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Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

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Description
Congressional offices pay close attention to letters to the editor, because it helps them keep their fingers on the “pulse” of their constituents, districts, and states. This training provides an overview of the news hierarchy, a formula for writing effective letters to the editor, and common protocol for those seeking either an introductory lesson or a refresher on writing effective letters to the editor. It closes with a discussion on what to do after your letter is published and applies the training to two actual news stories.
Breadcrumb
/topics/media-relations
TOC and Guide Section
 
Why write letters to the editor (LTEs)?

Letters to the editor (LTEs) are important tools for the following reasons:

  • Newsworthy. The newspaper prints letters it considers “newsworthy” and important in the community. Therefore, being published indicates to our members of Congress (MOCs) and others that this is an important topic.
  • Volume. Separately, the volume of letters submitted indicates the communities’ level of interest. Therefore, just by submitting a letter, even if it’s not your best effort, signals the newspaper that this is an important topic in the community.
  • Pulse. Even in today’s digital world, our MOCs use letters to the editor to get a “pulse” of what’s happening in the district, so they review the letters in their hometown papers every day, especially those that mention that MOCs by name.
  • Visibility. Letters to the editor also provide CCL visibility in the community and can help your chapter attract new members.

For the reasons above, the volume of letters we submit is extremely important! When you find a newsworthy story, have several CCL members submit letters to give the editor a selection from which to choose. All letters submitted, not just those published, are significant because they signify what’s considered important in the community.

Understanding the “News Hierarchy”

Finding the right story or opinion piece doesn’t just mean one with a relevant topic. We also need to consider what the newspaper feels is newsworthy (e.g., a front page story is more relevant than one buried deep in the paper). The easiest way to figure this out is to follow the news hierarchy of stories. The following list may vary slightly depending on your paper, but the closer it is to the top of this list, the more likely you are to be published:

  • Editorials and front-page news
  • Staff-written columns (i.e., by the newspaper’s own columnist)
  • Locally-written op-eds
  • Syndicated columnist
  • Inside news stories
  • Editorial cartoons
  • Other letters to the editor
The LTE formula

Successful LTEs for CCL usually follow a basic formula:

  • Reference something in the news or a specific part (line, thought, etc.) of a news story. A short reference praising the writer or paper works well.
  • Transition into how it relates to climate change.
  • Identify a solution.
  • Present a call to action.
  • Close creatively by employing a rhetorical device such as repetition, a play on words or closing the circle from the letter’s beginning.
  • Try to incorporate the use of metaphors and wit; always be respectful.

If you need some ideas of what to write about in your letters, you can reference our resource of suggested LTE topics

LTE Do’s
  • Timing is important. The sooner you submit a letter in response to a story or an opinion piece, the more likely it will be published. With daily newspapers, for example, an LTE received within a day or two stands a far better chance of appearing than one submitted later.
  • Mentioning your member of Congress by name can be very effective, especially if you espouse the values that resonate with that particular office or his/her constituents (e.g., for conservatives: free-enterprise, market distortions, accountability, liberty, purity and job creation; for liberals: environment, social justice, fairness).
  • Always be respectful.
  • Use dire warnings of climate doom judiciously and always couple warnings with a solution.
  • In the subject line of your email, put something like “Re:(name of story and page#)” Opinion page editors will appreciate this time-saving practice.
LTE Don’ts
  • Refrain from demonizing others and keep in mind that you’re responding to a story as a way of introducing a different point of view.
  • Be careful to word the letter in a way that avoids turning off some people by raising “hot button” issues (like nuclear power) – it’s best to stay neutral on these issues and keep on point. Notice we said to avoid “raising” the issue. Of course, you may want to respond to a story regarding a hot button issue as a way of introducing a different point of view.
  • Try not to lecture or regurgitate CCL’s laser talks; write conversationally.
Letter to the Editor Tool

When you’re ready to submit your letter to the editor, try using CCL’s online LTE tool to email your letter to the editor.

This tool can help you submit a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Once you enter your address and zip code, the system will give you a choice of local papers (we encourage you to write to one at a time unless you know the same article you are responding to appeared in multiple papers). Letters will be sent via email to the public email address for letters to the editor for that paper. 

If you already have a personal relationship with your local editor, we encourage you to write to them directly. Or, if you are more familiar with the paper’s online system for letter submissions, you can use their system.

Submit your letter the old-fashioned way

Check the newspaper’s editorial page or website for directions and be sure to follow them. Many specify a maximum number of words. (If your letter is too long, trim unnecessary words, phrases, or sentences until it is the right length.) Most will accept letters either electronically or by postal mail. Some require you to use an online form for electronic submissions, while some accept submissions by email.

Make sure to follow whatever specific directions are provided by your newspaper! Most will ask you to, at a minimum, sign your name and provide a phone number and home address. This is simply for verification purposes to confirm that you’re “real,” but they won’t publish your personal information.

Example guidelines from the Houston Chronicle:

Send letters to the editor, 250 words or less, as part of email text to viewpoints@chron.com. Include name, address, and day and evening phone numbers for verification purposes only. Letters subject to editing.

Note: Newspapers sometimes limit the number of letters by a single writer that they will publish over a certain time span — for example, one every 30 days. If they do not already specify this in their directions, you can email or phone the opinion page editor to find out.

Working together

To help boost your local chapter's collective efforts, consider forming a writing team of chapter members who share a mutual desire to write, learn, educate, improve their skills and brainstorm ideas for LTEs.

  • Plan to meet in person at a coffee shop, virtually, or rotate members’ homes. Members could also meet by phone, Google chat or email. 
  • Find a time that works for most people who want to participate - mornings on the weekend, lunchtime, or weekday evenings? 
  • Choose a regular cadence to meet. Once a month works for many chapters.
  • It’s very helpful to have a team leader who organizes the team, creates meeting agendas, keeps a list of interested volunteers and sends out notifications. The team leader can provide support and congratulate volunteers whose letters and op-eds have been published. (This might be your chapter’s media manager.)
  • It’s good to have a volunteer editor or two to whom people can send drafts before submitting, should proofreading/editing assistance be desired. If you want additional editing or proofreading support, feel free to post your piece in the Media Relations forum for feedback from other CCL members. 
Share your success!

When you get an LTE published:

  • Send a thank you email to the opinion page editor.
  • Log your action in the Action Tracker.
  • Share the letter with your chapter.
  • Share it on social media. For more guidance on that, check out our training on “Leveraging Your Media Successes on Social Media.
  • Send a copy of the letter with the link to your district’s CCL liaison so they can forward the letter to your member of Congress.
Length
Press play to start the video (22m 32s)
https://vimeo.com/showcase/5385841
Video Outline
To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Intro & Agenda
(from beginning)

Why Work With Media?
(2:30)

The News Hierarchy
(4:40)

The LTE Formula
(7:36)

Key Messages, Examples, & Tips
(10:11)

LTE Writing Teams & Additional Support
(17:29)
Instructor(s)
  • Flannery Winchester
Downloads

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Listen to or Download the Entire Lesson (42:01)

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  1. Click the title of the episode on the player. This will link you to the episode on CCL’s PodBean channel. Once there select the “Download” option.
  2. Find the episode on CCL’s iTunes channel.

The LTE Formula

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  1. Click the title of the episode on the player. This will link you to the episode on CCL's PodBean channel. Once there select the "Download" option.
  2. Find the episode on CCL's iTunes channel.

The News Hierarchy (9:18)

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  2. Find the episode on CCL's iTunes channel.
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