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12 tips for letter writers

| Sunday, Aug. 21, 2005

Even the ACLU knows you have no constitutional right to have a letter to the editor published in a newspaper or magazine.

But any responsible and customer-friendly publication -- i.e., one that wants to be fair and balanced and open to criticism and correction -- will encourage its readers to exercise their freedom of speech on its letters pages.

Ideally, a letters-page editor wants every missive he receives to be short, smart and perfectly written. And always 200 words or less. And timely, accurate, credible, rational, informative, funny, passionate, persuasive and entertaining.

Alas, the world is not perfect and not all letter writers are created equal.

So to improve the chances of seeing your two-cents' worth printed in your favorite opinion section, here -- from someone who has read, selected and edited roughly 10,000 letters to the editor from folks like Cher, Rick Santorum and Oren Spiegler -- is some free advice.

  • Hook your letter around a news story, opinion piece or previous letter you saw in the same publication you are writing to. Refer to the item's headline, with the date. Be accurate: The letters editor will love and reward you.
  • Back up your arguments with facts. Attribute facts to credible people/places/things like Time magazine. Geraldo! is not a good source. But then neither is Al Franken, the CIA or The New York Times.
  • Don't try to tell us how to save Africa's poor or fix Social Security in one letter; the more specific the topic or argument, the better.
  • Never worry that a letter is too short. Daniel Wiseman's entire gem in the Thursday Trib was "Pat down Islamofascist terrorists, not Steelers fans."
  • Personalize your argument. If you are a doctor or a home-school parent, don't be afraid to use your expertise to make your case. For example: "As a mother who home-schooled 12 kids, I believe public schools are like minimum-security prisons ... ."
  • Be semi-rational. It's OK to be passionate, angry or a little wacky. It's still a fairly free country. You can call President Bush a tool of the oil industry or Ted Kennedy a bad driver. But humor and subtlety are superior to preaching, scolding or spewing ideological boilerplate.
  • Avoid snail mail and faxes -- the newspaper just has to get someone to retype their contents into its computer system. Handwritten letters still have a chance -- brief, legible ones -- but in 2005 e-mailers have the upper hand.
  • Use spell-check. Don't use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS or e.e. cummings typographical tricks or goofy Late Medieval type fonts. Letters editors will only be annoyed.
  • Include all your personal info -- real name, address, all phone numbers -- so the paper can reach you easily and quickly. In the Age of Litigation, verifying letters is a big, big deal.
  • Follow the letters page's ground rules and regulations. Don't write too often.
  • Never, never write a letter using a template of talking points provided by special-interest groups or political parties. These too-perfect, mass-manufactured letters are known as "Astro Turf" in the letters biz, and, while some slip through, they are easily spotted and spiked on sight.
  • Letters to the editor -- peaceful weapons of individualized persuasion• -- should be written by you, Joe Citizen, not PETA and not the Execute Dick Cheney Now Committee.

    If you can't write one in your own words, please don't send it.

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