While taking action online or over the phone are both important ways to communicate your views to your legislators, handwritten, mailed letters sometimes can have a greater effect. They give the legislator the impression that the issue was important enough to you that you took the time to write them a personal letter.
Well-written, thought-provoking letters from members of the community can influence a legislator's decisions. Just a couple personal letters into an office over a short period of time can bring an issue to the attention of your legislator and have a big impact.
Usually the response to your letter will be a standard letter reply. Since congressional offices receive hundreds or even thousands of letters and emails each week, staff do not have the time to send personalized replies in most cases. The important issue is whether the reply answers your questions or responds directly to your request for the legislator to take a certain position. If it does not, write again and request a clear answer.
With increased security on Capitol Hill, postal mail can take anywhere from four to six weeks to reach your legislator. If your message is urgent, such as related to an upcoming vote, send a personalized email or fax instead.
Steps to write an effective letter
- Address your letter correctly. Be sure you have the correct address and salutation on your letter. You can find the address of all of your legislators here by simply entering your zip code. If you are sending an email, many offices require you to fill out a webform, rather than send an email to a specific person. Following the directions on the legislator's website will ensure your letter goes through the proper channels and is read by the appropriate person.
- Write to the legislators for whom you can vote. Elected officials are most interested in your opinions if you are their constituent.
- Address only one issue per letter. A letter that addresses one specific topic will have more impact and receive a quicker response than one covering multiple issues. If you have professional expertise on the issue you are addressing, be sure to describe it.
- Ask for something specific. Ask the legislator to take a particular action, such as cosponsoring a bill or taking a leadership role on an issue. Ask the legislator to state his or her position in a letter of response.
- Make it personal. Tie the issue to your personal expertise or experience, or to the district or state represented by the legislator. Use your own words.
- Include your return address on your letter. By including your address in the letter, the reader will know that you are a constituent and will know what address to send a response to.
Visit our action center to learn about the current and most pressing issues facing science and how you can put your advocacy skills to use.
Additional tips and resources
- Follow up. Follow-up letters often have a much larger impact than the initial communication. Thank the legislator for taking a correct stand, or ask questions about any unsatisfactory answers.
- Use your institution’s letterhead, if applicable. If you work in an academic, private, or government setting, consider sending your letter on your institution’s letterhead. While you should be clear that your opinion is a personal one, using your institution’s letterhead will grab the reader’s attention and help to establish your credibility. Be sure you are allowed to use letterhead on correspondence of this nature before your drop your letter in the mail.
- Be courteous. Rudeness will always alienate your reader.
- When appropriate, express your appreciation. Like anybody, legislators appreciate an occasional "well done." Furthermore, in this manner you signal that you are paying attention to your legislator’s activities.
- Keep it short. To make sure your letter is read rather than skimmed, make your points quickly and concisely.