To the Editor ...

A Humble Guide to Letter Writing

"Write the first draft with passion and the second with intelligence."
— Sean Connery in the movie Finding Forrester

Write persuasively and often

This is a consolidation of tips and advice for those writing Letters to The Editor (LTE) or other similar items, which I found on the Internet. Some, or all, may be applicable to your needs. TYSK has written a number of LTEs which were published in newspapers, magazines and on-line publications, and agrees with what is presented here.

Go get 'em!


Three Tips for Letter Writers:

Here are three suggestions to improve your letter publication percentage. Learn to write using the Pyramid Style, study Strunk, and rewrite.

Pyramid Style

Here's how the pyramid style works. Put your most important fact or conclusion in the FIRST sentence. The most spectacular thought in your letter should be spelled out in the very first sentence if at all possible. One way of deciding what the first sentence should be is to think of a short headline describing your main conclusion. Suppose you want to make the point that marijuana is one of the safest drugs known to man; your headline might read "Pot Safer Than Drinking Water." Writing in a logical fashion, you'd bring in all kinds of supporting data and THEN say that pot is safer than drinking water. But that's not the way the pyramid style works. Get right to it and grab the readers interest. "Scientific studies prove that marijuana is safer than ordinary drinking water..."

Layout the most important thought in the first paragraph and then relate your proofs in order of importance. Bring out your study about drinking water deaths and the CDC report on pot fatalities AFTER stating the conclusions drawn from them. At the end reiterate your conclusions.

Almost all news stories are done in the pyramid style. If you want further instruction, get a newspaper and go through the news. Invariably, the header over the item is repeated in the first sentence. From there the ideas go down the scale in importance.

The reason reporters use the pyramid style is because the item can be cut at almost any point after the first couple of paragraphs and still make sense. This is essential when you don't know beforehand how much space you'll have for the item. You might need half a page or three paragraphs when the paper goes to press. Try cutting a few newspaper items and you'll see how easy it is to fit a story in when you don't know ahead of time how much space there will be for it. The best examples of the pyramid style can be cut at any point after the first paragraph and still make sense.

Please note that the pyramid does not apply to columns, OpEd pieces and articles for magazines. In these cases a definite word count is usually imposed to fit the item in and a number of styles are used. As long as you finish within the word limit, it's OK. Of course, the idea of getting the reader's interest right way always applies.

The pyramid style should always be considered when contacting a busy person. If you don't get their attention in the first paragraph, the whole thing is likely to disappear under the "delete" key. You've got to grab them quickly. Busy people just won't waste time trying to figure out what your business is. State your conclusion, request or demand in a HEADLINE and get right to it. Bring your proof in later. If you get their attention, they'll read the whole thing. If not, at least you planted your most important thought in the person's mind

Strunk - Less Is More

(Also known as KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid)

Another suggestion is to study The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E. B. White. Strunk teaches the importance of brevity. Strunk's terse lessons on omitting needless words and using the active voice do more to improve most writing than any single thing I know of. Strunk understood the fundamental proposition that less is more when it comes to effective writing. The fewer words you use the better. Wordiness weakens writing. Simplicity has the power to change minds and change the world.

Short and sweet is essential for Letters to The Editor because your letter will only be one of hundreds on every subject under the sun competing for very limited space. So you know up front that a long letter has very little chance of being published. The only really long letters come from government officials, heads of large corporations, celebrities, leaders of organizations, the target of an article and the like.

A length of 450 words or so is a really long LTE. More often you'll see them in the range of 200-300 words. Don't stretch unnecessarily. If you can say what you want in 100 words, do it.

The Elements of Style is a required text in many college writing classes consequently copies are available in most used bookstores.

Rewrite - Rewrite - Rewrite

When you finish a piece read it several times correcting typos and grammatical errors and eliminating unnecessary words. Just when you think it's perfect, read it out loud to yourself – really! If you don't stumble over the phrasing and it still makes sense, you've done a good job. When time permits, set the piece aside for a day or two and check it again. Mistakes you didn't see will jump out like neon signs. If possible, read your letter to a friend for objective input. See if they understand your point as clearly as you do.

