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"Forget the Rest" blog


Why Write Letters to Editors?

1/23/06 Greg Mello and Damon Hill

  • Anyone can do it, not just the “experts.”  Most pundits are paid to ignore the nakedness of the emperor.
  • With just a half hour plus a stamp, paper, and envelope you can reach hundreds or thousands of readers.  Those readers will be the ones most involved in public affairs.

  • n general (and with important exceptions), public letters are a more powerful way to communicate with Congress than private letters or (especially) emails.  Congressional mail has a small (and declining) effect on votes.  Published letters, on the other hand, are powerful political acts.  If a representative is named in a public letter, the representative will know that many others saw that letter too. Key decisions in society are made by many people, not just a few elected leaders.  Your letter may reach state legislators, city counselors, business and community leaders and other persons who may read books you suggest, come to new insights, or otherwise take creative action in their own sphere. 

  • Writing public letters is an excellent way to develop your own skills in rhetoric and written argument, making you more persuasive and effective. 

  • Published truths often aren’t exactly true.  Distortion by omission especially has become normal.  Writing to our papers is a powerful tool for supplying some of the missing facts, key analyses, and obvious (but missing) conclusions. 

  • News editors, not just editorial page writers, read public letters.  These letters influence the direction of news coverage.  Our adversaries know this.  For example, there are lab retirees and others who raise hell every time there is any criticism of Los Alamos National Laboratory.  

  • Writing regularly changes us too.  When an occasional letter becomes a regular commitment, our own identity is enriched.  We become better known in our communities, more influential, and more accountable ourselves.  A series of letters shows that we are paying attention to a developing issue and that our expectation of accountability by others is reasonable – and to be reckoned with. 

  • Writing regularly with a group of people is even more effective.   Why not invite your friends over to your house or to a local hangout, talk about the issues, and write short letters summarizing your perspectives?  By contrast, just expressing an opinion to your friends accomplishes absolutely nothing political.  It’s just talk.  One more step – public letters – will allow you to share your hard-won insights with thousands. 

  • Public speech is one of the most protected activities in the U.S. Constitution.  We need to use our rights or we will lose them. 

  • You can often publish one letter, or variations of it, in more than one place.  A letter to your local paper can be modified and sent to other papers, magazines, or web sites.

  • Guest editorials are another avenue.  Contact editorial page editors to find out specific policies.  Many newspapers have guidelines on their web site. 

The Study Group web site has some suggestions on how to write effective letters to editors as well as factual background and analyses.  Ask us if what you want is not there.  We too are influenced by your letters to the editor!

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