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.
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/topics/writing-for-print-media
TOC and Guide Section
 
Write letters to the editor for an early summer holiday

In early summer, every day celebrates something - Fathers, the Flag, and the 4th of July - and any of these can be used as a news hook in a letter to the editor that cleverly transitions to climate legislation (here’s a full list of June holiday days).  

  • Select a day/holiday in June/July and dash off a quick outline for an LTE or op-ed that concludes with a climate impact, bill, or solution.  
  • Share ideas for how to work bipartisanship and the names of Congress members into the outline so that published pieces get noticed by the media monitors in the Congressional offices.  
  • Consider citing the U.S. Chamber’s first ever climate statement that concludes, “Inaction is not an option”. Then share your letter with your local Chamber to engage them in a climate discussion.
  • Discover area newspapers and submit to multiple papers simultaneously using CCL’s online tool. 
Why 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 provide a way to find new members.

For the reasons above, the volume of letters we submit is extremely important! When you find a newsworthy story, have CCL members submit as many letters as possible 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 Letter to the Editor (LTE) Formula

The “LTE Formula” will increase your chances of getting published, and you should review letters that have been published in that newspaper to get a feel for the format that is used:

  • Reference the story or a specific part (line, thought, etc.) of the 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.
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).
  • Think of a creative hook to draw readers in (i.e. for examples of seasonal LTE suggestions, watch these CCL Media Tip videos)
  • 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 the laser talks; write conversationally.
Letter to the Editor Tool

If writing a letter to the editor, try using CCL’s online 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'd like more help, watch this video of CCL's Communications Director walking through how to use CCL's Letter to the Editor Tool.

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

Share your success!
  • Send a thank you email to the opinion page editor.
  • Ask the Group Leader or their designate to submit a field report.
  • Share the letter with your chapter.
  • Share it on social media, tagging your representative(s) in your share and asking your chapter members to share it.
  • 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.
  • For a review of what next steps to take after your LTE is published watch this CCL Media Tip.
Length
40:12
Instructor(s)
steve-valk.jpgSteve Valk
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Listen to or Download the Entire Lesson (42:01)

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The LTE Formula

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The News Hierarchy (9:18)

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