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Working with the Media: Activist Milestone #1

LettersWrite a Letter to the Editor and Send Your Published Letter to Your Member of Congress

Letters to the editor are quick to write, relatively easy to have published, and appear in the most widely read section of the paper, the editorial page. Politicians and government agencies routinely clip and circulate letters to the editor as an indicator of what is important to their constituents.

You enhance your chance of getting a letter published if your thoughts and ideas add some new angle or element to the public debate on a story or issue.

Tips on Generating a Letter to the Editor - Remember Your C's

Be Current - Responding to a recent article in the newspaper or a recent event is a great way to increase your odds of being published.

  • Have someone in your group skim the newspaper each day to identify "hooks" upon which you can hang your response.
  • Do a search on the newspaper's website for recent articles, using search terms like "poverty," "education," "Head Start," "tuberculosis," etc.
  • When submitting your letter, refer specifically to the article you are referencing by using the name of the article and date (i.e., "In response to your recent article on child care ...")

Constructing Your Letter

  • Create your letter using the EPIC format (Engage the listener, state the Problem, Inform about a solution, give a Call to action). For inspiration and ideas, read sample letters written by RESULTS activists (see below), watch for them on the RESULTS listserv, or scan your paper for letters you think are well written.
  • Check the Letter to the Editor page of your newspaper or its website for the guidelines and logistics for submitting a letter. Most times you can create a draft on your computer then copy and paste it into an online web form.
  • Once you're ready to send your letter, make it obvious in the subject line that your letter is in reaction to a story or piece printed in the newspaper. Reference the article, date of publication and page number in the newspaper (i.e. RE: "Senate Weighs Health Reform Bill" article, October 21, 2009, p. A5).

Be Clear and Concise - Most papers will not print letters that are more than 200-250 words. Some papers limit them to 150 words. The shorter the letter, the more likely it will be published. Stick to one subject and check your grammar. After you have written your letter, read it aloud (this really works). Ask yourself: Is my point clear? Is my letter compelling? Can I shorten it and still get my point across? See our Media Hooks and Framing page for tips on how to word your letter.

Connect the Dots - Connect the dots between your community and our national and international poverty issues. For example, use local stories on schools to talk about global education, mention the local food bank to talk about the need for nutrition assistance programs, or link local economic stimulus stories to microcredit or individual development accounts. Be creative.

Be Challenging - Feel free to question what others have said or done, and even start your letter off with a feisty first sentence. However, be sure to avoid personal attacks. An argument based on merit rather than emotional attacks is respectful and more persuasive

If appropriate, mention members of Congress by name - If you are thanking a member of Congress for something or respectfully challenging his/her position in your letter, mention him/her by name. Many congressional offices do internet searches by name each morning. This increases the chance your member of Congress will see your letter.

Call to Action - Remember to end your letter by asking for action from your members of Congress or from your readers. Articulate your passion for the issue; ask them to make a difference.

Include Your Contact information - Include your name, address, e-mail, and a daytime and evening phone number with your submission to the paper. They won't print this information, but may use it to confirm that you wrote the letter.

Be Contagious - Maximize your efforts by sending your letter to newspapers all over the country if you are writing on an issue that is being covered widely. Note: When submitting letters to the Washington Post or the New York Times, do not send it to other papers until you are sure they will not print it.

Coordinate Your Efforts - Have as many people in your group send in letters to the editor at the same time to maximize your odds of getting published and to emphasize the importance of the issue. Whether they print your letters or not, you are letting the paper know what issues the community cares about.

If Your Letter is Published, Send a Copy to Your Congressional Offices

  • Remember, follow-up is critical to maximizing the political impact of your published letter! Send a copy to your representative or senator and to the aides with whom you work on RESULTS issues. They will be sure to pay attention.
  • Due to delays from mail screening in Washington, we recommend you fax or e-mail a copy of your letter.
  • Look for all the necessary contact information for elected officials on our website.
  • Be sure to check the online version of your local paper for your letter. Sometimes letters will be printed in the online version even if they are not included in the print edition.

Also, help us track RESULTS successes! Please send a copy of your letter (hard copy or scan if possible) to Meredith Dodson (Domestic) at dodson@results.org or Ken Patterson (Global) at kpatterson@results.org as well as to Blair Hinderliter at bhinderliter@results.org. Share it with the rest of the RESULTS community via the listserv, so we can congratulate you and benefit from your inspiration!

Sample Letter to the Editor

SCHIP veto incomprehensible

The president's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program is incomprehensible.

There are 9 million children in our country who do not have health insurance coverage. Covering kids is a smart investment. It saves money and helps kids do better in school.

I applaud Sen. Orrin Hatch and Congressman Jim Matheson for their vote last week to cover 3.8 million uninsured children. The annual cost of this is what we spend in Iraq in 41 days! The State Children's Health Insurance Program has been bipartisan and has helped cut the number of uninsured children by a third over the past 10 years.

Our members of Congress will have another chance to vote in a veto-override. I hope the rest of our delegation will change their votes.

Scott A. Leckman
Salt Lake City