Newspapers may not be what they used to be, but letters to the editor (whether published in print, online or both) are still a vital way for a community to think out loud.
And make no mistake, elected officials and their staffs still take note of letters from their constituents that express views on public issues.
At Draw the Lines PA, we have no specific political agenda. We do think gerrymandering is a problem in our democracy and we’d like elected officials to see that their constituents care about the problem and want to be part of fixing it.
That’s a message a letter to the editor can still send very effectively. And Pennsylvania is still blessed with a lot of functioning small- and medium-sized newspapers where a well-done letter can still get published and stand out. (We have presented to the Associated Press Managing Editors group on DTL, so they know what’s up.)
How do you write a letter to the editor that will get published?
Well, our project director, Chris Satullo, was editorial page editor at the state’s largest newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, for more than a decade. That means he literally was the editor to whom all those tens of thousands of letters from Inquirer readers were addressed over that time.
Chris offers these dos-and-don’ts tips for writing a letter that will get published in ink and/or pixels, instead of ending up in the reject pile.
Be brief. 250 words or less.
Be clear. If the editor can’t tell from the first two sentences what you are writing about and why, boom, you’re in the reject pile.
Be relevant. Explain how the issue you’re writing about connects to you, your personal stake.
Be helpful. Letters that offer a possible solution, rather than just making a complaint, are highly valued.
Be transparent. Be honest if you are speaking as a member of an interest group. Always provide a working phone number and email address where the editor can contact you to a) confirm you’re a real person and b) discuss any edits.
Be wordy. See the first Do above.
Back into your point with a lot of throat-clearing. See the second Do above.
Parrot talking points you got from an advocacy group, a campaign or a talking head on TV. Editors are looking for fresh and authentic, not “Astroturf” i.e. phony grassroots.
Sling insults or vitriol. There’s too much of that going around. You can criticize a decision, a policy or a public official. But do it on the substance, not by personal attack.
Use jargon, bureaucratese or inside-baseball terms. Very few people know or care what H.B. 2327 is. If you want to comment on a piece of legislation, describe what it does.