Finally, spell check. First with your word processor and then manually. That is the only way to catch simple mistakes like "form" instead of "from" or, "to"' instead of "too". Misspelling always makes the writer look bad. A newspaper or magazine will do it's own checking but, an on-line publication may just cut and paste and your mistakes will live in cyberspace forever.


Some additional thoughts on letter writing:

Ever notice how you read letters to the editor in the paper? Most people read the shorter letters first and then perhaps later read the longer ones. Thus your shorter letter has a better chance of being read.

What to write? Replying to editorials, agree or disagree, is very effective. Every day the news offers us all too many topics on which to comment.

When to write? Be timely; try to respond within two or three days of the article's publication. Pick an issue of particular importance to you — don't be afraid to let some passion show through.


Here are some stylistic considerations:

State the argument you're rebutting or responding to, as briefly as possible, in the letter's introduction. Don't do a lengthy rehash; it's a waste of valuable space and boring to boot.

Stick to a single subject. Deal with one issue per letter.

Don't be shrill or abusive. Editors tend to discard letters containing personal attacks. Even though you're dying to call Jesse Jackson a preachy parasite, stifle the urge.

Your letter should be logically organized. First a brief recitation of the argument you are opposing, followed by a statement of your own position. Then present your evidence. Close with a short restatement of your position or a pithy comment ("Jimmy Breslin says possession of firearms should be limited to law enforcement officers. I say when only the police have guns, the police state is just around the corner.").

Use facts, figures and expert testimony whenever possible. This raises your letters above the "sez you, sez me" category. For instance: "Anthony Lewis calls for taxing the rich as a way to balance the budget. Is he aware of the fact that if we confiscated the entire income of the top wage earners in this country (those with income above $200,000), this would run the federal government for exactly 8 days?"

A quote or citation soon after the lead sentence is a good idea. A cited fact or quote will give your opinion a broader context, and most journalist/editors would publish your letter for the cite alone if they are impressed by its pertinence to the subject.

If you are using citations to back yourself up, put them before your own opinion. Too many letters go by that have a good intro, then a few obvious opinions and then a good cite. You want the editor to see the cite and then the bulk of your opinions, as they are scanning dozens of letters and are quick to stop reading anything that strikes them as from the fringe or an "extremist". Also, don't waste words restating what you've cited. Draw a conclusion or apply it to the subject of your letter, but don't restate it. Redundancy of any sort will invite the editor to move on to the next letter, or worse, edit lines out of your letter. Readers respect the opinions of people with special knowledge or expertise. Use expert testimony to bolster your case ("George Will claims we need the draft to defend America. However, General Edward C. Meyer, Army Chief of Staff, recently stated  …").

Try to view the letter from the reader's perspective. Will the arguments make sense to someone without a special background on this issue? Did you use technical terms not familiar to the average reader?

Make sure the letter makes sense. More people will see your writing in the "Letters to the Editor" section than saw the original article. If someone reads your letter who did not read the original article, make sure that your thoughts can stand-alone, separate from the article that generated them.

Never send your first angry draft. If an article made you so hot your blood pressure rose, get your anger out of your system by writing a nasty "Letter to the Editor." But don't mail it. Sleep on it. Get up the next morning and edit out the furious paragraphs. Make an effort to write a patient, calm letter that proves your point without attacking the writer

Most important - WRITE!
Do not try to do a perfect letter. Just give it a good effort and send it off. Letter writing is the one thing that any one of us can do on our own without the need to work through a group. No committees are necessary. Just do it! Don't be discouraged if your letter isn't published. The editor may have received more responses on that issue than he feels he can handle. That said, see below...

Encourage Others to Write:
Most people do not write letters so if a publication receives three or four letters on a subject, it's an avalanche of public opinion! Use the fax machine to encourage others to write letters by faxing them a copy of the article and a copy of your letter. Always include the fax number or address for the publication's "Letters to The Editor" section to make it easy for others to write.

Always include your name, address, daytime phone number and signature. The papers will not publish this information, but they will use it to verify that you wrote the letter.


TYSK eagle

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