Writing a Letter to the Editor: 9 Tips for Success
I once spent hours going back and forth with a client over a letter to the editor. They wanted it to be just right for their president and CEO to sign. They littered clean copy with jargon and industry insider language and I kept taking out all the muck, and made the message simple and on point. Finally, we reached final draft form and I was delighted to declare the letter “done.” Then they told me that they had their CEO sign it and that they put it in a mailbox with a stamp and mailed it.
I wanted to pound my head on the wall. Because I knew their letter would never be published. No newspaper in its right mind was going to re-type that letter and publish it.
Because the deal with letters to the editor is – more letters are submitted than will ever fit in the publication in any reasonable time period.
The truth is – even good letters to the editor can be rejected because there is not enough space for them. While a handful of submissions are delusional screeds written by potential serial killers on cereal boxes, many submissions are thoughtful, make a point and address a matter of public interest. And sadly, many will never be published.
Thankfully, that incident with the printed letter to the editor was a few years ago. And I hope that client is wiser today and would not make the same rookie mistake.
If you are serious about getting your letter published, you should do everything in your power to not only write good copy, but to also make it as easy as possible for your letter to be chosen. Not submitting your letter electronically creates a barrier to its publication. A printed letter gives an over-stressed op-ed staff a reason to say no.
Instead, you need to give them every opportunity to say yes. I’ve written letters with clients that have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and many other publications. Here are my tips on how to write a great letter to the editor and up your chances for publication.
Tip: #1: Respond to something the newspaper published. Some of the best letters respond to an article or column published by the newspaper – offering a new insight, big reactions, or something of value that moves public discussion of an issue forward.
Yes, if you have an important issue to bring up that you feel the newspaper has ignored, by all means bring it up in a letter to the editor.
Tip #2: Be timely. Many people find it easier to write a good letter to the editor when they are fired up about the topic, so don’t delay. This is no time to take your time. If you see an issue referenced in the newspaper that matters to you or your organization, small business, or association, you only have a couple of days to get a letter to the editor drafted and submitted.
In larger organizations – a cumbersome approval process can introduce delays. Do yourself a favor and streamline your approval process for letters to the editor internally (before you need it), so you can get strong copy drafted, approved and submitted quickly.
Tip #3: Stick to the topic at hand with great enthusiasm. This is no time for verbosity. Be pithy. And interesting. Express outrage, alarm, concern, dismay, sadness, joy, or praise as needed.
Address the topic squarely. Spout evidence in support of your position. Include research and statistics if you can. Pose a question or angle not considered in coverage. Say something that forwards knowledge or discussion on the topic. Clarify a point that was muddled or ignored previously.
Tip #4: Tie in your credentials or expertise. Don’t overdo name-dropping (and definitely don’t include your CV or resume), but your opinion carries more weight if you have a degree, experience, or other credentials that relate to the topic at hand.
Work in professional titles, degrees, or organization affiliations if possible. If you are writing about something you know a lot about – reference your experience in the letter. Many newspapers will list an organization or title after your name if your letter is selected for publication, so this can also be great visibility for your organization or company (just realize that your opinion will be linked to your company if this happens, so be sure you are comfortable with that affiliation).
Tip #5: If you are trying to hold a mirror up to someone (positively or negatively) – use their names. Whether it’s a corporation, an organization, an elected official, or someone else in a position of influence or power, mention their name in your letter.
The person or company you are referencing will be more likely to read your letter if you reference them by name. Many larger companies and personalities use a daily google news search or a media monitoring service to track coverage of an issue. So even if they are a major entity not based in your community with a heavy presence, they may see your letter after it is published.
Tip #6: Respect the word count. Most newspapers post word count limits for letters to the editor. If the word count limit is 200 words or 300 words, do your best to not go over the limit.
If you have great ideas, but write too much, you are still unpublished. If the limit for letters is 200 words and you submit a 600 word essay and they don’t have space but like your idea – they will to cut down your letter dramatically. Do you want for them to decide which points are most important and which ones to cut? Or would you rather make that decision? A time-strapped staff may not have time to trim your letter down. Nor will they have time to negotiate with you about its shrinkage. Instead, they may opt to run a letter that is under the word count limit. Do yourself a favor and trim the word count down below the guideline listed before you submit your letter.
Tip #7: Proofread your letter. Be merciless. Read your draft out loud to yourself. Does it make sense and get to the point? Does it offer new information, clarification, something interesting or unique? Is every sentence needed? Is every word necessary? Are your points clear?
Ask a friend or colleague to review your letter if possible and provide feedback.
Tip #8: Follow any other directions for submissions. Many newspapers will require submissions to include a street mailing address (not to be published) because they want to know where you are in relationship to their coverage area. They also may request a daytime phone number, an after hours phone number, and an email address. They may want to call you to confirm that you wrote the letter and discuss any possible edits or clarifications with you.
The newspaper staff cannot do these things if you do not include the address they requested, or do not list the contact information they want. Do not give them another reason to say no. Follow the directions.
Tip #9: Submit your letter to the email address specified. Sometimes clients think they are gaming the system by emailing the editor for the op-ed section instead of the generic letters@ newspaper account (even if the generic address is specified in submission instructions).
This strategy can work and get your letter in front of the corrects eyeballs, but it can also back fire. Often assistants are empowered to review anything coming into the general account and move it along faster. Sometimes head cheeses with decision-making powers are out of the office and not reading their email. The letter may be overlooked in a a personal inbox. Do yourself a favor and follow the directions.
Resources to Help You
How to Submit a Letter to the Editor (New York Times). Note the 150-175 word count.
Tips for Writing Effective Letters to the Editor (Berkeley Media Center)
Writing Letters to the Editor (Community Toolbox)
Writing an Effective Letter to the Editor (Union of Concerned Scientists)
Talk to Us
What is your experience with submitting a letter to the editor? What strategies have worked for you?
Do you have any tips or experiences you can share?
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your project, review our portfolio, sign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.