May 14, 2007

How to Write a Letter to the Editor

An interesting situation in Missouri gives me the opportunity to be pedantic regarding the proper rhetoric for letters to the editor. What you perceive as bias in how an editor chooses letters may in fact be a reflection of your own inability to write a proper letter. Then again, it could be bias. But assuming so does not make it so. You’ll find background on Tony Messenger’s blog here and here. In his latest entry, Messenger publishes a note from a local writer accusing him of publishing a “thin skinned blog attack against claims that newspapers including the Leader have censored voices of conservative Missourians.”

If this person’s response is anything like his/her letters to the editor, it’s no wonder they don’t get published.

There are as many ways to choose letters to the editor as there are editors doing the choosing. Some editors surely handle the job with grace, intelligence, fair-mindedness, and sensitivity. Others surely don’t. So my advice is generic, i.e. it will help you write a good letter that ought to get a favorable reading much of the time.

So, FWIW, I offer you Dr. Cline’s tips for getting your letter published:

1. Be partisan if you want; just don’t be stupid. Not all liberals are baby-killing, Hollywood-loving traitors. Not all conservatives are ignorant, fascist warmongers. Using demonizing stereotypes as the basis of your portrayal of the opposition marks you as stupid. Why? Because not all liberals think alike. Not all conservatives think alike. Letters based on such stereotypes do not encourage civic discourse and do not help discover solutions to our civic and political problems.

2. Opinions belong to the community. The ancient Greeks had the right idea about opinion. No one has a “personal” opinion, i.e. an opinion that belongs to you alone. So realize that when you write a letter to the newspaper, the chances are next to 100 percent that at least one other person has sent a similar letter. Newspapers get bunches of letters every day and can only publish a fraction. “Your” opinion is actually meaningless. Your point, however, may be important.

3. Have a point; make a point. A point is different from an opinion. For example: You may hold the opinion that teachers are underpaid. No one cares. But you might have a good point about how to correct what you believe is a problem, e.g. propose a specific solution. The two biggest mistakes you can make here are 1) not having a point that follows from your opinion, or 2) making more than one point.

[Editor’s note: I am not suggesting that letters must propose specific solutions or that you must so propose to buy the right to criticize. This is just an example.]

4. Practice good kairos. That’s a word from ancient Greek rhetoric that means roughly “timing and proportion.” It’s not a good idea to go off on a rant just because you’re feeling grumpy. A good letter to the editor responds to something or draws attention to something new or urgent. That’s the timing part. The proportion part is about not going off half-cocked. While writing a rant might make you feel better, it’s not going to get a favorable reading from an editor (partly because he/she has to wade through so many rants to find publishable letters).

5. Write tight. Letters to the editor should be short–fewer that 150 words. If your paper has a suggested word count, stick to it. If you don’t know, find out before you write. More is never better.

6. Avoid fallacies. Some fallacies are so obvious that even a newspaper editor can catch them 🙂 Clever writers may use fallacies as tools of persuasion. Such dishonest discourse is merely naked propaganda and unworthy of honest civic discussion. If you want to be that kind of a person, go for it. Just don’t whine when the paper doesn’t print your letters.

7. No Astroturf. That’s nifty word for “fake, grassroots support.” Don’t send canned letters written by political operatives. The internet makes it easy to catch this nonsense. I can’t tell you for sure that editors black-ball certain letter writers. But I’d bet that sending Astroturf is one of those offenses that will lead your local paper to overlook your future contributions.

8. You can change the world, just not right away. Letters to the editor should be thought of as bits of a sustained civic conversation. You are not going to change hearts and minds with a single letter. But you might have a chance with several, well-written letters offered over time. Write for the moment. Write for the one point you’re making today. Don’t write as if you expect to slam-dunk the issue for all time. Ain’t going to happen.

9. Don’t be a whiner. If you’re not getting published, make an appointment to speak to someone at the paper about it. You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with mistakes you’re making.

10. Be a local character. This one is not good advice. But there are plenty of examples of blithering idiots who are regularly published in the paper precisely because they are blithering idiots. A few years back I asked the News-Leader editorial page editor (not Messenger) why he’d published a particularly odious letter (one of many he’d published) from a well-known local white supremacist. His answer: “Sometimes you have to shine a light on the cockroaches.”

To conclude: You do not have a First Amendment right to be published in your local newspaper. You do, however, have the right to publish your own newspaper, or a blog, or you can stand on a soapbox and speechify to your heart’s content.

One Response

  1. Tim 

    I’d argue the same is true for blog posts and comments.