important points to keep in mind when you write a letter to the editor:

  • Choose a topic that you feel passionate about.

  • Remember your audience — include details and opinions that will interest others.

  • Use a strong, clear voice and vivid, descriptive language to assert your idea.

  • Express your opinion in a reasoned, nonconfrontational way.

  • If you use quotes, be sure to include your sources.

  • Urge readers to support your idea or take action on its behalf.

  • Edit your letter carefully for typos, spelling, and grammar.

  • After you write your letter, test it with a friend or colleague. Ask for suggestions that might make the letter clearer or more powerful. After you make any revisions and mail your letter off, watch the letters page to see if it's printed, then keep watching to see if another writer responds to your letter. You might strike up a challenging correspondence, and that might give you the opportunity to write another letter.

    When writing a letter to the editor, keep it brief. Generally, editors won't publish a long letter even if it's very good. Most letters that are published are less than 250 words.

    Writing a letter to the editor isn't like writing a short story; you don't need to build up to a climax in the middle. On the contrary, because readers often just skim the first paragraph or so, your first sentence is the most important. Everything else in your letter should support the opening sentence.

    In your supporting paragraphs, be sure to use specific examples, not generalizations. For example, instead of saying “Nobody can afford to go out to eat anymore,” say, “I've seen three restaurants in my neighborhood go out of business this month alone.”

    Be careful not to get too personal, especially when writing a letter that criticizes someone's actions (or inaction). It's okay to complain that the county hasn't fixed the potholes, but don't call the Commissioner a lazy good-for-nothing such-and-such.

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