by Mary Ann Chimera
Writing letters for publication is a dicey gamble, but also a great tool for educating the public. It’s dicey because before your letter is published it has to meet criteria set by the editorial page editor and staff. These vary from not only from publication to publication but from editor to editor.

Nevertheless, editors are aware that a diversity of opinion, especially by local readers, sells newspapers. Readers are very interested in what friends and neighbors have to say.

Especially with hot issue topics like ours, we often find ourselves in opposition to the beliefs of today’s media people. Our letters accordingly must be crafted to overcome antilife biases. Here are some of the criteria I impose on my own letters before submitting them.

Keep within the editorial guidelines, especially for length. This is usually a maximum length of 250 words, but it can vary.
Four or five paragraphs usually do the trick. If the topic is timely or the presentation interesting to readers, editors sometimes make exceptions. But don’t count on it.

Include contact information: name, address, telephone number. Many newspapers will call you to confirm that you wrote the letter, especially if it the first to that newspaper. When I write on one of our topics, I include my title: President, Democrats for Life of Ohio, Inc. For letters on other topics, I omit the title.

Keep sentences and paragraphs short. They are more readable and your point is more easily digested. As an over-writer, I go over my letter to take out excess verbiage, even the article “the” that is not needed, and to break up overlong sentences and paragraphs before submitting my letter. Under-writers should review their submission to make sure it raises no unintended glaringly unanswered questions.

Do not submit a headline. Newspapers employ paid headline writers. Simply use the description “Letter to the editor” in your e-mail subject line or at the top of your typed letter.

A response to an article in the publication is more likely to be published. Watch for articles on topics related to our issues. An interview with a convicted killer enabled a letter stating that murderers do not think like you and I and therefore the death penalty is not a deterrent. An interview with an expert on the death penalty coupled with the death sentence for a particularly brutal murderer enabled a letter stating that the murderer now owns the family of the victims through all the appeals until he is executed (a statement made by the expert).

Look for a different angle on the question. Letters that repeat common sentiments are unlikely to be published.

Avoid religious arguments (unless writing to a religious publication). Religious approaches convince only the already convinced and turn off the unconvinced. They won’t read beyond the religious reference. I strongly believe the best arguments against abortion, assisted suicide or any other of our issues are secular arguments. We also want to convince atheists and welcome them to stand with us.

Here is a formula for an effective approach to argumentation I learned as a young engineer from a GE in-house course called “Effective Presentation.” I have found it very effective and have used it ever since. It is especially effective for letters to the editor. The italicized terms are from the course.

An effective presentation consists of four parts:

  • A Ho-Hum Crasher: A statement or story that draws the attention of the listener/reader.
  • Why bring that up?: What topic you are talking about and why.
  • For instance: Examples, statements or stories that illustrate your point.
  • So what!: What you want your audience to do about it.

Of course there are other approaches to effective writing. Use what you are comfortable with.