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If you want to advocate for a cause, policy or law and influence citizens and policy makers, letters to the editor are a great way to do so. I have been fortunate over the years to have had dozens of letters published in various newspapers on a variety of topics, most recently on end of life issues. Following these tips will hopefully increase the likelihood of your letter being published and its impact.
- For larger publications you generally need to respond to a news article, editorial or op-ed quickly, preferably within a day or two, no more than a week, preferably by email. Review the format of the publication re identifying what is being responded to and then clearly indicate what you will discuss, i.e. “The article on medical aid in dying did not mention some important, relevant, facts”. Local, smaller papers may allow letters that are not in response to something already published. Almost all publications require your address and phone number.
- Your letter should be as short as possible while conveying useful information that could benefit and influence readers, including policy makers. Your focus should be on the most important facts/opinions that you want to criticize and/or make. Stick to one or two key points if you can. The publication’s guidelines need to be followed, including the word count limit, which, for example is 150 to 175 words for The New York Times, but up to 250 words for many local and regional papers. Contact information may be on the opinion page or on the opinion section of the website.
- Smaller circulation and community newspapers are more likely to publish your letter. Larger publications, such as The New York Times, publish only a small percentage of letters received.
- Write your letter carefully using only essential words. Make sure that any facts you state are verifiable. Check resources if you need to confirm and have them available if you are asked by an editor to verify.
- Try to balance any criticism and correction of facts and opinions with, if possible, a call to action. Point people to a source for information or to engage when practical. When relevant, mention a policy maker and what he or she could be doing to remedy the problem being discussed.
- For letters to local newspaper (not recommended for large publications), follow up with a polite phone inquiry about its status if you have not received a response within several days.
- The letter should be in the body of an email, never an attachment. We recommend that the title of the letter or article to which you are responding be in the subject line.
- If responding to a positive article where you want to add facts, consider praising it or the author and then mentioning the facts that were excluded. Avoid exaggeration and do not insult the person who wrote the piece to which you are responding.
- Try to close with a catchy sentence or two sentences. “Too many New Yorkers are needlessly suffering. It is time to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act”.
- Review and edit the draft letter several times before sending so it is as compact as possible. And, consider having someone proofread your letter before submitting it. I am happy to provide feedback. I have copies of most of my published letters to the editor and am happy to share them.
David C. Leven
Executive Director Emeritus and Senior Consultant