There is an art to writing letters to the editor that is being lost largely owing to Web 2.0. The internet is essentially, a letters to the editor column, except without the editor.
I have written nine letters to the editors of various major daily Canadian papers and have had all of them published. Most of them were rather outside the usual world renown Canadian niceness. They also widely ranged in topics from Elvis to military service to current events and public bathroom etiquette.
The first step is to just write the letter you want. Open with why you are writing or a note about what you are responding to, make your points and then your conclusion. This first draft can be as long as you want, but it’s best to not go over a page.
Keep in mind that the editorial section will get hundreds – if not thousands – of letters on a variety of topics.
If your letter is about a specific article published, then you need to get your letter in to the paper in a timely manner – like later that same day to make the next day edition. If your letter is about a weeks old article, your letter is not likely to be considered.
Focusing your letter on a current and local public debate topic also improves your chances.
The other thing to keep in mind – and this is a bit counter-intuitive – is that the paper isn’t looking in the mail for letters to publish in the first review round, but rather, letters to eliminate.
This has less to do with the topic than with the length of the letter and the calibre of the writing.
Shorter letters are easier to find space for. Letters that are concise and clear don’t require editing or trimming.
In terms of the calibre of letter, sarcasm is okay as long as it could be understood by the average person. It may be better to avoid sarcasm, because without vocal inflection and facial expression, it’s often lost in the written word.
The example from my own letters that best illustrates the above (except I use sarcasm) is:
A regular and right leaning columnist in my local daily paper wrote an op-ed piece in the late 1990’s about why women should not serve in the military in combat or in proximity to combat units. The first half of the article trotted out the usual reasons, can’t carry as much gear, distract the male troops and are at higher risk of physical harm if captured by enemy troops.
The part of the article that inspired me to write in was the second half, when he unexpectedly changed the article to why gays should not serve in the military. He trotted out the usual straight fear of gays looking at their butts and called it unit cohesion.
What was a surprise about this, was that the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled in 1992 that gays would be able to openly serve in the military, thanks to a court challenge by Joshua Birch.
Aside: Mr. Birch committed suicide on December 25, 1992, his 30th birthday, after winning the case. The trauma of having been dishonourably discharged and having to fight his country in order to be able to serve it and the stress of the media attention overwhelmed him.
I sat back, the columnist didn’t want women or gays serving, so he really must not want “other” people serving.
My first draft letter was as long as his column. I tossed it wholesale and re-wrote, this time, down to three paragraphs. I tossed that again, and took only one idea from each paragraph, and the resulting letter was this:
So, Mr (Columnist) thinks that only straight, white men should serve in the military. Hmmmmmm. I would like to be in a position to return fire.
It was selected as the letter of the day and run in a box with a quill icon.
Did I need to refute his article point by point? No, that would be dreary and require people to compare the articles.
Was his article really the point of the letter? No, it was really his attitude that he used the article to rationalize.
But, you can’t rationalize bigotry.
I took his theme to the logical and not at all far fetched conclusion (only straight white men need apply), considered and dismissed his position with the hmmmm. Then poked fun at him while reinforcing the need for equality.
A three line letter is much easier to fit in the letter section than a three paragraph letter.
The shorter your letter is, the less the paper can edit it – or even need to.
Oh, the other factor is, don’t write letters every week, never mind day. You don’t want the editorial staff to see your name and toss your letters. Once or twice a year if it’s burning issues, the nine letters that I’ve written span 1984 to 2010. Less is more powerful.
You don’t appear to be a crank with an axe to grind if you pick your topic and express yourself well.
And, if you are and you do, that’s what blogging is for.