Letters to the Editor * An Activist's Primer

The sad fact is that many newspapers occasionally print biased, shallow, or inaccurate stories and opinion columns about gun violence in America.  Those pieces are read by millions, who leave with the wrong impression of the problem, the solution, and the people who are working on the issue.  They need to be corrected.

Fortunately, newspapers will publish letters to the editor* provided those letters meet certain guidelines, and provided there's enough space.  While each paper's guidelines and space restrictions are different, here are some basic rules to follow when submitting a letter to the editor.

Timeliness - When you read a column that needs a response, don't hesitate even for a minute.  In these days of email, you should be able to have your thoughts in front of an editor within hours of seeing the original piece.  In other words, rush.  A letter to the editor is a piece that will appear only once, in one newspaper, so don't spend too terribly long polishing.  And a lot of papers fill up their letters sections on a"first-come, first-served" basis.

Every hour you spend polishing, re-writing, or waiting for a better turn of phrase is an hour the editor is using to fill up your space.

Brevity -Most papers simply will not print anything longer than 250 words.  Many won 't even print 200 words.  Their view is that if you can't say it in around 200 words, you should flesh it out and submit it as an op-ed column (which has a much lower chance of being published).  Think of a letter to the editor as a TV commercial, not a news program.  If it goes over 225 words, stop writing.  If it goes over 240, cut something out.

Be brutal.  Be blunt.  But be brief.

Lead strong - Even the smallest newspaper gets dozens of letters to the editor every day.  They're read by someone who's writing his/her own column, assembling the paper, proofing columns, placing stories, fielding phone calls, and reviewing op-eds.  It is a virtual certainty that, if you don't catch the editor's attention in your first two sentences, the letter won't be read, let alone printed.

Stay on message After you've attracted attention, the editor's gaze can still wander.  Your letter should address a single point of the column or article in question.  Attack that point wittily, ruthlessly, and relentlessly.  But do not try to make a second or third point.

Remember your audience

Never forget that newspaper readers will see your letter, but they're not your audience.  It's called a "letter to the editor" for a reason.  Write to the editor first, and the readers second.  The editor, above all others, must believe that the story they published cannot be allowed to go unanswered.  That means you must be absolutely clear that you're addressing a key component of a story's message, not just trying to tack your thoughts on the end.

Be specific and memorable

When it comes time to slot the letters into the day's paper, and editor must be able to say to him/herself, "The letter about the guns used in the Red Lake shootings should go in."  You don't want the editor to say, "I seem to recall reading something about guns*?"

Finish strong This is where you can put your overall message.  Having addressed the single most egregious error or worst problem, here is where you can make the broader connection.  Make your lasting impression.  For example,"This is just the latest in a string of attempts by the gun lobby to tear down the rule of law and replace it with vigilantism."

First point wins - Think of a letter to the editor as a game wherein no player can score more than one point, and the first player to score wins.  The way the original columnist or reporter wins is by not having their piece refuted the next day.  The way you win is by getting your letter published.  You get no extra points for having a perfect letter.  Your goal is not to score five points.  Your goal is to score once, by getting a short, clear, memorable letter in the next day's newspaper.

Sensible Gun Laws Save Lives.

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