The local newspaper is indispensable to community life. In large cities, most citizens learn about municipal, provincial, federal, and world events through their newspapers. In smaller communities—often lacking a local television or radio station—the local paper lets everyone know their school board and municipal politicians; the activities of their Lions, Rotarians, Zontans, and other service club members; how to register the kids for minor hockey; and even if the municipal government is thinking about cutting funding for the ice rinks. In addition to the news, advertisements of stereo sales and jobs, the entertainment features, such as Dear Abby and the comics, and the opinions of the paper's editors and columnists, newspapers publish letters to the editor. This section offers community members an opportunity to have their views considered.
As anyone who has had a letter published will tell you, you'll be surprised by how many people will say they saw your letter. Letters to the editor, in fact, attract more readers than the newspaper's own editorials and columns.
Writing a letter to the editor—whether it's your college paper or a newsletter published by your employer, union, or service club—gives you an opportunity to try to influence the way things are done. The letter is your opportunity to express your feelings about an issue that concerns you. Think the fee for student activities is too high? Write a letter to the college newspaper. Want your school board members to support junior kindergarten programs? Tell them so in a letter, and send it along to the local newspaper. And these letters do influence other people. That's why newspaper columnist James Laxer once wrote, "Unless the citizens of this country raise one hell of a ruckus, we will continue down the road to a two-tier medical system-one for the rich and one for the rest of us" (F3).
Creating the Content of Letters to the Editor
If you felt the chair of the regional municipal government was unfair when he said municipal workers would have agreed to a new contract but for the influence of provincial union leaders, you've found the topic for your letter to the editor. You've got a point that you want to make. To write a letter to the editor of the paper where you read the Chair's remarks, you'll proceed much as you did to write a brief essay. You'll need to marshal specific support for your point, probably jot some notes, and outline the development of your argument. All the while, you'll be thinking about your audience, how to meet their needs for information and how to set a tone of respect that invites them to consider your point of view, even if they disagree.
That's a summary of the process of creating the content for your letter to the editor. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Remember that you are writing a letter to the editor. Your first job is to consider the needs of the editor. Respect the editor's guidelines for letters, including length restrictions. Most papers limit writers to 250 to 350 words. Look in the newspaper, usually on the editorial page, for the guidelines for letter writers, and follow them. Of course, you want to reach an audience beyond the editor—you want to influence members of the public—but you've got to do this through the newspaper's editor.
There's only room in a letter to the editor to make one point well, so don't thwart your effort to be heard by trying to express more than one clear, persuasive point.
Careful culling and filing of articles from newspapers, magazines and journals can be a source of quotations and statistics that make your writing more convincing. One of my most valuable assets in writing letters to the editor is a clippings file. Use the letter as an opportunity to draw the public's attention to voices or information that they do not often encounter in their newspaper.
Editors are always interested in reading an account from someone with access to information or experiences not available to the press or most readers. Did you ever work for the region? Then the paper will be even more interested in your thoughts about the labour dispute. If you've recently been a patient or visitor at the local hospital, you may have a good story to tell that will enliven your plea to support the fundraising drive for the new imaging equipment.
You probably wrote a letter to the editor because you wanted to correct a wrong. Most good letters suggest a course of action to readers who agree with your point of view. Common recommendations include urging politicians to take a particular action, such as settling a labour dispute quickly and fairly.
Organizing a Letter to the Editor
A letter to the editor is a type of business letter, so organize an introductory paragraph, support paragraphs, and a closing paragraph. But the brevity of a letter to the editor and the pressing need to capture and hold the interest of the reader require you to borrow a couple of elements from essay writing. You'll increase your chances of publication if you begin with a strong lead-in or assert your view with a summary of your main point (your thesis).
You learned to create effective lead-ins for essays. Use those techniques here: Tell a story, make a startling statement, begin with a quotation or a question. It's a good idea in a letter to the editor to refer to a story published in the paper; note the title and/or date of the article or letter that prompted you to write.
A strong finish or clincher will make your letter stay in the mind of the reader. If you're suggesting an action for the editor (and other readers), you may want to end the letter with your recommendation, expressed succinctly and forcefully. Other times, you may want to simply—and briefly—restate your main point.
Creating a Letter with an Appealing Appearance
Follow the instructions for creating business letters with effective appearance, and the editor will form a favourable first impression of your letter.
Activity 1: Analyzing a Letter to the Editor
Reading the local newspapers and talking to colleague educators had kept me informed about the Board's decision to cut junior kindergarten, reduce services to special needs children, and increase class size to reduce costs rather than to raise local property taxes to make up for the reduced funding from the provincial government. I had made a speech opposing these decisions, and I decided to write a letter to the editors of the local papers to rally community support for my position. As I thought about the content of the letter, I decided that my part-time teaching at the local faculty of education, my psychoeducational assessment work in schools, and my literacy tutoring gave me a personal perspective that might be interesting—and persuasive—to newspaper readers, and might get them to contact school trustees and urge a more generous funding of our public schools. Read my letter (figure 1) and answer the accompanying questions.
Answers to Activity 1
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