Writing a Letter to the Editor
Contributing to the news is a crucial means of affecting public policy and getting traction on an issue. However, scientific research and media work aren’t always a perfect fit. The speed of the media world, and the small amount of space journalists have to cover complex scientific issues, can make the interaction between scientists and the press challenging. Yet scientific expertise has never been in higher demand in the mainstream media. And for scientists, the most effective means of bringing their expertise and convictions to the public is by working with the media.
Below are tips on writing letters to the editor, a simple and effective way to get a message to both the public and policy makers. For suggested talking points for a letter focused on climate, click here.
Writing a letter-to-the-editor (LTE) to your local or regional newspaper is a very effective (and easy!) means to reach a large audience with your message. LTEs are printed on the editorial page, which is one of the most read pages in the paper. Congressional staffers also tell us that congress members keep a close eye on media coverage, including LTEs, in their local papers. This media monitoring helps members keep a 'pulse' on issues of importance to their constituents. So having a strong LTE published is a 'twofer'—you reach both a wide public and your elected officials with the same effort.
Even if your letter is not published, it is important for educating and persuading editors. The more letters they receive on a given topic, the more likely they are to dedicate more time in their newspaper to that issue—both on the editorial page and in news articles. It clearly expresses the issue’s importance to the community.
- Respond to an article in the paper. Many papers require that LTEs reference an article that ran in the paper. Some papers do occasionally print LTEs noting a lack of coverage. However, it is best that your letter be in response to an article in the paper.
- Follow the paper’s directions. Information on how and to whom to submit a LTE is usually found right on the letters page in your paper. This often includes guidelines on what the paper looks for in LTEs. Follow these guidelines to increase the likelihood that your letter will be printed. If you can’t find the information you need, simply call the paper and ask how to go about submitting a letter in response to a recently published article.
- Be timely. Respond to an article in two or three days.
- Refer to the legislator you are trying to influence by name. If the letter includes a legislator’s name, in almost all cases staff will give him or her the letter to read personally.
- Keep your letter short, focused, and interesting. In general, letters should be under 200 words; stay focused on one (or, at the most, two) main point(s); and get to the main point in the first two sentences. If possible include interesting facts, relevant personal experience, and any local connections to the issue. If you letter is longer than 200 words, it will likely be edited or not printed.
- Write the letter in your own words. Editors want letters in their papers to be original and from a reader. Be sure that you take the time to write the letter in your own words.
- Include your information. Be sure to include your name, address, and daytime phone number; the paper will contact you before printing your letter.
- Clip out your printed letter and send it to your legislator with a brief cover note. This way you can be certain that he or she sees it.