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Media tips for cheapskates: writing the persuasive letter to the editor

Write a persuasive letter to the editor that shuns the hysterical and leads readers down a short, logical path to the "truth."

By Kristin Merriman
September 1999

You're not even finished reading the morning paper and already you're seeing red. How could that front-page article be so biased? How could that reporter use old statistics, leave out the bicyclist's viewpoint, or misinterpret information?

You want action, revenge even. You want to pound something--how about pounding out a letter to the editor? After all, the letters page is the top-read section of most newspapers.

Turn on your computer or typewriter (gently, please) and get out all your sputterings about the approximate IQ level and questionable parentage of the reporter, interviewee, etc. Feel better?

Okay, now look at what you've written--toss half of it, maybe more, and instead rewrite the remainder into a persuasive letter to the editor that shuns the hysterical and leads readers down a short, logical path to the "truth."

Here are some tips to help your letter stand out from the rest of the rantings that fill an editor's in-box each morning:

First, what's the point?
Forget the arm-waving, "this-person-doesn't-know-bicyclists-from-balloonists" response. Editors won't print potentially libelous letters because they hate lawyers more than their worst enemies. Editors also will think you need to switch to de-caf and a white jacket with the arms in the back. Appear calm, knowledgeable and reasonable--at least on paper.

Second, get to the point.
Your letter should be short, between 250 and 500 words, so focus on the primary points of disagree¨ment, preferably no more than two or three. Look on the bottom of the letters page since many run a recommended count in their "we-retain-the-right-to-edit-letters" blurb, then keep your main arguments high in the letter to help avoid common cut-from-the-bottom editing.

Third, keep to the point.
Create an outline for your letter that makes the best use of your three to four paragraphs.In the first paragraph, reference the article in question briefly but don't waste valuable space repeating everything already published.

Be clear from the beginning where you stand on an issue or what viewpoint you're supplying. ["As a businessman who bikes to work regularly, I am disappointed. Joe Reporter's article (Metro Section, page 2, February 2) failed to mention walking or bicycling in its summary of possible solutions to our city's commuting problems."]

Cite sources (reports, surveys, etc.) that support your stand and show you know the subject. ["Although 1990 Fairfax County census data show only 5 percent of the working population walks or bikes to work, that number could greatly increase if sidewalks, bike parking and other facilities were improved and promoted."] Keep in mind that readers may view you as a spokesperson for bicy¨clists or pedestrians so avoid transportation jargon, offensive language, or stereotyping. Be positive and solution-oriented, when possible. ["Promoting these modes of transportation would help reduce air pollution, diminish traffic congestion and reduce our society's expensive dependence on cars."]

Be concise, specific and straightforward. Use strong, action-oriented verbs, the real soul of persuasive writing. Avoid subject-verb phrases such as "there are" and "this is," which are weak and vague.

Fourth, finish strong.
Like your first paragraph, your last sentence leaves the reader with a final impression. Again, focus on your message, not the article or reporter. Refer readers to your group for more information, if appropriate. Leave them believing you aren't the kind of "radical" who lines her kitty litter box with car ads.

Fifth, make your point today-- NOW.
Timeliness is a key factor in an editor's decision to run a letter. Send the letter within 48 hours of the article's publication or forget it. Even better is to call the paper to ask if it accepts faxed letters and to obtain a specific name for the cover sheet; many papers accept such submissions and even prefer them to snail-mail. Although you may think E-mail is even more efficient, recent surveys found that surprisingly few editors have computers linked to the Inter¨net or other online services. Faxing or hard-copy mail is still the way to go for the moment.

Call to confirm the letter arrived at the right desk but don't be a pest or ask for a decision on the spot. Make sure your name, phone number (work and home) and address are clearly readable at the bottom of the letter. Include your title and organization if appropriate and approved by the necessary people.

Finally, make a point of writing that letter to the editor.
It doesn't take long, and letters are a great way to attract free media coverage, reach thousands of people in a mainstream fash¨ion, demonstrate that you and your group are around and active, attract members, raise money for projects, participate in public debate, influence the political arena, and promote world peace. Okay, maybe the latter is a stretch, but everyone's allowed to pound away a bit, right?

Kristin Merriman is editor of Fisheries, the monthly membership magazine of the American Fisheries Society. She has provided media training and services to the BFA and the staff and members of national associations in the Washington area. Merriman authored "Using the Media to Achieve Your Goals" in the Pro Bike/Pro Walk 94 Resource Book.

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