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Texas Impact Guide to Writing a Letter to the Editor
Why write a letter to the editor?
Letters to the editor are great public policy advocacy tools! They help to shape public opinion and inform legislators about constituent concerns. Letters to the editor are tangible, transferable, and permanent. Texas elected officials and others collect and share letters to the editor from all over the state to track opinions and issues of importance.
Before you start writing your letter to the editor, you need to establish your framework.
Is your letter in response to a story you read in the newspaper? Letters in response to news stories or editorials typically have a better chance of getting printed than letters that come from “out of left field.”
You can draw a connection to any news story you want. For example, if you want to write a letter expressing your views about public school finance reform, you might find a story in your newspaper regarding recent legislative activity on the issue. Or you might respond to a story about your local school district’s finances or programming, or even respond to a story about national trends in education.
Occasionally, you might want to write a letter about a story that WASN’T in the newspaper. For example, if you receive an email action alert about a legislative issue but there is no story about it in your newspaper, you could write a letter pointing out the omission. Remember that the purpose of this kind of letter to the editor is to help make other newspaper readers aware of the news, not to reprimand the editor failing to print a story.
What’s Your Point?
Letters to the editor are very short and pithy. Large newspapers typically impose a 150-word maximum on letters to the editor; small, local papers may print letters as long as 300 words, but shorter is always better.
Since you only have space to make one or two points, be sure you know what they are before you start writing. You will have the best success sticking to your point and staying within your word limit if you use a “point paper” approach.
Any time you are writing for an elected official—whether in a letter to the editor, a letter directly to the official, or written testimony you intend to submit on a bill—you should expect that they may not read all the way to the end. Therefore, the most important words are those at the beginning. If you try for a “big finish,” you will probably lose your audience before you make your point. A letter to the editor should state its main point in the very first sentence. All the sentences after that provide explanation and support.
People will likely skim your letter quickly, so you should break up your thoughts into “chewable chunks.” That way, even a very quick reader will pick up the general thread of your message. Your paragraphs should be 2-3 sentences long in most cases.
To keep your thoughts focused, try this foolproof strategy:
- Write your letter.
- Go back through it and read just the opening sentence of each paragraph.
- You should be able to discern what the letter is trying to say just by reading those sentences. If you can’t, it’s a good indication that you might have a weak link in your argument or that you need one more strong fact to make your case. Keep re-working your opening sentences until they flow into a coherent message.
Letters to the editor are primarily expressions of opinion. They are not news stories. However, as in any conversation, your opinion will be more robust if you support it with facts. Two kinds of facts are particularly important in letters to the editor: local information and personal experience.
Local information includes local statistics and unique local circumstances.
- Local statistics are facts about your community that are analogous to facts about other parts of Texas. For example, if you are writing a letter about Medicaid expansion and your point is that uninsured people cost taxpayers a lot of money, you might include a statistic about how much your own county pays for uninsured care at the local public hospital.
- Unique local circumstances are facts about your community that make it different from the rest of Texas. For example, communities along the Texas-Mexico border generally have much higher poverty rates than the rest of Texas, so if you are writing a letter to a border newspaper editor about how instituting a progressive state tax would be more equitable, you might point out how those sales taxes disproportionately affect low-income residents of your county.
Personal experiences are very important in letters to the editor. They provide context for news, both for elected officials and the general public. Positive personal experiences are just as important as negative experiences in shaping public opinion through letters to the editor. For example, if you are responding to a story about high energy bills and you had a good experience with your recent home energy audit, your positive story will help encourage others to reduce their energy use.
Tips for Getting Your Letter Printed
- You usually can’t get printed more than once a month. However, you can submit letters as often as you want.
- Keep your letter at or below 150 words, not including your name, contact information, and a reference to the source.
- Don’t forget to include your FULL contact information, including phone number and email. The newspaper uses that information to verify that you actually submitted the letter.
- If you have a digital headshot of yourself, attach it to your letter and the newspaper might print it.
- Submit your letter by email. Your letter needs to be a clean copy—it shouldn’t include any messages you’ve exchanged with anyone else about it. Paste your letter and contact information into a new email and send it to the address for letter submissions. Don’t “cc” anyone on the submission itself; send a separate email if you want to copy the letter to another individual or organization. To find the email and other contact information for the newspaper to which you are submitting your letter, visit http://www.usnpl.com/txnews.php
- If you are writing in response to a story you read in the paper, the sooner you get your letter in after you read the original story, the better your chance is of getting published.
Getting the Most Mileage Out of Your Letter
Just getting your letter printed is significant accomplishment, but there are a few simple things you can do that will increase its impact.
- If you submit a letter to the editor, let us know! If you find that your letter is available online on the newspaper’s website, email the link to us as well as to your faith community and other groups to which you belong.
- If your letter gets printed, send an email to your elected officials with a link to your letter in an online version of the newspaper. Include a personal note or a short memo indicating that you are a constituent.
- If your letter was printed in a statewide paper, email it to your local paper and suggest they reprint it. If it was printed in your local paper, email it to the nearest statewide paper and ask them to run it.
- Post a copy of your letter on your congregation’s bulletin board if you have space for such items.