Editor’s note: This column is part of a seven-day Forum Communications series on the First Amendment. If you have a question or comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feeling pretty strongly about the latest hot topic buzzing the community? Have something to say others must hear? Must consider?
A letter to the editor? What a good idea.
Before putting fingertips to computer keys, though, there are a few things that can be considered.
Although a bit crude, the first may be the admonition of sports-radio talk-show host Jim Rome, who said to his listeners before they called in: “Have a take. Don’t suck!” Put more delicately, before writing and emailing a letter to the editor, know what you want to say, be sure your opinion is bold and decisive, be sure your prose is clear and tight, and be ready to back up all claims with facts and documentation.
For the latter, fact-check yourself. Do your homework. Get it right. Nothing weakens an argument more than basing it on bogus bluster.
Of course, if your aim is to intentionally spread misinformation or dishonestly skew facts to create a false impression or false narrative, well, there’s the Wild West of social media for that sort of garbage.
Your newspaper’s letters to the editor section, on the other hand, is for informed, civil, robust and productive exchanges of ideas. A good opinion page is a community talking amongst itself, thoughtfully and respectfully, recognizing that from a diversity of viewpoints and from all input come the best ideas and the solutions to our shared challenges.
The most impactful letters are tight and focused. Shorter letters are more likely to be read and remembered. And will get published sooner, as they can be squeezed more easily into limited spaces on newspaper pages. Focusing on a single topic and viewpoint contributes to clarity. And a stronger argument.
Be sure to check your newspaper’s word-limit and other rules, including how frequently you can be published.
Keep your letter civil. Name-calling and nasty personal attacks not only weaken the point by turning off those you’re attempting to convince, they often aren’t allowed. Again, this ain’t social media. There are higher standards (or standards at all). Rather than addressing and attacking a writer of a published letter or commentary, counter and address the content of the letter or commentary.
This may sound obvious, but be sure to write your own letter, using your own thoughts and words. Don’t put your name on something written by an advocacy group, a special interest or anyone else — or that’s part of a letter-writing campaign. Lifted without permission, copying and pasting is plagiarism. Either way, it’s what opinion page editors like to call “turf,” as in “artificial turf,” as in fake. Most papers won’t knowingly publish turf. At some papers, attempting to submit turf can be a quick way to ensure you’ll never have a letter published.
Some nuts-and-bolts things: Email your letter, pasting it into the email’s body rather than attaching it as a document or pdf. Newspapers are as leery as the rest of us about opening attachments from unknown sources. Include your full and real name at the end of your letter along with your city name. Few papers publish anonymous letters. Also, for verification purposes, include your address and daytime telephone number, neither of which will be published or shared.
The American Civil Liberties Union, in urging its supporters and members to “demand bold progress” — which is what a good letter to the editor does — says at its website, “Letters to the editor are great advocacy tools. … They reach a large audience, are often monitored by elected officials, (and) can bring up information not addressed in a news article.”
Well-researched, well-reasoned, civil, clear and tightly focused letters to the editor are all those things. And more. They can also change minds and solve community problems.
While it may be a bit crude to say, none of that sucks.