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LETTER-WRITING TIPS

1. Write your own letter.

Canned letters and chain e-mails are not taken seriously. Write as well as you can, but it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.

Most newspapers require your real name, your home address, and a daytime phone number before they will publish your letter, and an e-mail address helps even if it's a snail-mail letter. Most newspapers put a 250-word limit on letters to the editor. Do NOT send attachments with e-mails. Many newspapers publish only one letter a month by a single author.

2. Writing good letters to the editor is like other good writing.

But make it quick : 100-400 words. Every word must contribute to the main point. No side trips, no duplications. Each line must move naturally to the next line. The first sentence should give an idea what the letter is going to say and catch the reader's interest, and the last sentence should state the conclusion clearly.

A long letter is justified only if you are presenting lot of essential detailed information which is not otherwise available.

Rewrite your letter until it is as close to perfect as you can get it. It should move smoothly from the opening sentence to the clinching sentence, and everything should be to the point. A lot of small changes can change a so-so letter into a great one.

Most newspapermen appreciate good writing, whether they agree with it or not, and good writing will greatly increase your chances of getting something published.

3. Consider your target.

If you write to a national publication, your letter has to be almost perfect. Local newspapers are much more accepting, and a lot of neighborhood and community newspapers will print almost anything (especially if they don't have to pay for it).

Sometimes you write a letter just to have your opinion tallied, without hoping to be published. Two or three clear lines are enough in this case. (But the letter shouldn't be embarassing -- some publications publish hostile letters if they're really stupid and illiterate.)

4. Avoid insults, name-calling, and threats.

You may think that George W.Bush is a fascist, but you can't call him one (except in leftist publications). Avoid unsupported accusations. Avoid over-the-top rhetoric even when you think it is justified. If you do make an over-the-top accusation (something not widely acceptable), it should be the conclusion of the letter, and the whole body of the letter should be arguments leading up to that conclusion.

5. Write for the undecided.

Write for someone who doesn't agree with you already, but who can be convinced.

Writing for people who already agree with you doesn't change much. Don't try to persuade the hard-core opposition either -- just show how they're wrong and persuade the rest of the audience. Ideally a letter will help an undecided person make up his or her mind -- either by providing new facts, or by explaining the significance of known facts.

6. Keep it timely. Letters should be addressed to something in today's news or an article in today's newspaper. The quicker you get your opinion out there, the better. After two or three days, you can usually forget about newspaper publication (magazines are easier). For quarterlies, monthlies, and weeklies, knowing the deadlines helps -- being a day late could make you a month late, and if the issue is a timely one your letter is dead.

7. Keep it specific.

Don't cover the whole area of "media bias" or "corporate influence on government", but zero in on a specific, especially dramatic case which supports your point of view. Stick to one issue at a time except when the connections between the issues in a specific case can be made clear. Don’t jumble together global warming, the war in Afghanistan, and gay rights in one big mess.

8. Use orthodox sources.

As much as possible, rely on mainstream sources and facts which are common knowledge. If you are bringing in new information from a new, less well-known source (eg. a foreign source, a technical publication, or a small local newspaper) give it a citation in the body of your letter. Sources which are thought of as partisan are the least valuable.

When I have a lot of factual detail in my letter, I put citations after the letter for the convenience of the fact-checkers. Good newspapers check letters for accuracy before publishing, and if you can help the fact-checkers do this job your letter is more likely to be published.

9. Don't think out loud.

By and large, the reader does not want to get to know you personally. In cases where your personal experiences are relevant, there should be a single quick mention, and not a detailed blow-by-blow.

10. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

You may not have much respect or affection for the publication you're sending the letter to, but never reveal that fact.

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