Some thoughts on writing letters to the editor

This is the 2,000th post on my website!

And as an activist of sorts, I would like to offer some advice on letter-writing for publication.

My first letter was published early in 1968 by the Toronto Telegram, which later folded following a protracted labour dispute, and was effectively replaced by a number of its leading  writers and staff who founded the Toronto Sun in late 1971.

The Telegram had a broadsheet-sized format, and the “letter of the day” got you a spread at the top of the letters page, as much as a third of it if there was a photo included.

Heady stuff!

Of course, I often wrote in my capacity as the Press Officer of the Edmund Burke Society, which made my letters more attractive to publishers as we were often engaged in headline-grabbing activities such as getting into street-fights with “peace marchers” and American draft-dodgers,  many of whom were outright Communists who openly supported the Viet Cong.

Writing on your own behalf is clearly a lot harder, and here are my observations on getting your letters published.  It’s not an exhaustive list, and I may omit some aspects that are considered important by others, but this approach works for me.

Firstly, strike while the iron is hot.  Don’t wait even just two or three days if you are fired up!  And, of course, you will write much better when you are mad about something.

News items, and other matters of interest to newspaper editors, can become stale very quickly.  On occasion, I have sent in a perfectly good letter, with every chance of publication, only to lose out because the paper suddenly received a large number of letters about some major news event which had just occurred.

Rob Ford may have cost me a good few letters not published over the last year or two I think, and the Mississauga train derailment in 1979 cost me the airing of a TV interview on union issues which had already been recorded but for which there was no longer any air-time available.

Them’s the breaks, and there’s little you can do about it…

Secondly, start by referring to an item which has already appeared in the paper that you are writing to.  If you can identify a specific news item, or a column, that is great.  And they will pay  particular attention if you refer to an editorial stance they have adopted on an issue which is important to them.

Take a look at your target paper’s “letters page” to see their preferred opening style for letters, and follow it.

Very often you may want to write to a paper precisely because of a specific column or news item that it published.  But, if you are concerned about a more general issue that you perhaps read about elsewhere, search your target paper looking to see if they have published anything on the subject which you can anchor your letter to.

And if there is nothing there, then start your letter by saying something along the lines of “There has been some talk lately about…” or “It seems that…”  Never quote from a rival newspaper!

Brevity helps, keep your letter as short as you can.  Most papers allow up to 250 words, but it’s a good idea to not exceed 200.  A good size is 150, which is more likely to be published and yet still allows enough wording for you to make your point.

Analyze your subject thoroughly.  It helps to write it down in point form, organize the points in the order you wish to express them, then get started.  One paragraph for each point usually works for the final product.

Remember that just because you know what you are writing about, the editor might not unless you spell it out precisely.  Usually, just identifying the subject is sufficient, but keep that in mind.

My first draft is always far too long, I just let it all come out, and may end up with several hundred words.  Then comes the difficult part, distilling it all down to the point where it still gets your point across, but isn’t too long.

Then do something else for an hour, go shopping or take a walk, or watch TV a little.  And after that, then you can do your final editing.

If you have a point or paragraph that you are not sure about, see how your draft looks without it.  Very often, removing it will not harm your main argument, and will help to make your letter more attractive by shortening it.

Writing in “paragraph-points” as referred to above is useful for this, you can often remove an entire paragraph without in any way interrupting the flow of your argument.

Obviously, name-calling and bad language might go over well in the “comments” to be found beneath the published letters, very often the comments contain little else, but such content will get you disqualified instantly as far as letters are concerned.

Try to avoid long words unless you claim professional standing, you may be turned down because the editor thinks readers will not understand you, or that you are being pompous and talking down to their readership.

And be careful of saying anything that could be considered libellous, they don’t need the hassle.

Try to keep your facts and opinions separate.  I try to state my facts first, then draw logical conclusions, clearly identifying my opinions as such.

I have taken to adding references to my letters whenever I make a statement that seems rather  strong, or might not seem credible at first glance.

Providing the editor with relevant background can even result in a favourable re-write.  For example, in a recent letter to the Toronto Sun, I provided back-up for my belief that the “police culture” in America has acquired a substantial aspect regarding steroid use, and that this could be spreading to Canada.

While my letter avoided making a definitive statement, the editor changed the wording to a statement of fact with regards to the American experience.  That pleased me greatly, and demonstrates the usefulness of this approach where it might be needed.

I will sometimes simultaneously send a copy of my letter to the columnist or reporter whose article I am referring to, depending on the circumstances.  The reason I do this is that the letter might not be published, but I want the person to be aware of my thoughts on the matter anyway.

Columnists and reporters are powerful individuals in some respects, and I try to reach them as well as the general public.

And that’s about it, although I have probably forgotten something and will have to add it in later!

I hope the above might be of use to someone, perhaps to a person about to retire, who feels strongly about certain issues but has never had time to write to newspapers in the past.

Give it a try, and see how it goes!

You could be pleasantly surprised.

Jeff Goodall.

Update August 26th, 2018:

Read “Important lesson re-learned on letters-to-the-editor” here.