10-minute advocacy: Writing a Letter to the Editor

I honestly don’t know exactly to what to attribute this success, but every single letter to the editor that I have ever submitted has been printed, at least 9 since I was a college student. I have had letters printed numerous times in The Kansas City Star but also in the Topeka Capitol Journal and out-state papers. I have written letters both in my professional capacity and as a private individual. I have mainly written on issues related to immigrant justice and related legislation, but I also had a letter published about peace and global solidarity post-September 11th, a letter about welcoming older adults on campus in my university newspaper, and a letter about anti-poverty policy.

There is plenty of advice available about how to write a good letter to the editor, and so I’m not going to reiterate all of that. I have included a couple of examples that illustrate some of what I have found to be successful, and here are just a few of my thoughts on this media strategy, which has the multiple advantages of being free, really fast, and widely-read.

  • Whenever possible, look for opportunities to submit your letters–one of my biggest successes was a letter immediately following the fatalities among migrants who were smuggled to the U.S. in the back of a tractor trailer; I was able to make an argument for comprehensive immigration reform that I doubt would have been printed if it were not for this tie-in.
  • Be brief–I know, everyone says that, but it’s really true. I had one dear editorial assistant who actually helped me cut down a letter that I had written so that they could run it, but most won’t do this. Make them short (no more than 150 words), and follow the paper’s rules about formatting.
  • Cut them out, save them, forward them, buzz them up–do whatever you need to do in order make sure that lots and lots of people see them. The editorial page is the second-most read in the paper, but with declining readership overall, you need to do a little extra to make sure that it gets attention.
  • Consider drafting letters for others to submit and/or co-authoring letters. The letter below that is by Sue Storm was mainly written by me, but we knew that, as the chief legislative sponsor of the instate tuition bill, she could get a longer op-ed piece more easily than I could. The letter co-authored by religious leaders is another example; there, the mere fact of the shared authorship was part of the message we were trying to send.
  • Read letters to the editor also; you can get ideas for issues to which you can respond, and you will also have a better sense of the format, length, and general tenor of the letters that get printed.
  • Follow up. After submitting a letter, call to make sure that they got it. Ask when it will run. Ask if they need any additional information. Don’t leave it totally to chance, especially if it’s a really critical issue to you. Likewise, the better relationship you have with the editorial staff, the more you’ll understand how they work, and, I would argue (although they may deny it) the more favorably your submissions will be judged.

    Writing letters to the editor is one of those advocacy activities where everyone talks about how easy it is and how we should totally do it, yet relatively few people do, which is why, especially in smaller communities, you see the same names over and over again in the paper. Take 30 minutes today and draft 1-2 letters that you’d like to submit on your core issues. Edit them until they’re very tight, and then hold onto them until there’s an article or a critical incident that gives you your ‘in’, then make a few minor modifications, and hit send. I bet you’ll see your name in print!

    Sample letters to the editor:




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