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Letters to the editor: get your message heard

December 2, 2015

Looking for a simple way to get your message heard?  Write a letter to the editor!

Letters to the editor are probably the best read section of a publication.  Whether you chose to contact a newsletter, newspaper, or magazine, letters to the editor are great ways to:

Complain, about unbalanced coverage, poorly conceived content or illogical editorials.

Set the record straight, about ill-conceived articles, inaccurate information, or unproven misperceptions.

Express a strong reaction, to community events, news coverage, and taxpayer issues.

Explore ideas, about life, community needs, and politics.

Letters to the editor provide school officials with the rare opportunity to position themselves as thought leaders or key influencers.  Thoughtful responses to issues in the news or potential news, creates credibility and enhances your personal brand.

Anyone can write a letter to the editor.  But not all letters are published.  The more work the editor has to put into a letter to make it publishable, the less likely the letter will be printed.  To ensure your letter makes the cut, request guidelines from the publication, and use them to guide the composition of your letter.

In addition, follow these rules:

Pick an appropriate forum. If your letter is written in response to an article, or letter, the appropriate forum is evident.  But when writing on a general topic, or to generate discussion, your letter should be submitted to a publication that is read and respected by your target audiences.  It is also important to match your topic to the appropriate forum.  For example, a letter that states your objections to Common Core would be most appropriate if submitted to a professional educational publication.  A letter that explains why school taxes will increase the next year might be better suited to a more general publication, such as the local newspaper.

Pick a topic relevant to readers. Readers must care about the topic you raise. The formula is simple: Heart, wallet, or well-being. Any letter that appeals to one of those three factors will have impact.  For example, a letter about the defunding of a preschool program may tug at the heartstrings. A letter that discusses the financial consequences of a change in property tax rates may impact the taxpayer’s wallet.  And letters about threats to the standard of living, the quality of education, or community safety, usually attracts and holds reader interest because it impacts their well-being. Letters to the editor are also an effective way to address questions readers have asked, or to correct facts or refine arguments made in articles.

Define your purpose. Letters to the editor may be written for all sorts of reasons, from correcting misperceptions or inaccurate facts, to initiating a dialogue or changing the course of a discussion. Clearly state your purpose upfront so that readers know whether the issue you raise affects them.

Write in traditional business style. The opening paragraph should clearly state the subject of the letter.  For example, if you are writing in response to an editorial, you might write:  “Your editorial, “Keep dogs out of our parks,” (date), requires a response.”  The second paragraph should state your position, and why readers should care.  Subsequent paragraphs should provide facts, statistics, and other information that supports your position. If appropriate, end with a call to action.

Be clear, but brief. Clear and concise letters have a better chance of getting published.  Stick to one point. Use short sentences and simple words, and remove all unnecessary word, such as “I think” or “In my opinion.” Use only verified facts to support your arguments.  Balance criticism with viable suggestions. Also check with the intended publication for restrictions on length.  When in doubt, limit your letters to eight paragraphs.

Be professional. Your letter will be read by a broad audience.  No matter what your opinion, if presented in a professional manner, will be viewed as credible by other readers.  Read and reread your letter, and then ask someone else to review it.  Check for misspellings, typographical errors, poor grammar, and other errors. Make sure your letter portrays you and your district in a positive light.

Sign the letter. Anonymous letters have little benefit, and tend to be discounted by readers.  If you want your letter to maintain credibility, sign it with your name, title and affiliation.

Expect a response. When writing a letter for a public forum, you can expect a response.  Some will agree with you, some will disagree.  Some letters may compliment you, others may be critical.  Still others may attempt to ride on your coattails, further expounding on the points you have made.  But when your letter generates a response, it is a sign your message has been heard.  You have accomplished your objective. 

There are, of course, many ways to communicate key messages.  But letters to the editor allow you to manage issues, and respond to current events, in an effective manner.  A thoughtful expression of ideas sometimes leads to requests for guest editorials or opportunities for interviews.  Letters to the editor may provide you with a small voice, but it is one sure to be heard.

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