Whenever I get a case of writer’s block, I usually pick up the paper, find something I disagree with, then get on my soapbox and speak out about it. In my case, I don’t actually take a soapbox down to a street corner, stand on it, and yell my feelings at passing strangers. First of all because I have no soapbox, second of all, this kind of activity can get you arrested or lynched, and third of all, there is a better and safer way to get your opinion out; write a letter to the editor. The editorial page of any newspaper is not only the last great soapbox, it is also one of the most widely read sections of any paper. I know that people nowadays have more ways of expressing their opinions in blogs, like this, FaceBook, Twitter, etc. but anything posted this way can easily get lost on the cacophony of voices all shouting at once. When you read something you are holding in your hand (like a book) you are much less distracted.
My first success in this arena came by way of The Arizona Republic when they printed a letter I wrote about Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon and his mishandling of the American economy. That was some coup since this paper leans so far to the right that some wags call it The Arizona REPUBLICAN. Since that time, some 40 odd years ago, I have had hundreds of letters to the editor printed all over the country and one even showed up in Sports Illustrated. In my home town, where I have lived for 30 years, I am known for my frequent letters. Strangers who hear my name often comment on my letters, some not so kindly and others with rapt admiration for my courage to speak my mind on any subject. If you read my prior blog, you will know that I also get phone calls, one of which lead to a fascinating story and a great friendship.
I get letters published so often by so many newspapers (one was published locally just two days ago) because I have studied the craft and have written articles on the subject. I have been asked, several times, to come speak to groups who are engaging in a letter to the editor campaign. I have given speeches on this subject to groups that I don’t agree with because I think that everyone has a right to their opinion and have the right to express it.
What follows is a list of Do’s and Don’ts that will help anyone get their letter published anywhere they send it. It is a proven formula that has worked for me for decades. Use these tools to get your opinion out there because it does matter, there is no greater weapon to use against Totalitarianism and that ilk than that of FREE SPEECH!
Don’t call anyone a name no matter how much you think they deserve a special designation. This kind of schoolyard tactic will get you bounced virtually every time. If you think a politician is mentally deficient in some way, the better way is to show what he or she said or did then tell why it was wrong in your opinion.
Don’t accuse anyone of something you are not sure they did not do. You can say you think it is “coincidental” that a legislator voted to support a landfill near a homestead right after his campaign accepted a large donation from a waste management firm, but don’t accuse him of being bribed. If you have facts showing that he was bribed, turn that over to the editor so they can do a front page piece on it.
Don’t belabor a topic. Once you have made your point, wrap it up and get out of there. No one likes to hear someone repeating the same thing over and over again. Besides, newsprint is expensive and editors don’t like to waste it.
Don’t write about something that only affects you. I am not saying that an opinion on a singular issue will not make its way to the Editorial page, it just might. But if you write about a topic that affects a large number of people you have a much chance of publication. Editors often group in kind letters and will dedicate an entire page to one subject.
Don’t be late. If you want to comment on something, do it now. Don’t wait a month or so after the fact. Editors want commentary on current events and unless you have a bold new angle on a topic, they most likely won’t use your opinion at a later date.
Do keep it short and to the point. I know that 350 words do not sound like much, but try to cap it at that, it will increase your chances of getting in the paper. Remember what I said about editors and newsprint. If you think you can’t say much in 350 words, you will surprise yourself at how much you can say if you stay on topic.
Do keep your letter positive. This can be difficult since you are writing on a subject that most likely affects you emotionally. Especially if it is in regards to a tragedy of some sort. You can still make a letter like this upbeat. After you say what you have to say about the topic, offer ideas on how such horrible things can be avoided in the future.
Do be nice to the editor. You don’t have to send him cookies (though you can) but if you get a letter published and he “edits” it in a way you don’t like, just accept it. After all, he is just doing his job. I can almost guarantee that calling up an editor and yelling at him is sure way to get any future letters tossed.
Do keep it local. Do send local issues to your local paper. The New York Times does not want to hear about local issues that only affect Paducah Flats.
Do send letters to outside of your area but only if it is a national one, then please send your letter to everyone. Most of the time editors only use opinions of those who live in their geographical area, but that is not always the case; I have been printed in many eastern papers even though I live in California. I have a list of newspapers who only publish in California in case I have an issue that only affects just this state and I have a bigger list of newspapers from across the country if I want to comment on a national issue. With the advent of email, it is easy to send a hundred letters at once and newspapers prefer this type of contact—it saves them the trouble having to open all those envelopes.
So get out there and say it! Good luck good writing!
To get you going, here is a link to an excellent source of email addresses of newspapers nationwide: http://www.ccmc.org/node/16179